A LOVE SUPREME

I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Does God set his people free?

3 Then Moses climbed the mountain to appear before God. The Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “Give these instructions to the family of Jacob; announce it to the descendants of Israel: 4 ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. 6 And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’ This is the message you must give to the people of Israel.”
Exodus 19 (New Living Transl.)

18 When the people heard the thunder and the loud blast of the ram’s horn, and when they saw the flashes of lightning and the smoke billowing from the mountain, they stood at a distance, trembling with fear. 19 And they said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen. But don’t let God speak directly to us, or we will die!” 20 “Don’t be afraid,” Moses answered them, “for God has come in this way to test you, and so that your fear of him will keep you from sinning!” 21 As the people stood in the distance, Moses approached the dark cloud where God was.
Exodus 20 (NLT)

The children of Israel were set free from captivity and set free to law...or, perhaps more specifically, the nation was set free to enter into a covenant with God: love God by keeping his laws, and in return God will bless the nation and it will prosper.

1 These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the LORD your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. 3 Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you.

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
Deuteronomy 6 (NLT)

In our practical, day-to-day dealings, freedom is very very often a directed freedom. In fact, that seems to be the primary sense in which we typically use the word. Relationships of all levels usually have spoken/unspoken boundaries and limitations: don't "cheat" on your spouse, act with courtesy and consideration, take heed of his/her personal feelings, respect his/her preferences for this or that, etc. There is a give-and-take dynamic; it's a lot like a business transaction with its own economy. And we have myriad ways in which we construct these relational covenants.

The idea, I think, in constructing these covenants is that boundaries and laws allow us to function in closer proximity to one another. This is certainly the sense of God's covenant with the children of Israel: a bond of mutual benefit. In other word, the law gives life, joy, and prosperity:

Joyful are people of integrity,
who follow the instructions of the Lord.
Joyful are those who obey his laws
and search for him with all their hearts.
They do not compromise with evil,
and they walk only in his paths.
You have charged us
to keep your commandments carefully.
Oh, that my actions would consistently
reflect your decrees!
Then I will not be ashamed
when I compare my life with your commands.
As I learn your righteous regulations,
I will thank you by living as I should!
I will obey your decrees.
Please don’t give up on me!
Psalm 119 (NLT)

Okay, fair enough. For some, that should more or less be the end of the matter....however, the whole death and resurrection of Jesus Christ thing seems to screw it up a bit.

In 2 Corinthians chapter 3, Paul makes a comment, almost in passing, about being a minister of a new covenant: a covenant not of "the letter" (grammatos) but of the Spirit, for the letter "kills" (apoktennei) but the Spirit gives life.

The Spirit is a new way. In Galatians 5, Paul fires from point blank range: if you live by the Spirit you are no longer under law.

In Romans 7, Paul suggests to his readers that they died to the law "through the body of Christ." By dying to a life lived by the way of the law, a new way is made: living by the Spirit. (v. 6)

Also in Romans 7, Paul claims that the law is "holy" and "good." And then here is the kicker: I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.

Did God screw up in the original law-giving, law-abiding covenant?

It's an interesting question, but suggesting that God didn't quite get it right may be an oversimplification. After all, law reflects the order of things, the structure of the way most of us usually order our lives. Pragmatically speaking, law can work, law does work.

When I talk to people--usually of the religious variety--about living without moral codes, principles, or standards, their first reaction is that such an approach to life would mean "just doing whatever."....such is an oversimplification. There is a third way, a "new way" of the Spirit. It's just that such a way is undefinable, by definition.

The question of this post is: Does God set his people free?

For most Christians--and religiously-minded people--it is still a matter of being set free from something and to something. In many cases, it is a matter of being set free to live up to an even higher standard than anyone else. (This is often the way people interpret the Sermon on the Mount.)

I prefer freedom of the more radical stripe: drop the laws, principles, and regulations entirely--go with the Spirit all the way. Purge the mind and soul of a way of life that evaluates all of our actions as good or bad.

There seems to be another dimension of life that one can only reach by transcending the life of law and principles. But it only seems possible to ascend to this dimension by letting go of our law-oriented inclinations, our instinct to evaluate our actions based on whether they are "good," "bad," or "neutral."

Does God set his people free?

I think that the answer to the question depends on what type of freedom we yearn for.

23 comments:

ktismatics said...

"After all, law reflects the order of things, the structure of the way most of us usually order our lives. Pragmatically speaking, law can work, law does work."

These are two different justifications for law: (1) it represents in words the already-existing moral reality, and (2) it "works" -- presumably meaning that it establishes an effective social order. Paul sometimes makes the representational argument by equating the immoral with the unnatural, e.g. in condemning homosexuality (Rom. 1:26-27) and long hair on men and short hair on women (1 Cor. 11:14-15). We've heard naturalistic justifications for the various purification rites in the Mosaic Law; e.g., pig meat carries disease so it's best to avoid it etc. This becomes particularly reprehensible when all uncleanness becomes equated with sin, which is pretty much what the OT Law does. So. e.g., the menstruating woman has to offer a sin offering in order to become ritually cleansed.

Paul says that from a pragmatic standpoint the law establishes social order but at a high price. It creates a dividing wall between the clean Jews and the dirty Gentiles, but even among the Jews the law kills freedom and never actually bestows holiness. I think Paul has a hard time holding onto his insight about the deadliness of law, slipping back into the death-dealing rhetoric of us/them, natural/unnatural, even obedience/disobedience. He also has precious little to say about what the free life in the Spirit is like -- perhaps because he hadn't yet experienced it very much himself.

"for the letter "kills" but the Spirit gives life."

The pre-human animal has no language and no law. A cat that torments its prey, a wolf that kills its competitor, a gay penguin (yes, there's documented evidence) -- I'll go out on a limb here and propose that these creatures aren't sinning. Why not? Presumably it's because they haven't been "killed" by the law. Does Paul advocate some sort of return to the pre-law, Edenic natural state before we had acquired the knowledge of good and evil? I don't think so. He doesn't talk about a return to innocence so much as a going beyond corruption. It's a death-and-resurrection freedom from this persistent sorry state of affairs, this death spiral where human nature creates law and law constrains human nature.

Slipping into a different context, the post-Freudian analyst Lacan extends the meaning of "letter" beyond moral law to include all use of language. The pre-linguistic animal, being unconstrained by all divisions imposed by language (light/darkness, good/evil, Jew/Greek, etc.), lives in direct contact with the Real. Acquiring language cuts us off (= castrates us) from the Real and leaves us stuck in the world of the Symbolic. Lacan, like Paul, has a hard time describing what it's like to go beyond. It's not possible to un-castrate oneself, so presumably one has to move toward something like phallic resurrection...

tamie said...

John,

Thanks for your insights....particularly in bringing in such a concise and clear explanation of how Lacan relates to this Pauline discussion.....yes, I think that Paul essentially leaves this "life in the Spirit" thing hanging.

The more I study the New Testament, the more I realize that it is a beginning and not an end in itself. My background was of the sort that holds that all answers and explanations for life are found in the Bible. Hence, anything that is "non-biblical" is automatically suspect.....on a side note, this seems fundamentally mistaken b/c what counts as "biblical" is ever and always linked to our interpretative framework that we acquire in the "non-biblical" world......but back to my point.

Much of the New Testament strikes me as a beginning and a launching pad for further investigation, not as an end in and of itself. So, I wonder if perhaps we viewed the Bible as a starting point, would there be a renewal of our investigation of it? A more honest engagement with it?

ktismatics said...

Thanks Tamie. Say, aren't you the source of my knowledge about the gay penguins?

daniel hutchinson said...

Hi Jon, Ktismatics, Tamie,

Been enjoying the holidays, and hope you are too.

I don't think the Bible should be brokien into portions. The over-riding motivation of all the covenants between God and people, from Adam through Abraham, Moses David and leading to all of us through Jesus is love (freedom), not law (obligation).

The biggest turning point is where the apostle John sould say God IS Love, because of the revelation of the Trinity, whereas before the death and resurrection of Jesus and subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit, God could show love to us, but not be love within Himself.

This is decidedly by-the-by but reflects my response to the post.

I wish you all a prosperous and exciting new year. Think upon the past and measure yourselves according to Jesus, the "chief cornerstone"!

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics,

Nice thought on the different levels at which law can be justified.

I was thinking along very Structuralist terms: the law "works" because we are structured for it to work. We are wired for law. It's just part of the way we are wired. One could read Genesis 2/3 in this regard, don't you think: God gave humanity law b/c that's the thing we need to function, but humanity fell b/c they allowed desire to get the best of them.

So, perhaps law does not reflect an already-existing moral order, but it does reflect a structural order whereby we can tame desire.

Interesting, though, that on the Genesis 2/3 account, law actually precedes desire. In other words, the law is not in affect in order to curb and control desires. It's too early to tell what desire will do to humanity b/c they are still newly formed and untested. The first thing God does is issue a law/command: do not eat of the tree. So, it seems to me that the law was given for the sake of twisting desire--that God wanted the knowledge of good and evil to come to humankind. It is a fascinating commentary, which Paul seems to pick up on in Romans 7: as soon as the law came, sin sprang up inside of me....etc.

I guess my point here is that law can reflect a structure of "how we are wired" or "how things are," even if it this does not necessarily align with any particular moral reality.

Jason Hesiak said...

the end point point of the post that you were leading to sounds gnostic (and you never did that gnostic post, btw :)

ktismatics said...

Jason, when you say that the end of the Erdmanian's post sounds gnostic, I bet you're referring to this bit:

"There seems to be another dimension of life that one can only reach by transcending the life of law and principles. But it only seems possible to ascend to this dimension..."

I see your point -- as though there are levels of consciousness or freedom to which you ascend step by step. Paul talks about ascending too, but he frames it in terms of death and resurrection rather than a gradual self-transcendence.

I'm not sure whether I like Paul's idea any better, frankly. I don't believe that moving progressively toward greater knowledge, freedom, etc. has to imply gnosticism. It's gnostic only if you claim that there's some perfect ethereal realm of Knowledge and Freedom toward which you're ascending. If instead the knowledge and freedom are generated from the ground up, with no perfect analog already existing for eternity in the heavens, then I think you've decoupled human progress from the transcendent language of gnosticism. It's a decoupling which I favor, even if the resulting progress might be of the two steps forward, one step back variety and ambivalent at best.

Even within a Christian POV, does the resurrection life of freedom lead toward some predetermined end, or is it immanent, emergent, undetermined? It seems to me that the latter is more "free" than the former.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Jason.....maybe I can work on that Gnostic post in the near future....crossing fingers.

Ktismatics/Jason....yes I agree with Ktismatics about not necessarily having to move in the Gnostic direction.....but even so, it still seems as though one is developing an elitist mentality--an "enlightened" sense of freedom that the rest of human kind misses....maybe that's unavoidable....at the same time, though, my idea (which I think corresponds with K's) is that one is merely choosing (or trying) not to participate in the normal processes of obligation that seem to limit our potential. It seems to me that it is a lot like someone who wakes up some morning, thinks about the job they hate, and thinks to themselves, "I hate my job, it is a wasted life, so to hell with it, I'm quitting." This way oversimplifies the internal complexity of the process, of course, but it gets to the point of the fact that it is possible to just leave behind a way of life that seems stiffling and move into something more energizing.

Using the word "transcend" may be something I avoid in the future, b/c I agree with K that this should be more along the lines of building freedom from "the ground up." I think my notion of "transcending" seems to come from the idea of participation in the energy of the Spirit....but I tend to think that the Spirit prefers working from the ground up.

Jason Hesiak said...

Erdmanian - yeah that was the part I had in mind. But actually to me the part that seemed to make it more definitively "gnostic" - in the context of our previous conversation(s) - was the part you left out:

I prefer freedom of the more radical stripe: drop the laws, principles, and regulations entirely--go with the Spirit all the way. Purge the mind and soul of a way of life that evaluates all of our actions as good or bad.

Although at that point the term "gnostic" would be more toward your idea of gnostic than mine, but they aren't entirely separate, either. It would be to lump Platonism/Pythagorianism in with "gnosticism" rather than having a sort of base gnosticism that sets what gnosticism is to or from which all varieties either gravitate or pull away. And we wouldn't really even necessarily even be talking about Plato or Pythagoras, either. It actually sounds a lot more New Age, with strong influence from Pythagoras (and from the gnostics).

That all said - the part you referenced kinda sounds gnostic, too. But I wasn't going to debate that part with you, because to me its more the whole shabang together than just one part or the other. But the "as good or bad" part is the part that seems to separate its self out the most.

lazer...

samlcarr said...

I'm late on this one and things have moved on, but still, great discussion and a very interesting post.

I think we're a bit unfair to Paul on a number of counts. I think he doesn't talk much about any of the positive stuff (in the epistles that we have) mainly because he's writing letters to trouble spots and/or only the nasty ones survived...

I guess pretty much the same explanation for why there's so little about the historical Jesus either, he's said it all in person and everyone has that stuff pretty pat, if they are serious about discipleship at all.

In a troubled scenario one applies correctives, and Paul unfortunately tries to do these remote 'quick fixes' quite often.

The radicalization of the Law that Jesus had already done, I think, has become a bit passe by Paul's time. Why repeat what everyone already knows... hammer in the stuff about the Risen Lord that somehow just doesn't seem to be getting through those thick skulls.

daniel hutchinson said...

That's insightful, Sam.

Jonathan Erdman said...

That's an interesting perspective, Sam. Thanks. I think you make some good points.

Along those same lines, in the letter to the Galatians, Paul appeals very strongly to the Galatians to embrace freedom and the Spirit, in contrast to those who construe spirituality security along more legalistic lines.

But yes, Paul does apply some quick fixes in certain situations--writing from remote locations. Unfortunately, these quick fixes often times become normative law for "how to deal with [insert problem area]," and these quick fixes become dogma within various Christian circles.

Anna said...

John,

One of my favorite books of all time - is by NT Wright and called 'What St. Paul Really Said'. It's a little one-inch thick paperback abridged version of his larger thesis.

The main controversy Paul was facing was not that people were going around Galatia and trying to get people to live by the individual rules and laws of the Torah. The controversy was "How do we define membership in the people of God?" People were trying to force gentiles to be circumcised, were insisting that to be a member of God's people you needed to be or become Jewish and live the life of the Jewish community.

Jews in the time of Jesus (as now) saw their whole community as an essentially exiled community. They were a community that was suffering the punishments mentioned in the covenant. So the covenant that defined their membership in the people of God also meant that they were of necessity in exile. They were awaiting the return of God's favor. So 'Law' refers not to a list of rules but to a covenant that at that time meant exile and the 'curse' of God (deut 30)

15 “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity... But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. ...19 “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.

This was the state of affairs, everyone knew and recognized it. The point was not that the law of necessity brought curse, but that as a member of the covenant you were a member of a community that was collectively experiencing the curse.

Paul meant that by dying Jesus brought that curse to its climax. The king of Israel was executed by a foreign occupying authority at the behest of corrupt priests. When he rose from the dead the 'contract' no longer held him and he could be free. (Paul draws a parallel to marriage)

Paul meant that on the one side of Jesus' death/resurrection is the membership-by-covenant which currently involves being cursed. On the other side of Jesus death/resurrection is a membership defined by the spirit.

In that context Paul did not mean that we as Christians should abandon all the rules. That wasn't even up for discussion. He meant that you didn't need to become and see yourself as Jewish in order to become a member of the people of God. There were so many Jewish converts, and a lot of Christian activity happened in and around the synagogues that there was a lot of confusion about just who the people of God were.

The competing paradigms were, briefly, as follows:

1. Become part of the people of God by circumcision and the Jewish community life so that when God comes you will be among his people' Jesus came to teach his people - the Jews - how to earn back God's favor.

2. God has brought the covenant to a climax, and there is a way out of the exile-curse. The resurrected Jesus is himself the 'people of God' (the single 'seed' from Gal 3:16) and you get counted in by association with him. In this new covenant the community is defined as those who believe and therefore obey. You don't need to become Jewish in order to be one of the elect.

Paul was arguing for the second position.

I don't think Paul ever envisioned people taking it upon themselves subjectively and individually to determine their own rules through their own 'spirit'. Such people were his number one enemy which is why he talks so much about false prophets trying to preach other gospels than his. He certainly saw himself as the sole and absolute spiritual father of his congregations which meant that his word was to be heeded and obeyed. That's why he wrote all his letters and that's why they were preserved.

I think that the break with the old 'law' is not at all a discontinuation of the economy of our relationship with God. Modern protestantism takes all of the economy out: the price is paid, the penalty is paid, we are saved and can never be lost again. In such a context there is no back-and-forth. But it becomes difficult to justify the demands of the christian life: pray, fast, alms to the poor, obedience, self-control etc. If I'm saved why do I need to do any of that stuff?

Not only was Paul proposing a discontinuation of the economy of man's relationship with God, he talks in very strongly conditional language, as does Jesus. A few examples:

Mat. 19:16 And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” 17 And He said to him ... if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

James 2:24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works?

1 Cor 6:9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.

Mat 25:30 “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory... He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come... 35 ‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat...

John 14:15 If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments. 16 And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may be with you for ever, 17 even the Spirit of truth..

Freedom means freedom from the pressure that a fallen world exerts on us to live for ourselves and our passions. It means freedom to pursue what we already know is right and life-giving. It's the alcoholic's freedom to stop drinking.

DeWitt said...

BTW it was DeWitt writing the last comment - just a mixup with our different email address and who was logged in at the time.

DeWitt said...

just noticed also that I've been calling you John not Jon. Sorry :)

Jonathan Erdman said...

Hi DeWitt!

Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

First off, I'm sympathetic to Wright and others in the New Perspective line of thinking. I'm not here to defend the Reformed or Lutheran perspective.

Also, I'm in agreement with you on having a problem with any Protestant theology that gives conversion the pride of place in the life of the Believer.

What I see in Paul's theology, though, and what I'm wrestling with in this post and in others, is something that I think one can adopt whether one is of the "old" or "new" perspective of Paul. And, in fact, I don't know that I've seen either side really grasp the fullness of it. I think this is true because of the fact that Paul himself is grappling with the implications. What I am referring to is Paul's "life of the Spirit," "freedom," and "new creation" motifs.

Paul seems to be tapping into something deeper than merely a re-orientation of the "people of the covenant" relationship. So, I think for Paul, the person/life/work of Jesus Christ was more than just a new membership card into a new covenant. There's much more going on. Paul taps into a spiritual/psychological level that impresses me.

As I briefly mentioned above, in Romans 7 Paul talks about dying to the law in order to live by the Spirit....he speculates about the psychology of law: commanding against something can have the opposite effect than what is desired, namely, that we actually desire that which is forbidden. That's why Paul says, "I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death."

Paul is talking about a connection with something supernatural, ushering one into a way of life that is holistic, dynamic, and transformational.

So, I agree with your assessment: I don't think Paul ever envisioned people taking it upon themselves subjectively and individually to determine their own rules through their own 'spirit'. You're right. In fact, Paul wants to connect human beings to a divine source, "Spirit" with a capital "S."

So, actions are certainly important, as many of the passages you listed suggest. But what I read in Paul is a suggestion for a completely new and radical orientation: "reckon yourself dead to sin." There is a repeated suggestion that we live with a new mindset that matches the possibilities opened through Christ. It's a whole new way of being....a holistic way of life that involves all levels of human thinking, acting, feeling, etc.

Where I see a tension in Paul's thought is the issue of "economy," as you put it. Paul does use economic language to describe one's relationship to God: if you do this, God ain't happy and you're in bad shape....But I think such instances are relatively rare and are in something of a contradiction to the direction of Paul's theology. I see the trajectory going in the direction of freedom that is based on a "new creation," a life of connectedness with the Spirit.

In this sense, then, I tend to agree w/ your assessment of freedom, for the most part: freedom is life-giving. What I see as the problem is when we bring economy into the picture. God's exclusive dealings with Israel were based on a strict economy. In Romans 4, Paul goes back to Abraham to illustrate (in good Midrashic form!) that the original blessing was purely based on God's grace through faith. Such faith was "reckoned" (or, more literally, "ledgered"--a good accounting term) to Abraham as righteousness. The law, introduced "later," was not wrong/unholy/etc., rather, it just fails as a motivating factor to bring personal victory: "I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death." The essence of Paul's theology of spiritual transformation (freedom, new creation, life of the Spirit, death to self, etc.) doesn't depend on economy, in my opinion, but on a holistic transformation that involves external power, a new orientation toward life, and fundamental change in one's ontology/being. The new orientation, I think, cannot be based on law or economy....because economy in the sense of obligation is at odds with freedom and grace: "Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation." (Romans 4:4)

DeWitt said...

I want to say once again that I think not only does Paul occasionally use economic language, I think it's the rule not the exception. In any case it can't be put aside to the favor of more convenient if one-sided readings.

I don't find the idea of freedom as unfettered self determination or even as unfettered spirit-led self determination anywhere in the bible. I think that the whole of 1 Corinthians was written probably to a congregation that wrongly interpreted freedom in that way; women uncovered their hair and spoke up during worship - the equivalent today would be to run around naked. People babbled on and on incoherently supposedly speaking in tongues. They valued spiritual gifts above everything and placed each other in higher and lower categories based on how 'spiritual' they were. They were drunken during communion.

You wrote "because economy in the sense of obligation is at odds with freedom and grace" I think one reason you and I might seem to be passing each other like ships in the night is that the western and especially modern protestant understanding of the economy of God has to do with the question 'will God receive me?' or 'will I get into heaven?'. It's about God's reaction to us. So on that account God was favorably disposed towards Abraham because of his faith.

That of course is not only the wrong question to be asking but it is also one that doesn't fit nicely into Paul's world at all - certainly you won't find it at all in the Torah. People were not concerned about how to get into heaven.

The question is 'will I receive God?' 'Will I turn to God?' Faith is turning to God. Faith put into action through obedience to certain rules is also turning to God. The question of 'will I turn to God' is answered only by me, in this moment, turning to God. And freedom is freedom from anything that prevents me from turning to God.

The gift of the Spirit is not a gift that renders unnecessary any instruction or guidance from the church. It's a gift of the Spirit that enables me to follow the guidance and instruction of the church.

Again you wrote, "because economy in the sense of obligation is at odds with freedom and grace". I disagree. Freedom and grace are there to assist (not replace) our efforts to fulfill the obligation. It's just that the obligation has been so terribly misrepresented by protestants for so long. The conventional wisdom is that the Jewish religion (I'm not saying you think this, I don't know) says you must keep every commandment 100% of the time or else you fall short. Nothing less than absolute perfection will do. That's ridiculous! There were sin offerings. There were ways of making the slate clean from day to day.

The obligation is to turn towards God NOW. In THIS moment turn to God and forget everything that has gone before. The obligation from an Orthodox perspective is that in your weakest moment, at the moment of your death, will you turn to God for help, or shrink away in the kind of guilt-become-anger that made Adam hide from God and blame Eve, and that made Jonah wish that he were dead? The obligation is not to earn anything, but to rely on God.

The way you prepare to meet that obligation is to rely, in faith, on God now, as a better comfort than the seemingly comfortable temptations of the passions. Will I be fulfilled in the long run even though I abstain from fulfillment now? God has promised that I will. Will I turn to God now? The teachings and guidance of the church are there as a training regimen, exercises to learn how to turn to God when it's hard.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Good morning, DeWitt....it's morning here in Winona Lake.

Firstly, I want to reiterate that it is not my intention to defend any Protestant position. Specifically, I am with you in rejecting the notion that Paul is concerned with "god receiving me" or "getting into heaven." I am with you on this point.

You said: Again you wrote, "because economy in the sense of obligation is at odds with freedom and grace". I disagree. Freedom and grace are there to assist (not replace) our efforts to fulfill the obligation. It's just that the obligation has been so terribly misrepresented by protestants for so long.

You will have to clarify and expand this thought a bit for me, if you could. (For example, how has obligation been misrepresented by Protestantism.) You talk about freedom and grace being there to "assist" us in fulfilling "the obligation." But this is confusing to me because it is a position that is directly in line with Calvin and the vast majority of Post-Reformation Protestants. This position still wants to retain laws/rules/obligation. The role of the Spirit is a means to an end: the Spirit helps us fulfill the law/obligation. Granted, the law is not necessarily equated with OT law, rather it is usually "biblical" or some ad-hoc mixture of OT and NT law....but it usually winds up being code for whatever-our-church-happens-to-believe.

So, this intersects with something else you said: The gift of the Spirit is not a gift that renders unnecessary any instruction or guidance from the church. It's a gift of the Spirit that enables me to follow the guidance and instruction of the church.

But here is my question: which church instruction is the absolute truth?

I'm actually in solid agreement with you on your first comment: the Spirit does not render all church instruction as useless. Probably from the tone of my blog, you would infer that I'm a radical individualist....which is true...however, this is not to be put at odds with the fact that I am also a radical in regards to community and interdependence. I believe that the Spirit opens up dimensions of community and interconnectedness that were not possible on one's own. I want to hold together absolute personal freedom with a radical sense of love and sacrifice for others.

Also....let me say that I am not advocating a Corinthian or American do-as-you-please mentality that just gives one's self to following lust and self-indulgence. This is certainly not Pauline. On the contrary, this is "the flesh" (sarx) that Paul finds in contradiction to the Spirit. Consider Galatians 5 where Paul makes the radical statement that "if you are led by the Spirit, you are no longer under law," (v. 18) while still putting the Spirit at odds with "the flesh": live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh, v. 16.) While allowing ourselves to be carried purely by lust and self-indulgence may feel like freedom, it usually ends up being more like rebellion and such freedom typically enslaves rather than frees. That's how I read Paul.

But while I do not think Paul advocates a do-as-you-please freedom of self-indulgence, I do disagree with you that rule language has pride of place in Paul's writings. The appeal is not to rules but to transformation of the whole being. This is probably something we will just have to disagree on....however, I will mention that as I read through Corinthians it is interesting that Paul really does not refer back to rule or law language as often as one might expect him to do, at least, considering how bizarre Paul finds the Corinthian behavior!

Consider chapter 6 of 1 Cor. Here Paul begins discussing sexuality. One would expect that it would be sexuality that would trigger law language, especially in v. 12 where Paul quotes the Corinthians as saying "everything is permissible for me." Notice, Paul never says that this is wrong! (He assumes it is correct!) Instead, Paul merely points out that just because everything is permissible, this does not mean everything is beneficial....and, furthermore, even though everything might be permissible, one would not want to become "mastered" by anything. In other words, actions have consequences and blindly following desire can easily lead to the antithesis of freedom: being controlled by desire/lust/etc. But Paul actually assumes the "everything is beneficial" language in order to guide it into a more "life-giving" approach. Freedom is connected (as you said) in some sense with that which is life-giving.

tamie said...

I'm posting a comment here so that I'll be alerted when you, DeWitt and Jon, write new comments.

XO.

daniel hutchinson said...

Hi Jon,

I find the re-orienting of the theme of law, to the theme of covenant, to be profoundly meaningful. A covenant has mutual obligations. The covenant that Jesus Christ made with us al when he shed his blood on the cross, has implications for us all - to take up our own cross, to suffer as He suffered, and to reach out to the world in love.

It's less about do's and don'ts and more about a complete shift of purpose and direction, with the accompanying change in values, that comes from following Jesus.

On your point: But here is my question: which church instruction is the absolute truth?

Just been wondering if being submitted to teaching in the Church necessarily means recognizing one denomination over another as the "true Church"; or is it is the principle of being discipled and submitted that is more important, regardless of where one finds oneself?

In this view, any instruction from the church is absolute truth, insofar as one is a member of the church.

A dangerous position maybe, but I would only be a member of a Church where I had the conviction to follow instruction, even if it seems wrong to me. That's where it all started for me actually, the birth of a humble spirit within me.

A question for DeWitt: why do you think that much of religious faith today is based on an expectation of going to heaven after death?

Its not a fear of death, because we must presume that this has been fairly constant through human history and as you point out life after death wasn't a big topic in Judaism as an example of an ancient faith.

If anything, the promise to Abraham concerned his descendents more than his own individual person, although Jesus speaks of Abraham's bosom, in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.

DeWitt said...

Jon,

You wrote "You will have to clarify and expand this thought a bit for me, if you could. (For example, how has obligation been misrepresented by Protestantism.) You talk about freedom and grace being there to "assist" us in fulfilling "the obligation." But this is confusing to me because it is a position that is directly in line with Calvin and the vast majority of Post-Reformation Protestants. This position still wants to retain laws/rules/obligation."


I think that the confusion might be because I say two things that seem to contradict each other: one, that we have an obligation and two, that the question of salvation is 'will I turn to God' not 'will God receive me'. So if salvation is not about pacifying or satisfying God, how do we have an obligation? Perhaps obligation is not a good word since it carries a connotation of fulfilling someone else's demands. I'm saying that what is objectively necessary for us to live good and nurturing lives now and for us to enjoy the presence of God is for us to have a state of mind, indeed a state of being that is directed towards God. The Orthodox church teaches that the sinner experience the presence of God as a burning fire. People in this life experience the manifest presence of God as everything from boring, dry, straight-laced, restrictive, authoritarian, but even overwhelming and intimidating. It all depends on the state of the individual. Everyone will find the divinely-ordained life of man to be distasteful and irritating in some way. The question is whether we press on, by the transformational power of the Holy Spirit cooperating with our own choice. Will we turn to God? If we do we will find that with time the idea of abstinence and self-control is no longer dry and boring but life-giving and desirable.

This might smack of Pelagius, but remember that while the western church in the 5th century came down decidedly against Pelagius the eastern church never did. On the contrary, here is a quote from JND Kelly's Early Christian Doctrine:

"Theodoret's (Syria) view is that while all men need grace and it is impossible to take a step on the road to virtue without it, the human will must collaborate with it. 'There is need', he writes, 'of both our efforts and the divine succour. The grace of the Spirit is not vouchsafed to those who make no effort, and without that grace our efforts cannot collect the prize of virtue.' But in the same context he acknowledges that our exertions as well as our believing are gifts of God, and that this recognition does not nullify free will but merely emphasizes that the will deprived of grace is unable to accomplish any good."

I think Calvin would probably have said rather that God is making demands of me - obligations - which have to be fulfilled. Whereas the demands once were the OT law, they are now boiled down to the obligation to have faith in Jesus' one great act of obedience. But my faith manifests itself in obedience and so there is a litmus test for external observers to see whether I really am saved (don't ask me for quote on that). If that's not a fair representation of Calvin I think I can at least safely say it's a fair representation of many current Calvinists.

To be honest the specifics of different reformation theologians eludes me because it's been a while since I studied them, and when I did it was after college and I didn't boil them down into memorizable points for use on a test. I will say what my experience is hearing pop-theology. The most senior pop-theologian I can quote is Michael Green who was Senior Fellow at Wycliffe Hall when I was there. You've probably heard of him. He said in a lecture (paraphrased), "The Torah is like a checklist that an insurance adjuster uses to determine whether you get your insurance claim approved. There are a fixed number of criteria to be met. You go down the list and if any of the criteria are not met the claim is denied - doesn't matter if you met nine out of the ten criteria. It's ten or nothing."

He was in all seriousness saying that OT Judaism was a religion of all-or-nothing, perfection or hell. It's something just about any youth pastor with a minor in bible will tell you. It's the conventional wisdom of modern evangelicalism.

You said that 1 Corinthians doesn't have very much rule language. Corinthians is full of rules: Love boasts not, keeps no record of wrongs. I do not allow a woman to speak in the congregation. A wife must not leave her husband, but if she does, she must remain single or else be reconciled ... there are specific rules about communion, rules about the use of spiritual gifts, especially speaking in tongues, in chapter 16: every Sunday each of you must put aside some money, in proportion to what he has earned, and save it up ...
The very fact that he writes the letters - and appeals to his own authority as an apostle means that everything he is saying is a rule in some sense. He expected that large groups of people would heed and obey him from a great distance.

Perhaps I was clumsy in saying that Paul's language is economic or founded on the belief in obligation. What I was really getting at was that I think Paul's language doesn't have the same feeling of resolution that modern evangelical protestant language does. There are a lot of musts, oughts, implied consequences if you don't. We have to fight on, run the race, work to attain to Christ's resurrection, press on. There is so much that is unresolved, undecided.

In the Orthodox church we don't say that we are 'saved'. It's because first of all that would be unfaithful to the unresolved nature of the biblical witness. That is, our own personal struggle is unresolved. Jesus work is complete, but ours has just begun. But secondly there is no finality because God is eternal and our progression towards him has no end. There is no terminus. We are always progressing either towards or away from him. We take seriously the surprised answer that his 'sheep' give when he invites them into his kingdom (mat 25). When? When did we feed you? When did I clothe you? We can't take things for granted and become lazy and complacent. We have hope, we have faith, but we have a race to run.

You wrote "But here is my question: which church instruction is the absolute truth?"

More important than any absolute truth is absolute method. The Orthodox church has methods for learning how to live a life that is healthy, nurturing, and natural. The church is the body of Christ who is True God and True Man. That is why it can teach men how they too can be True Man. There are the sacraments, fasting, prayer, obedience, monasticism, meditation, on and on and on. It's a rich tradition, and it's on offer. It's not commanded, it's offered. The thing is that an individualist buffet-style pick and choose approach flies in the face of the spirit of the whole tradition. The one thing that all of the Orthodox traditions do have in common is that life is best lived in obedience and submission to a specific leader, ordained and recognized by a specific community, in a tradition that is submissive towards God. We don't believe in original sin but we do know that mostly if you simply follow your own 'free will' you are actually enslaved to a nearly irresistible impulse to do what is harmful and unhealthy.

I think that for most people who have been brought up Christian the only real crisis of faith comes at this point - which current leader, which church to believe in. I think that most people don't have crises of faith in the existence of God, or in the truth of the Gospel story. What's hard to believe in is the church. How do I find one? How can I know that this group of sheep actually has a shepherd leading it beside cool waters? I was inspired by how seriously the Orthodox church takes its leadership and method. If you appoint an associate pastor or lay-leader who has no formal training and only a casual and glib understanding of the bible, for example, you shouldn't be surprised if people come away more confused than instructed. That was my own experience. I found the Orthodox church to be much more consistent and methodological about excluding dilettante theologians and unbiblical ideas. The adherence to church fathers' teachings isn't about a fundamentalist defense of an institution, it's the humble belief that the host of witnesses who preserved the church with its sacraments and traditions are right and I should listen before I speak.

I don't think there is any wisdom to be had in dismissing the majority of people who have come before you, which is what protestantism is founded on. People like Luther and Calvin drew lines in the historical sand and decided they had the freedom to disregard anything or anyone who came before, except the bible. Luther went so far as to throw out the book of James, and the apocrapha have suffered a serious slump in readership. People have been doing the same thing ever since, but gradually dismissing more and more of the church fathers and traditions. In the end you get the bible as the 'absolute truth' with me as its custodian. And once the hubris of claiming sole custody of the bible becomes too distasteful for honest people we see that people believe in the bible, but there are no real custodians. The flight instructor doesn't teach flying lessons anymore, people come to the hangar and see a note left for them saying 'here's the instruction manual, good luck'. In such times it's not difficult to become disillusioned by church leadership.

Consider chapter 6 of 1 Cor. Here Paul begins discussing sexuality. One would expect that it would be sexuality that would trigger law language, especially in v. 12 where Paul quotes the Corinthians as saying "everything is permissible for me." Notice, Paul never says that this is wrong! (He assumes it is correct!) Instead, Paul merely points out that just because everything is permissible, this does not mean everything is beneficial....and, furthermore, even though everything might be permissible, one would not want to become "mastered" by anything. In other words, actions have consequences and blindly following desire can easily lead to the antithesis of freedom: being controlled by desire/lust/etc. But Paul actually assumes the "everything is beneficial" language in order to guide it into a more "life-giving" approach. Freedom is connected (as you said) in some sense with that which is life-giving.


I think you have made a serious confusion of the meaning of 'everything is permissible'. For us 'everything' might mean, in English, every action. So everything I could think of doing is permissible. This is not what the words meant in Greek. They mean that every object of consumption is permissible for me to consume. The argument Paul faced was some sort of misinterpretation of the principle first established by Jesus ("And thus he declared all foods to be clean" in Mark) and then by Peter in Acts with his vision where God tells him all the animals can be eaten.

The thrust of Peter's vision wasn't primarily about food, actually. It was about ritual purity and what place it should have in the Church. You will remember that Peter had this vision immediately before going to the house of a gentile to receive him as a convert. The point was; no one is outside of the redeeming power of Christ (incidentally we also don't have to keep kosher, but that was not the primary point). I think it's safe to assume that the Corinthians tried to take this re-definition of purity laws to a new level. Who yone has sex with was in their minds analogous to what you eat. The same argument was used regarding food offered to idols.

Well Paul doesn't get caught up in the word-parsing. So no, he doesn't dispute that principle. But the argument he does use cannot be boiled down to 'use your own best spirit-led judgment in every individual case'. It was more community-oriented. We are not free agents we are members of a body and are responsible to that body for what we do. In the case of sex we don't have the prerogative to join the body of Christ to a prostitute and in the case of food offered to idols we don't have the prerogative to disregard other's sensibilities.

Purity and kosher laws were a proclamation of the fallen state of the world. God's people must choose between what is pure and impure. The reason they were abandoned was because Jesus redeems all things in his resurrection. In the same way as all people, not just Jews, can be part of his church, all food can be eaten. Paul says, however, that not all objects of consumption are beneficial. Jesus may have redeemed all nature from any ritual impurity, but that doesn't mean I can go out and start foraging on poison ivy.

You wrote: The idea, I think, in constructing these covenants is that boundaries and laws allow us to function in closer proximity to one another. This is certainly the sense of God's covenant with the children of Israel: a bond of mutual benefit. In other word, the law gives life, joy, and prosperity"

I don't like any account of the OT law which basically boils it down to functionality. People explain for example that Israel was told not to eat pork because they might get sick if the pork were not properly cooked. Wrong. Absolutely and totally wrong. I also don't like this semi-apology for for the OT Law which says that it had some utilitarian usefulness which at some point expired. That's not only patronizing it's far too convenient to bear any resemblance to the original ideas. I think that purity laws had the effect of distinguishing the nation of Israel that was called to exemplify true humanity. Being truly man involves making conscience, God-inspired choices about what you eat (contra-Eve). The view was that the world was created as food for man, and so eating with consciousness is living with consciousness. The same issue had another dimension which was about identity. The importance of delineating membership vs. non-membership was that Israel had a constant problem with assimilation. Israelites would associate and inter-marry with philistines and other gentiles and abandon their faith and their calling. Israel's calling and the Israelite religion was a critique of all other religions. They were supposed to stand out. So purity customs served the double purpose of proclaiming the truth and guarding against assimilation. But this doesn't capture the whole picture either. Beyond the functionality and utility I have described I think that Jews in Paul's day including Paul himself thought that there was something objectively true about the distinctions between clean and unclean. Which is why it was such a scandal and caused such a roucus when these distinctions suddenly were going to be wiped away. I think they were done away with because Jesus redeemed the whole of humanity and the whole universe. Therefore anything that was unclean or impure is now potentially pure and clean. Gentiles are invited into the inner court and all food is clean.

What hasn't changed is the unresolved nature of the history of Salvation. The world is redeemed potentially but not actually in some sense. And while the boundaries defining membership changed when the calling of Israel was realized in one individual, the calling of all men to live the life of True Man has not changed.

You wrote, "When I talk to people--usually of the religious variety--about living without moral codes, principles, or standards, their first reaction is that such an approach to life would mean "just doing whatever."....such is an oversimplification. There is a third way, a "new way" of the Spirit. It's just that such a way is undefinable, by definition."

That's odd because Paul spend a lot of time defining it. He makes lists of things like fruits of the spirit and wrote more than half of the New Testament in an attempt to clarify exactly what this 'new way' was.

You wrote, "For most Christians--and religiously-minded people--it is still a matter of being set free from something and to something. In many cases, it is a matter of being set free to live up to an even higher standard than anyone else. (This is often the way people interpret the Sermon on the Mount.)

I prefer freedom of the more radical stripe: drop the laws, principles, and regulations entirely--go with the Spirit all the way. Purge the mind and soul of a way of life that evaluates all of our actions as good or bad.

There seems to be another dimension of life that one can only reach by transcending the life of law and principles. But it only seems possible to ascend to this dimension by letting go of our law-oriented inclinations, our instinct to evaluate our actions based on whether they are "good," "bad," or "neutral."

I think that if Christianity were practiced by isolated individuals in a vacuum this idea might have some merit. But the fact is that Christianity has always been communial - the ecclesia - that teaches its members how. In that context people have to have a way of communicating what actions do and do not conform to the values of the community. Again I'll just take a pot-shot at modern protestantism. If I'm 'saved' in such a final and irrevocable sense, what real need do I have of the church? Isn't the church just an optional accessory that must accommodate itself to my current frame of mind? I'm saved! It's sort of like the consumer in a modern economy. I have the money, it's up to you the vendor to get my attention and convince me to buy. What if the only way to find out how to live the life of True Man is to live it in the community? Surely your account of freedom is antithetical to any community-based journey?

Regarding Daniel's question: why did heaven come to dominate? Two offerings of thought and no real answer:

1. It is commonly believed that much if not almost all of the OT was written (written down?) during and after the exile. In that context hopes about a this-worldly restoration of the kingdom of Judah began to be thought of in eschatological terms because it seemed entirely unlikely to happen in the here-and now. Not a theological explanation at all.

2. Some people talk about how the blessedness of Adam and Eve wore off of humanity in stages - over many many generations. Partly this can be seen in the longevity of people like Noah and even Abraham. Partially it can be seen in little hints, like in Gen. 6 when people suddenly start praying to God and offering sacrifices. Perhaps that's because they no longer feel his presence as strongly? Perhaps in that state Abraham is seeing life as primarily earthly - the way God created us. He still had sight of the life of True Man as we were created to live it on earth. I don't know. I don't know how to fit that into the rest of salvation history, it's just an interesting thought.

I like an explanation the the formal Archbishop of the Finnish Orthodox Church Paul made. He says that if you were to go back in time and look at the early church it would not be identical to the current church. But it would be like looking at a picture of you when you were a child. It's the same person but he has grown. That's not an answer either, but it's a suggestion that as the ideas about heaven, end-times, resurrection, Abrahams Bosom etc. have matured over time they have not changed at their core. I don't know.

daniel hutchinson said...

Hi DeWitt, thanks for taking the time to answer my question with those perspectives.

I'm wondering if in spite of the way the fact of "going to heaven" is presented and sustained in Christian discourse, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is not really grappled with at all.

This was a theological question that divided the Jews of Jesus day, but doesn't seem to feature much in the OT except for implicit in the life of Abraham, Joseph and Moses, made explicit in the life of Jesus.

"Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56-58)

I'm thinking of Moses carrying Joseph's bones, God burying Moses, the mount of transfiguration, passages like Hebrews chapter 11...

As far as I understand, there are still Jews who believe in life after death, and Jews who do not. I think the exile experience must have had something to do with it.

Wonder what the exiled prophet Daniel meant:

"And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they
that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever" (Daniel 12:3),

- in this context of the exiled people of God?

- And in the context of Church traditions, cloud of witnesses, and spiritual fathers that you raise.

I respect your points with regards to tradition and submission to the Church. Actually, there is a whole movement within the contemporary Protestant move to acknowledge this eg. John Bevere's book "The Bait of Satan". Have you checked that out by any chance?

I wonder if you would concur with me that if you are submitted in the Church, you are "abiding in the vine", you are growing and bearing fruit. And this can apply in any number of traditions, despite the surface differences.

Your point about the flying solo phenomenen bears out in reality all to often in the Church where and when lack of submission, humility, eldership rule and accountability permeates, individualism thrives and community takes a back seat. This is where I'm having a question with Kierkegaard, for instance, but also more to the point in my the "Christian" circles I belong to (this blog included).

Doing my own thing will never be it for me again. I don't like it my way, is what I'm trying to say.

I am part of a tradition, an orthodoxy if you like, and for the sake of clarity if you want to look it up you can check out the Father of the Church here:

church of the nations

However, due to things being the way they are, I serve in a different local church unconnected to above movement, while still getting my spiritual food from where I would consider my true spiritual home.

(Plus I keep coming back to this blog, my "online fellowship", as if to the local restaurant. Its all permissible, and most of it is also beneficial!)

daniel hutchinson said...

ok, I didn't get that html link correct (sheepish).

the url address is:

www.cotn.org.za

I'll try again:

Church of the Nations