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Friday, October 16, 2009

Slaves and Heirs

One of the key distinctions for most versions of Christianity is a stark distinction between "saved" and "unsaved." There are the B.C. days, meaning "before Christ," and there are the "I'm a new creation" days that come after salvation. The salvation experience, then, is a complete ontological change, a drastic transformation from one spiritual state-of-being to another.

This ontological transformation is clearly an important part of the theology of the Apostle Paul. "Behold, all things have become new." Those who are of the faith are "a new creation." The language of the Apostle Paul is clearly aimed at transforming our belief about ourselves, to conceive of ourselves as radically different. Holy. Chosen. Loved.

I have always been a bit suspicious of this stark dichotomy between "believer" and "unbeliever." Common experience shows that "believers" are not quite as perfect as they would like to be, and "unbelievers" are not quite as "depraved" as many Christians would like them to be.

Apart from common experience, though, my recent study of Galatians shows that in the writings of the Apostle Paul, himself, there may be reason to question this dichotomy. I would like to turn your attention to Galatians chapter 4.

In Galatians 4, Paul begins by talking about how an "heir" (kleronomos) is no different from a "slave" (doulos), at least while the heir is still "under age" (nepios). In one sense, the heir is still the "ruler of all," but in another sense the heir is like the slave; this is true, until the time is set for the heir to receive the inheritance and actually assume their position as the ruler and lord.

For Paul, this is an analogy for the Galatians. They were at one time "under the elemental spiritual forces of this world" (hupo ta stoichia tou kosmou). This time period, though, was the time period of being "under age" (nepios). Paul uses this same word, nepios, to describe the situation of the Galatians when they were not yet believers. If the analogy holds, then, it seems that the Galatians, although not yet believers were still heirs. They were just still nepios, they were under aged and had not yet discovered the fullness of who they are.

This passage lead me to consider that the believer/unbeliever dichotomy might not be as sound as many like to believe. Is it possible that those who are living "under the elemental spiritual forces of this world" are simply not yet of age? Not yet come into the fullness of who they are? And if we take this a step further, perhaps wisdom and humility would suggest that none of us have completely arrived in this regard. That we are all coming into our own as heirs. While there may be a specific time at which the "heir" becomes "master" and assumes the control of the inheritance and the position of lord, it is equally true that becoming a wise, discerning, and benevolent is a life-long process. Theologians sometimes speak of this as "already, not-yet."

While a person may have a spiritual conversion experience, this does not yet mean that a person has fully come into their own as a person of faith. In fact, observation often reveals that if someone believes themselves to have "arrived," then this is often indicative of pride and ego-assertiveness. When pride and ego become the dominant sources of motivation in life, then one can actually experience a good deal of personal and spiritual regress. In this sense, making a sharp dichotomy between "believer" (those who have arrived or are farther along) and "unbeliever" (those who still need a bit of work to get on down the road a bit) might be counter productive.


samlcarr said...

A big part of the problem for me is that there is an authorized version of what salvation is/means that seems to have no connection with what I see in the NT. My assumptions about what salvation actually is in the NT are suspect because I have been fed such a stilted and filtered out ABC.

We actually can't make out much from the epistles as these are letters to folks who are already believers. They largely take the past as de facto without bothering (quite naturally) about detailing how they all got to where they now are.

I'd like to think that a lot of what we have in the gospels was the bread and butter both of the kerygma and of the initial training (catechism)given to believers and which therefore spelled out what following Jesus meant, starting with learning who Jesus really was and what he was about. But, I don't see that anything in NT theology really leaves me with any evidence to lean on for this supposition. Nonetheless, it's the route I have chosen to try to follow as the other option of digging out the way to the gospel from the epistles and even Acts seems hazardous...

samlcarr said...

Sorry, didn't really link that up at all did I? So, if being a believer means following Jesus (i.e. historical Jesus) then now, as for Paul then, the problem is to get the message of who Jesus is to those who might be ready to follow.

Anyone is a potential follower. Possibly there are many who are already following who don't know it and have not been labeled as such. Furthermore, and somewhat against this reliance on kerygma, the NT evidence itself strongly points towards Jesus directly inviting followers, 'spiritually' if you will, so the idea that we need to identify A as a believer or not really falls flat. There really is no way to know except (as Paul, and John, and the gospels point out) except via the production of fruit...

If that doesn't throw the whole thing into the wide open then I don't know what does...

Jonathan Erdman said...


This reminds me of the Gospel of John's exhortaion by Jesus: "abide in me."

The thought of just "abiding" is very vague and non-formulaic. How does one objectively judge "abiding"? It makes a test of in/out all the more difficult when making the believer/unbeliever dichotomy.

john doyle said...

I don't think that my understanding of the passage is quite the same as yours, Erdman. When Paul says "we" here I presume he's speaking of the Jews; when he says "you" here, he's speaking of the Gentile Galatians. While the "old creation" made a big deal about the Jew/Gentile distinction, Paul says that the differences weren't all that great. We Jews were the sons and heirs, says Paul the Jew, but in our immaturity under law we were indistinguishable from slaves. In contrast, you Galatian Gentiles really were slaves until you became sons and heirs later on.

Then he goes even farther: even we Jews aren't heirs by birth; we had to be adopted as sons by God through Christ's redemption. Not only that, but the path to the Jews' adoption as heirs comes via Christ's having already adopted the Gentile slaves as heirs:

"and because you are His sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His son into our hearts, crying 'Abba, Father!'" (Gal. 4:6)

Paul continues this inversion of Jew/Gentile in his interpretation of the story of Abraham's two sons and their mothers, which follows immediately. He associates present-day Jerusalem with Hagar, who is the mother not of the Jews but of the Gentiles.

To me, though, the pivotal issue remains the same: what bestows sonship on the heirs under Christ? Apparently it's not hereditary, by being born a Jew. Is heirship attained by coming to believe in Jesus? Is it through following Jesus's lifeways? Or is heirship attained through the real event of reconciliation brought about by Jesus, in which Jews and Gentiles alike participate regardless of what they believe or do? The heirs aren't those who know God, but rather those who are known by God (Gal. 4:9).

samlcarr said...

The inversion is an interesting reading and does make Paul into something of a 'dangerous' thinker.

I rather think that in practice, the idea that there is some outward sign of belief was one of the wrong steps that the young church got into.

I do believe that then, as now, the church really hasn't believed in the activity of the Holy Spirit and it does not at all believe in practice in the sovereignty of a loving God.

Looking at the gospels themselves, all the evidence points towards a radical inclusiveness. Quite apart from the tests of law observance (that Jesus certainly rejected) it is always and only God who accepts and God who forgives. Even more radically, it is certainly repentance that is a key and personal repentance at that - a strong common point between the gospel of JB and that of Jesus. This repentance must come from the truth within oneself and God is always more than willing to wait...

I personally also think that the heaven/hell stuff in the gospels has been deliberately and conveniently misinterpreted. It looks to me as though Jesus reserved this sort of terrorizing talk for the most smug and self satisfied, i.e. the religious and social leaders of the day. I think that's still where it belongs!

On the whole then, I'd lean towards a much looser idea of what a believer 'is' and also towards the idea that whether or not there are any actual followers of Jesus out there, all are to be considered potential believers and disciples.

I also think we can safely leave the theologising and especially the questions of substitution/atonement in God's own hands, as it really doesn't make an ounce of difference one way or the other to us right here and now, or does it?

john doyle said...

Sam, did you see my latest attempts to engage Peter in the latest Sir Toby's post? He mentions, in a rather offhanded and dismissive way, the Greek Orthodox position on salvation, which sounds quite inclusive indeed. Have you -- or you, Erdman -- studied up on Orthodox theology, and especially the doctrine of "theosis"? I haven't. Apparently the idea is that Christ died for all, whether they know or believe it or not, and that people are all at various stages of becoming restored to the pre-fall human condition and of becoming more like God. I believe this was a fairly widely held belief before the East/West split in the Church and before Augustine pushed his views about the Fall and individual salvation, which became the dominant belief in the West.

Jonathan Erdman said...

John Doyle: To me, though, the pivotal issue remains the same: what bestows sonship on the heirs under Christ? Apparently it's not hereditary, by being born a Jew. Is heirship attained by coming to believe in Jesus? Is it through following Jesus's lifeways? Or is heirship attained through the real event of reconciliation brought about by Jesus, in which Jews and Gentiles alike participate regardless of what they believe or do? The heirs aren't those who know God, but rather those who are known by God (Gal. 4:9).

Paul's use of epangelia comes to mind. This is the word translated as "promise." The heirs are not heirs by law or even by birth, but more abstractly, by the "promise," through faith in Jesus Christ. Viewed with an eye toward exclusivity, then, it seems as though the inheritance is gained merely by believing in it. (Compare Romans 4:14 "For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless....")

john doyle said...

Well then you're back to believers versus unbelievers, aren't you? Do I have to fulfill my promise to someone only if that person believes I'm going to do so?

Jonathan Erdman said...


Yes, that brings us back around to the believer/unbeliever distinction, but the distinction is subject to deconstruction.

John: Do I have to fulfill my promise to someone only if that person believes I'm going to do so?

That depends. In the case of the Apostle Paul's theology of spiritual transformation, a person must understand who they really are and view themselves accordingly, which then kind of unlocks within them something that has been their all along. After I wrote out this post and published it, I thought about the imago dei. Although this is not a part of Paul's explicit theology, it kind of sounds like Paul's theology of self is for each person to tap into their own deity. This then reminds us of the doctrine of theosis that you referenced earlier: that everyone is kind of trying to integrate themselves with themselves/the world/God in such a way that unfolds their own divinity.

But the believer/unbeliever distinction still seems tenuous, even if we might use it from time to time. The "believer" is one who seems to have some sort of conscious recognition of something deeper--one who acknowledges a deeper call. Is there a parallel for this phenomenon in psychology or therapy? Perhaps there is a person who "believes" in some call to explore and engage the psyche in a deeper and more actual way. On the other hand, there may be someone who is just aiming at a more artificial form of therapy: patch me up so that I can be a productive worker. Does that make sense?

john doyle said...

Yes it does.

samlcarr said...

Jon, as I explained I have problems treating Paul as a primary source because of the very specific and evolved situations that he was commenting about. There is a thread of the stoic "know thyself" in the NT but as you note, it rarely becomes explicit, and I wonder whether it is felt to have any salvific value.

I am not at all sure that I understand where you link up with the idea of realizing or actualizing ones "own deity". It is a concept that any monotheistic Jew would have had real trouble with and I think the 'emerging' gang's harping on the concept of ikons is also similarly clouded.

I wonder really whether Jesus thought of himself in these terms. Certainly, his response to Peter after the transfiguration indicates not.

I don't somehow feel that we have adequately explored the 'loving father' theme in Jesus teachings and that would more naturally link up with Paul's musings on all of us starting out as 'techne'.

john doyle said...

I think "one's own divinity" in theosis is a mystical union with the One rather than an unfolding of each person's own innate god-nature. Whether Paul should be regarded as authoritative depends on one's hermeneutic. Did Paul have it right, and the interpreter's job is to discover precisely what he meant? Or was Paul too an interpreter, grasping toward some reality that he could see only through a glass darkly? The same questions could be asked about the pre-resurrection Jesus, wouldn't you say Sam?

samlcarr said...

Certainly! Whether one can take anything as authoritative will depend a whole lot on that very interpretation. Paul himself challenges his readers to examine his own record and doings to determine whether or not he is right.

I'd guess that Paul himself was primarily trying to interpret the reality that he perceived of the now 'risen Christ' and in that encounter of what happened him. What and how that tied in with the 'historical' Jesus of the gospels is one of the huge missing pieces in the NT.

Jesus is much more definite in the synoptics that his key was having a loving father and that in turn suggests a relationship between two independent persons where one person voluntarily takes on the follower's role.

Then there is the Johannine tradition that Jon had already remarked on. Jesus here seems to assume that he has been successful in his bid for perfect sonship and that that in turn is something that others can also participate in by 'abiding' in Jesus. "He who has seen me has seen the father..."

I think overall the us/them talk in the NT largely revolves around the evolution of an organization within a somewhat hostile environment. So, I tend to discount that as any sort of a theological reality.

If Jesus was right the offer of sonship is universal. Anyone can at any time choose to repent, and repentance may not be a one time sort of deal either...

Jonathan Erdman said...

Hey Sam and John,

I've been in the car the past few days, so regretfully, I haven't been able to get back to this discussion.

Tamie and I are driving through L.A. We exited off the interstate when we ran into congestion, and we decided to wait it out in some Pasadena cafes and bookstores. So, I have a minute to get back to this discussion. Thanks for the input--good thoughts to ponder.

Sam: I am not at all sure that I understand where you link up with the idea of realizing or actualizing ones "own deity". It is a concept that any monotheistic Jew would have had real trouble with and I think the 'emerging' gang's harping on the concept of ikons is also similarly clouded.

Good question, Sam. I am going to think this through a bit more. Good point about Jewish monotheism. A devout Jew would not be so casual about talking about his/her "divinity."

In Paul there is this sense of "Christ in you" and "having the mind of Christ." (Cf. the Petrine epistles and "partaking of the divine nature.") There is also the concept in Paul of "walking by/with/in the Spirit." And then, of course, "It is no longer I who live but Christ in me." But it is true that this idea of union with the divine is different than saying that one is already ontologically divine.

John: I think "one's own divinity" in theosis is a mystical union with the One rather than an unfolding of each person's own innate god-nature.

Yeah. This is probably a better way to speak of theosis (at least from a Pauline perspective).

But this idea of theosis would bring us back to drawing a sharp dichotomy between "believer" and "unbeliever"--as though the "unbeliever" does not have "the Spirit" and/or "Christ" within and can therefore not achieve the "new creation" life. As I said, Paul does use this dichotomy, but the point of this post was to suggest that even in Paul's own texts this dichotomy kind of unravels from time to time, and I think Paul himself seems aware of it.

The problem with using language to divide people into categories ("believer" vs. "unbeliever") is that it would seem to undermine the universal nature of grace and the Gospel. The Gospel of grace ultimately defies linguistic categories. "Faith" and "belief" are these concepts that are kind of open-ended.

Take the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. Well, what happens when "unbelievers" demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit? In this case, they may not be confessing "believers," so hence we might categorize them as "unbelievers." But on the other hand it seems equally valid to say that anyone who demonstrates the fruits of the Spirit is in fact a "believer."

What do you think of my take here????

john doyle said...

Belief and fruits are similar in that both center evidence of theosis in the actions of the subject. In fact, didn't Calvin regard belief itself as fruit of an already-begun regeneration among the elect? Calvin insists that salvation is through Christ alone, but God elects some for salvation and not others. What about keeping the first part but not the second: Christ died for all therefore all are alive in Christ, period. Everyone is elect. Belief, faith, fruits, and so on are consequences of theosis, but theosis is still happening prior to any evidence recognized by others or even by oneself. The slave is adopted and becomes an heir whether s/he realizes it or not, even if s/he seems still to be acting like a slave.

samlcarr said...

My tendency is to see the calls for a clear differentiation between believer and nonbeliever as confusion that arose as the 'believers' started bonding themselves into a new social entity. In this process I think they did lose sight of 'the gospel' which is good news to everyone.

What we have in our epistles are exclusive snapshots from within this nascent organization. The overall picture clashes with the original mission and this is clearly visible in Corinth where Paul has to remind folks that it's better to remain somewhat understandable just in case a stranger happens to come by.

Some radical demythologising is certainly caalled for if we want to get at what that original message and mission looked like. It's quite possible that Paul and the other preachers felt quite torn between these two contrasting and perhaps mutually exclusive tasks, but again, I am arguing form those little hints that we get through what is very much of a darkened glass.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Great food for thought.

I imagine we could even keep the second part of Calvin without too much threat: God elects some to belief, others to unbelief. We just need to add that regardless of whether or not one is a "believer" or "unbeliever," theosis is still what is happening background, regardless of whether the subject is conscious of the phenomenon or not. From my experience, most believers (even the most fundamentalist) would acknowledge that much of their regeneration (or "sanctification" or "spiritual growth," etc.) is not really consciously recognized at the time, but rather regeneration is probably more evident to the subject in retrospect, or even through the eyes of others. It is similar with our faults and blind spots (that all have--believer and unbeliever): others usually see them more evidently than we do. The subject often seems blind to much of his or her virtues and vices.

I like your thinking on this, John. Your theory allows us to retain the key concept in the Apostle Paul: that Christ universally reconciled all human beings with God, and that "faith" is merely a conscious recognition of the grace that has already been extended. Hence, we can retain the "believer/unbeliever" distinction (linguistically), while also recognizing that the distinction is not hard and fast--it is tenuous and fragile, like so much of human existence.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Sam: My tendency is to see the calls for a clear differentiation between believer and nonbeliever as confusion that arose as the 'believers' started bonding themselves into a new social entity. In this process I think they did lose sight of 'the gospel' which is good news to everyone.

Yes. I think this is an important part of it. I want to blog more on this. My question is: how does a social group of people who are "believers" come to dichotomize the believer/unbeliever such that this distinction became absolutized, which results in judgmentalism (by those who are believers of those who are unbelievers), superiority complexes, and hypocrisy. This is not true of all Christian social groups, but it is certainly one of the marks of American Christianity of the last few centuries.

"For in Christ neither circumcision or uncircumcision is of value, but faith through agape working itself out." Galatians 5:6

This passage has added more food to thought on this issue of dichotomy. The Galatians had absolutized the circumcision/uncircumcision distinction such that they were becoming stepped in legalism, hypocrisy, and slavery. But being "in Christ" is a call to freedom, says Paul. The circumcision dichotomy "is of no value." It is faith working itself out through love.

john doyle said...

Here's a quote some other blog posted from Zizek's latest book, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, which may have some relevance to distinctions like believer/unbeliever:

"[The four antagonisms of modern capitalism:] the looming threat of an ecological catastrophe; the inappropriateness of the notion of private property in relation to so-called 'intellectual property'; the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics); and, last but not least, the creation of new forms of apartheid, new Walls and slums.

"In the series of four antagonisms then, that between the Included and the Excluded is the crucial one. Without it, all others lose their subversive edge - ecology turns into a problem of sustainable development, intellectual property into a complex legal challenge, biogenetics into an ethical issue. One can sincerely fight to preserve the environment, defend a broader notion of intellectual property, or oppose the copyrighting of genes, without ever confronting the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded. [...] One can well imagine a society which somehow resolves the first three antagonisms through authoritarian measures which not only maintain but in fact strengthen existing social hierarchies, divisions and exclusions. [...] As this logic reaches its extreme, would it not be reasonable to bring it to its self-negation: is not a system which renders 80 percent of people irrelevant and useless itself irrelevant and of no use?"

Jonathan Erdman said...


This is really a wonderful quote.

Thanks so much for sharing.

I think Zizek nails it on the head.

It is particularly interesting to think of this in relation to how trendy sustainability is becoming. It's hip to drive a Prius, shop at Whole Foods/Trader Joe's, buy locally, and generally reduce one's carbon footprint through the means and mechanisms of modern technology. But through all of this, the Included/Excluded divide remains.

In my opinion, it is only when consumption levels begin to drastically change and shift that the divide can be addressed and a new spirit (or narrative) of brotherhood can begin to show itself. That is, our consumeristic drive to buy and consume hasn't really changed: owning a Prius makes us think we can drive the same amount of miles, or even more! We may shop locally, but we still waste half of our food. This may be a more sustainable way, but the "Excluded" (as Zizek puts it) probably couldn't care less. Why would you give a damn about sustainability when you are starving, malnourished, or sick all the time?

There has to be a shift in spirit, I think. A new narrative that the collective American populace begins to buy into. One that really seeks to tear down the Excluded/Included wall. Sadly, though, there is such fear in our country and suspicion. Any mention of treating "illegal aliens" with any respect, and you have a huge amount of paranoid folk who feel that "American values" are in danger. The same is true of healthcare: talk of providing healthcare to everyone means to many people that "liberal Democrats/Obama" just want to give lazy good-for-nothing folks a handout. Fear, suspicion, and paranoia have been so dominant since 9/11 that any progress toward tearing down the Excluded/Included divide seems discouraging.

What are your thoughts?

(Thanks again for posting that quote)

john doyle said...

I was thinking specifically of the topic of your post. To paraphrase Zizek: "is not a religion which renders 80 percent of people irrelevant and useless and damned itself irrelevant and of no use and damned?"

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ah! I see.

That's definitely a good challenge for any religion or faith.