Thucydides Describes Politics in 2020-2021

I did not know Thucydides was a prophet as well as a historian.

So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the
knowledge of what had happened previously in other places caused still new extravagances of
revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration in the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of
atrocities in revenge.

To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual
meanings.

What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the
courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.

Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone
who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at
all.

Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more
ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the
benefits of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the
members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious
communion, but because they were partners in crime. If an opponent made a reasonable speech, the
party in power, so far from giving it a generous reception, took every precaution to see that it had
no practical effect.

Revenge was more important than self-preservation. And if pacts of mutual security were made,
they were entered into by the two parties only in order to meet some temporary difficulty, and
remained in force only so long as there was no other weapon available. When the chance came, the
one who first seized it boldly, catching his enemy off his guard, enjoyed a revenge that was all the
sweeter from having been taken, not openly, but because of a breach of faith. It was safer that way, it
was considered, and at the same time a victory won by treachery gave one a title for superior
intelligence. And indeed most people are more ready to call villainy cleverness than simplemindedness
honesty. They are proud of the first quality and ashamed of the second.

Love of power, operating through greed and through personal ambition, was the cause of all
these evils. To this must be added the violent fanaticism which came into play once the struggle had
broken out. Leaders of parties in the cities had programmes which appeared admirable – on one
side political equality for the masses, on the other the safe and sound government of the aristocracy
– but in professing to serve the public interest they were seeking to win the prizes for themselves. In
their struggles for ascendancy nothing was barred; terrible indeed were the actions to which they
committed themselves, and in taking revenge they went farther still.

Here they were deterred neither by the claims of justice nor by the interests of the state; their one standard was the pleasure of their own party at that particular moment, and so, either by means of condemning their enemies on an
illegal vote or by violently usurping power over them, they were always ready to satisfy the hatreds of the hour.

Thus neither side had any use for conscientious motives; more interest was shown in those who could produce attractive arguments to justify some disgraceful action. As for the citizens who held moderate views, they were destroyed by both the extreme parties, either for not taking part in the struggle or in envy at the possibility that they might survive.

-History of the Peloponnesian War, Bk 3, par. 82

Stalin was good with kids

I’ve been listening to biographies for the last couple of years, just to branch out of theology and biblical studies. Having made my way through some of the big “good” WW2 allies (FDR, Churchill, De Gaulle), I figured it was time to work my way around to the other side, so I picked up Simon Montefiore’s work Stalin: The Court of the Red Czar. There’s much to be astonished at when surveying the life and legacy of this prolific butcher, statesmen, spy, tyrant, mass-murderer, and generalissimo, but I think the most surprising thing so far was finding out how good he was with kids. Apparently they loved him. At least early on.

Stalin had issues with many of his sons, but by all accounts he doted on his daughter Svetlana as a child. He used to tease his magnates’ children at the dinner table, throwing orange peels in their ice cream, joking with them, and so forth. Once, when one of their children called into the office asking for him so that he could help them on their math homework (could have been Malenkov, I can’t remember), Stalin told the child he was unavailable and then helped them with their homework over the phone. All of this while he was orchestrating the terror and having their parents arrested and tortured in Beria’s dungeons or something similarly horrible.

I don’t have a much say beyond two quick points.

Stalin being good with kids makes his legacy all the more terrifying. It’s one thing to think of a cartoonish, inhuman, supervillain being guilty of Stalin’s staggering crimes. It’s quite another to connect them with the face of a one-time friendly neighbor, a tutor, someone whom many plausibly experienced as “Uncle Joe”, (despite the fact that the Roosevelt admin gave him the name ironically). It chills the bones.

Secondly, this sure puts flesh on Jesus’s saying, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:13).

Soli Deo Gloria

Just Who did Isaiah See on the Throne?

Isaiah’s famous vision report in chapter six opens thus:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.

Obviously, the “Lord” is God. But the question is, “who” are we seeing? Classically, it’s been common for Christian commentators to hear a reference to the whole Trinity in the Trisagion, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; heaven and earth are full of your glory” (v. 3).

Cyril of Alexandria writes of the blessings which fill the mouth of the Seraphim:

They say “holy” three times and then conclude with “Lord of hosts.” This demonstrates the holy Trinity exists in one divine essence. All hold and confess that the Father exists, along with the Son and the Spirit. Nothing divides those who are named nor separates them into different natures. Just the opposite is true. We recognize one Godhead in three persons.

Theodoret of Cyrus comments similarly that as the seraphim praise “the title Lord singularly in this song, but repeat ‘holy’ three times (in reference to the Trinity), we know they are referring to the one essence of Deity.” If you see the tripling of ‘holy’ as a reference to the Trinity, then the praises of the seraphim seem to clear that up very quickly.

Some might be more skeptical of this, though, and not just modern commentators with prejudices against Christian readings of OT texts. Instead, it’s possible to think that what we’re seeing here is more strictly a vision of the pre-incarnate Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity by appealing to John 12:41. There John quotes Isaiah 6’s prophecy about Israel’s hardness of heart and says, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him”, referring to Christ.

Of course, read within the grounds of a Christian doctrine of God, to see the glory of the Son is to see the glory of the Father as it is one shared glory. As Calvin says here that while John teaches that Isaiah has a vision of Christ, “in my judgment, it is wrong to restrict this vision to the person of Christ, since the prophecy refers rather to God without differentiation.”

While Calvin’s logic is good on its own, Herman Witsius blew my mind this morning as I was reading his reasoning in the Economy of the Covenants (Bk. 4. chap. 3, par. V). He says that “Isaiah saw the whole Trinity, like a king sitting on a throne” and points not only to the more prominent passage of John 12:41, but also points to Acts 28:25-27, where Paul quotes the same prophecy about the hardness of heart from Isaiah 6 and says, “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet.” Witsius clearly reasons that if Isaiah saw the glory of the Son and heard the speech of the Holy Spirit and, “I imagine, none should excluded the Father”, then how can we not but conclude that Isaiah saw the whole Trinity represented to him in a vision? Seems about right to me.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tamar Was Righteous

Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, gets a bad rap. Often cited as one of the “scandalous” women in Jesus’s genealogy (Matt 1:3), she’s famous for tricking her father-in-law into getting her pregnant by veiling herself and presenting herself to him as a prostitute (Gen. 38).

Admittedly, this is not the usual way of going about things and you can see why preachers tend to skip it in the middle of their series on the life of Joseph or whatever.

The long and the short of it, though, is that Tamar was married to Judah’s son Er. Er is wicked in some unspecified way, so God puts him to death before he had given Tamar any children. At that point, it falls to Onan, his brother, to fulfill his obligation according to the levirate marriage laws and go in to her to give her a child so she could raise him up as offspring in Er’s name (Dt. 25:5-10; Ruth). Wanting to avoid having to care for another heir, Onan famously only does a half-way job of it, for which he is also struck dead (Gen. 38:10). From there, it falls Judah to give his younger son Shelah in marriage to Tamar so that she can have a child by him–which he promises to do–but then reneges on because he’s scared that Shelah might be the hat-trick of dead sons married to Tamar.

After a while, Tamar comes up with her plan. She’s living at home with her parents, but she dresses up like a prostitute, veils herself so no one will know who she is, and waits by the side of the road for her father-in-law to pass by. He does and she persuades him to come into her. (Incidentally, the fact that she knew this would work speaks loudly to Judah’s character at the time.) He has no money, so she accepts his signet, a cord, and staff as a pledge that he’d pay later. Then, she ghosts with them.

Months pass and she turns up pregnant. At this point, Judah is indignant and calls for her to be stoned for she has been “immoral.” So she sends him his signet, cord, and staff and asks for him to identify him. Caught with his metaphorical pants down, Judah confesses, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (v. 26). Tamar is vindicated and gives birth to sons, Perez and Zerah.

The story is significant for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that this is part of our Savior’s lineage, but in the 20th Century it might be referenced most frequently in debates around the meaning of the term “righteousness” in the Bible.

I won’t summarize the intellectual story here, but at the tail-end of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century there has been a move to define righteousness as a relational concept instead of a “norm” concept. I first encountered it in the recent work of New Perspective scholar like James Dunn or N.T. Wright who likes to talk about righteousness as “covenant-faithfulness,” but the argument really took off over 100 years ago when Herman Cremer argued that the concrete, Hebraic conception of righteousness was a relational one as opposed to the abstract, Greek normative one. On this view, someone was defined as righteous, not because they measured up to some abstract, universal, ethical standard or norm, but because they had kept up their end of the bargain, been true to their word, or kept faith in the context of a relationship. Roughly.

Now, there are all sorts of shades and variations on this that develop after Cremer with different nuances and emphases, but most tend to trade on this same, basic assumption. (On all this, see Charles Lee Irons’s excellent dissertation The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation). While there all sorts of lexical and conceptual arguments made that I won’t go into, the Tamar escapade has been used repeatedly to illustrate the rightness of this basic approach. Why? Because at the end of the story, Judah confesses, “She is more righteous than I” (v. 26). Folks like James Dunn will point out that it seems pretty obvious that dressing up like a prostitute and tricking your father-in-law to get you pregnant can’t be seen as conforming to some abstract rule, or a even a public norm governing society. Instead, it must be read in terms of the relational righteousness reading. Judah was less righteous in keeping up his end of the bargain. She is more righteous than I, even if she’s not ultimately morally righteous.

But is that really the case? After reviewing the story in detail and revisiting the levirate laws, Irons makes a convincing case that Tamar basically did nothing wrong. I’ll quote part of his argument at length:

But is it true that Tamar formally violated the moral law? What action of hers could be construed as such? Perhaps it might be thought that she engaged in prostitution. But her “prostitution” was a one-time act for the purpose of getting pregnant in order to raise up seed in the name of Judah’s firstborn, Er, in fulfillment of the levirate obligation and, even more importantly, in keeping with God’s promises to Abraham that he would have an innumerable seed who would inherit the land God had sworn to give to Abraham. Perhaps it might be argued that she committed sexual immorality by sleeping with her father-in-law, Judah. That is not quite accurate either, since she slept with Judah as a surrogate for Shelah. Obviously, it would not have been an act of sexual immorality to sleep with Shelah, since she was in fact legally betrothed to him the moment her second husband died. Since Judah was the one who obstinately refused to fulfill his duty and give Tamar to Shelah as his wife, Tamar took matters into her own hands and got herself pregnant by Judah as a surrogate for Shelah. This was not sexual immorality; it was the fulfillment of the aim of the levirate institution, namely, the production of an heir. As Dvora Weisberg states, “There is no indication that the union between Tamar and Judah is not a levirate union.” The only act, so far as I can see, that could in any way be construed as a violation of the moral law was Tamar’s act of procuring Judah’s seed by means of deception. Tamar deceived Judah into thinking that she was an ordinary prostitute rather than his daughter-in-law, and such deception is technically a sin. (173-174)

Thinking it through further, Irons notes Tamar isn’t even charged with deception. And beyond that, she only resorted to deception because Judah failed in his obligations (leave aside how often deception for lawful cause seems to be viewed lightly in the Old Testament). In the context of judicial case Judah brings against here, Irons says, “Tamar…is totally vindicated.”

What’s the pay-off here? Well, for one thing, it’s interesting for the sake of the broader conversation around righteousness in the Bible. I remember first encountering this argument in seminary and finding the Tamar incident to be a plausible illustrative case to drive home a broader lexical and conceptual argument I didn’t have the capacity to follow at the time. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in that and you have library access, Irons’s book is well worth your time). I’m foreshortening Irons’s argument here by a lot. He does say that the relational and saving righteousness reads do put their finger on some of the biblical data that should be considered part of our overall concept of righteousness, while nevertheless maintaining that the lexical meaning of righteousness having to do with a forensic status or ethical conformity to a norm.

Second, I’m tempted to see three connections to the gospel here (though I’m open to correction and expansion here).

On a first read, Tamar’s actions are scandalous and possibly immoral. Yet upon closer inspection, we see Tamar was righteously trying to raise up seed for her dead husband according to the Levirate law. In this, I think we can see a foreshadowing of the outwardly scandalous righteousness of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who would be suspected of sinfully turning up pregnant (Matt. 1:18-25), though it was in obedience to the will of the Lord (Lk. 1). Second, there is the redemptive-historical point. She was righteously faithful to her husband and ultimately to God’s covenant purposes despite the unrighteous faithlessness of Er, Onan, and Judah, and so she bore Perez, the forefather of Boaz, the forefather Jesse, the father of King David, and ultimately David’s Greater Son, our Lord Jesus, the Righteous One. Third, I am increasingly convinced it is not a stretch to see a type of Christ here, who was himself wrongfully accused of sin and unrighteousness according to the Law and not only threatened with death, but actually condemned to it on the cross. Yet, ultimately in his resurrection he is vindicated in the face of his accusers who are themselves condemned by their own accusations. And miracle of miracles, it is by this act that they can become righteous in him!

To sum up, Tamar was righteous. Thank God.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Covenant With the Body Too

In his debate with the Sadducees, Jesus proves the resurrection of the dead by appealing to the story of Moses at the burning bush, “where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” (Luke 20:37). Jesus says it should be obvious from this that there is a resurrection to come because, “he is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him” (v. 38).

Now, this is a nice clean little argument that shut everybody up at the time and should set us to think on our Lord in wonder. Dutch theologians Herman Witsius actually took it a bit further in his day.

In his section on “glorification” in his Book III of The Economy of the Covenants, he sets out to refute the Socinians who deny that there is a soul that continues after death, which also feels, understands, lives, and is conscious. Now, Witsius goes about refuting it several ways, but fascinatingly enough, he appeals to this passage and reasons that when Jesus said that “do all live on unto God,” it is “not only to be understood of that happy life of the entire compound,” the reunion of body and soul at the resurrection, “but of the blessed life of the soul in a state of separation, which our Lord ascribes to them in the present time.”

He breaks down Jesus’ argument like this:

In order to prove the resurrection, he proceeds in this manner, as first, he concludes the soul survives and live, and then from that infers the resurrection of the body: because God’s covenant was not made with souls, but with entire persons.

I just want to briefly make a couple of points about this remarkable passage.

First, this is an ingenious reading of the text. Christ’s argument is properly for a resurrection, but Witsius sits with the text and recognizes what it presupposes, or rather, he appeals to Christ’s premise for his own conclusion. Not only does it get you a resurrection–it gets you a soul too!

Second, I just loved that phrase, “because God’s covenant was not made with souls, but with entire persons.” God made a covenant with Abraham–not just his inner essence–but the whole man, body and soul; the guy who stands 5’6″, with a beard, drooping shoulders, possibly very unsightly teeth, and who believed in God’s promises. God’s covenant is with him–and all his children, body and soul, who are sons by faith (Gal. 3:6-9).

I think of a similarly marvelous line in the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q. 37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.

“And their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves.” How marvelous? Our union with Christ is body and soul, and even when our bodies lie in the grave, they are resting there in his care. Marvelous.

Incidentally, this is the kind of thing that ends up annoying me 10 years after the fact with so much of the rhetoric in N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. It’s still a great book, but the impression you get early on that everybody forgot about the resurrection until the tail-end of the 20th Century New Testament studies is…Well, let’s just leave that can of worms half-opened and recall that Herman wrote this four centuries ago.

For now, I’ll tell you go dig up Witsius. It’s really marvelous, biblical-theology and this chapter itself is great because it manages to do the thing that so many modern eschatologies do not: it keeps an eye on the material glory of the resurrection, while at the same time expounding the beauty of our glorification with its spiritual goods in view: holiness and delight in the vision of God.

Truly, his covenant is made with entire persons.

Soli Deo Gloria

No Quarter

One of the most pernicious trends in our current discourse around, well, just about any subject, is the suspicion that you can never concede a point to the other side. Never concede that partisans of your own position might make ridiculous, indefensible claims that render reasonable people rightly suspicious. Never concede that maybe your opponents have latched onto a real, legitimately worrying, social trend, despite the fact you don’t believe its anywhere near as dangerous as the thing you’re worried about. Never concede that perhaps you didn’t see that last slippery slope coming. Never concede that the grifter that infuriates you may not be the best representative of your opponent’s point of view. Never concede that your own side’s grifters are just as intellectually dishonest and culturally corrosive.

Because if you do, you’re a naïve sucker. They’ll take advantage, they’ll gain ground, they’ll drive you from the field. Because they never concede.

A Quick Note on Circumcision and Baptism in Galatians 3

We’ve been working our way through Galatians in our small groups in RUF this last quarter and it’s fascinating the way passages I thought I knew well continue to surprise me.

In Galatians 3, it’s safe to say one of the issues Paul is dealing with concerns the question of who are the heirs of the promise to Abraham and his seed (Gal. 3:16). How does one get in on the promises to Abraham? By faith or by works? And how is that promise to be related to the covenant at Sinai? Without getting into the weeds of the whole discussion, what I had never noticed before was the way that Paul’s argument ends up swapping baptism in for circumcision and strengthening the argument for continuity between the two.

In 3:6, Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, “just as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” His point here is to give not only a proof-text that Abraham was justified by faith, not by works, but to argue more fundamentally that Abraham’s children, the heirs of the covenant promises to Abraham, reveal themselves to be such by the same faith that Abraham displayed, and that this was God’s intention all along (Gal. 3:7-9).

At the end of the passage, after a long, complex argument about the way the Sinaitic covenant doesn’t annul, or change the covenant with Abraham, what the purposes of the Law actually were, etc. Paul writes this:

“for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal. 3:26-29)

For Paul, baptism is the sign marking you out as united with Christ by faith and through Christ, the seed (3:16). It is the sign and seal of those who have believed God’s promises as Abraham did, have been justified by faith, have God as their God, and are therefore heirs of the promise to Abraham.

The significant point here, though, is that this is precisely the role that circumcision played as a sign of the Abrahamic covenant promises in Genesis 17:9-14. Circumcision marked out the heirs of Abraham who believed by faith in the promise that God would be his God, give him heirs, and be the father of many nations. As Paul puts it elsewhere, “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:11). Paul doesn’t mention circumcision in Galatians 3, but by implication for those attuned to the story, baptism is clearly now functioning as the sign marking out the heirs of the covenant with Abraham through Christ, just as circumcision did under the old covenant.

This doesn’t constitute a knock-down argument for the association between circumcision and baptism in the NT, nor one for infant baptism. For that you’d need to deal with Colossians 2 as well as a deeper exploration of the associated, shared, symbolic meanings: forgiveness of sins, cleansing, removing/killing of the flesh, renewal of the heart. (Incidentally, I think this is one of the reasons so many Evangelicals find the link so initially counter-intuitive—when is the last time you heard a good sermon on the theological meaning of circumcision in the OT?) Nevertheless, it’s one more text that should be addressed in that conversation.

Soli Deo Gloria

Him Whom the Father Sanctified and Sent Into the World

There’s a tantalizing little verse towards the back of John 10, germane to my dissertation, which I’d never noticed before. It comes right in the middle of Christ’s famous response to his Jewish interlocutors accusing him of blasphemy because, “you, being a man, make yourself God” (v.33). To which Jesus replies, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came–and Scripture cannot be broken–do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even thought you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

Now, there’s a lot going on here, but the line that grabbed me was that central bit about, “him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world” (v. 36). What could that mean? The term “consecrated” is ἡγίασεν, a form of the ordinary verb for sanctify, set apart, make or render holy. This appears straightforward enough at first. But in the context–the dispute about Jesus’s alleged claim to divinity–the temporal and ontological freight is what’s contested. It all depends on who is being sanctified and when is this sanctification happening?

Turning to the tradition, there seem to be a few options here.

First, following Hilary, Aquinas suggests that “him who the Father has sanctified” refers to Christ, “insofar as he has a human nature.” And the argument is an a fortiori one. Given that some people get called “gods” in a derivative sense, “only because they participate in God’s word”–that is, they were cleansed by God and given some derivative share of divine power or authority, the way Moses was functionally made like God to Pharaoh (Ex. 7:1)–then it’s not blasphemy for “that man who is united in person to the Word of God” to be called God.

Aquinas further clarifies that even though everyone is sanctified by God to be adopted children (John 17:17; Rom. 8:15), Christ was sanctified uniquely to be “the Son of God by nature, united in person to the Word of God.” He thinks this is is clear in two ways. First, because God sanctifies him “as Father”, this indicates the filial nature of his sanctification. And here he cites Romans 1:4. “he was predestined to be the Son of God by the Spirit of sanctification.” Second, he thinks the phrase “and sent into the world” also clues us into this reality. “For it is not fitting for a thing to be sent some place unless it existed before it was sent there. Therefore, he whom the Father sent into he world in a visible way, is the Son of God, who existed before he was visible.”

Calvin reads the text in a similar fashion, though he can be quoted at length more economically:

There is a sanctification that is common to all believers. But here Christ claims for himself something far more excellent, namely, that he alone was separated from all others, that the power of the Spirit and the majesty of God might be displayed in him; as he formerly said, that him hath God the Father sealed, (John 6:27.) But this refers strictly to the person of Christ, so far as he is manifested in the flesh. Accordingly, these two things are joined, that he has been sanctified and sent into the world. But we must also understand for what reason and on what condition he was sent. It was to bring salvation from God, and to prove and exhibit himself, in every possible way, to be the Son of God.


Here Calvin sees a unique sanctification for Christ referring “to the person of Christ, so far as he is manifested in the flesh.” But the purpose of that sanctification is precisely that he might be sent to be our Savior and recognized and seen as the Son of God by nature.

Augustine is our patristic wildcard and I mostly wrote this post so I could highlight his view in his Tractate 48 on John. He also argues that we’re dealing an a fortiori argument here, with a string of rhetorical questions that are worth quoting at length, just because it’s Augustine:

If the word of God came to men, that they might be called gods, how can the very Word of God, who is with God, be otherwise than God? If by the word of God men become gods, if by fellowship they become gods, can He by whom they have fellowship not be God? If lights which are lit are gods, is the light which enlighteneth not God? If through being warmed in a way by saving fire they are constituted gods, is He who gives them the warmth other than God? Thou approachest the light and art enlightened, and numbered among the sons of God; if thou withdrawest from the light, thou fallest into obscurity, and art accounted in darkness; but that light approacheth not, because it never recedeth from itself. If, then, the word of God maketh you gods, how can the Word of God be otherwise than God?

So here we get the same participation argument of Aquinas, but with more literary punch. Here’s where things get interesting, though. Augustine doesn’t seem to take the sanctification as referring to God’s setting apart Christ’s whole person, or his humanity as joined to the Word, but to his eternal begetting. At least that’s what he seems to do in answering what might be termed an Arian-style objection:

Perhaps some one may be saying: If the Father sanctified Him, was there then a time when He was not sanctified? He sanctified in the same way as He begat Him. For in the act of begetting He gave Him the power to be holy, because He begat Him in holiness. For if that which is sanctified was unholy before, how can we say to God the Father, “Hallowed be Thy name”?


Given that the act of sanctification might seem to imply the Son was unholy prior to that act, Augustine moves to make that sanctification an eternal one, much the same way that his generation was an eternal one. Actually, not much the same way, but really, he renders it an angled description of that same act. The Father eternally sanctifies the Son, giving him the power to be holy, insofar as his eternal act of generation is holy and holiness-generating. The eternally Holy Father (John 17:11) eternally begets/sanctifies an eternally Holy Son.

Oh, and in case you were worried about that conceptual point, not everything that is sanctified is unholy prior to its sanctification. Otherwise we’d never be able to pray that God’s name be sanctified. (Of course, thinking with Scripture, we know God’s name can be profaned, but who can’t help but admire Augustine’s cleverness here?)

In his Gnomon of the New Testament, J.A. Bengel seems to offer a variation on both of these, though he doesn’t frame it quite the same way. He notes that Christ’s sanctification is “mentioned in such a way as to be prior in time to His being sent into the world…and it implies, in conjunction with it, the inference of Christ’s Godhead, at an infinite interval before those whom only the word of God came.” They are called gods by way of dignity, but Christ is the Son of God by way of sanctity, which for Bengel is just his divinity. So for Bengel, “Christ therefore is holy, as He is the Son of God“, not just at some particular time, but because “I and the Father are one” (v. 30), eternally. Bengel is interesting in that he cites several texts suggesting that Christ’s sanctity is strictly a matter of his eternal godhead, but also that it is something sealed and marked out in time of his whole person (Rom. 1:4; John 6:27). Even more, he references 1 Pet. 1:20 and Christ’s fore-ordination “before the foundation of the world,” raising the possibility that something like a decretal sanctification could be in view. To be fair, his commentary is meant to be gnomic.

Nevertheless, a comment by D.A. Carson could be taken in something like a decretal sense. Noting that there seems to be probable echo here to the Feast of Dedication commemorating the sanctification of the Temple after its desecration, Carson links the two sanctifications.

The Jews celebrate the sanctification of the temple, but they, like the disciples, remain unaware of the ways in which the temple points to Jesus (2:19–22), so that the really critical ‘sanctification’, the crucial act of setting something or someone aside for God’s exclusive use, was the setting aside of the pre-incarnate Son to the work of the mission on which he was even then engaged. In this way Jesus outstrips and fulfills this Feast as he has the others.

-Carson, The Gospel according to John, p. 399

I’m likely over-reading Carson’s formulation here, but it seems to present the possibility of reading this as a reference to a pre-temporal sanctification of the pre-incarnate Son to the task of his mission, which does not seem to simply be a reference to his generation. This is the neighborhood of God’s eternal decrees, predestination, and possibly the Covenant of Redemption.

It’s tempting to say the question is how to read the phrase “sanctified and sent into the world” in relation to the procession and visible mission of the Son. Augustine appears to read the conjunction “sanctified and sent into the world” as indicating the distinction between the procession and the mission of the Son. He is eternally sanctified in his generation as the Son and then consequently sent into the world. Aquinas and Calvin seem to read it both terms as describing the mission of the Son, not taking his sanctification to refer to the act of generation as the Son, though in such a way as to make clear that procession (his generation as the Son). Christ is sanctified according to the whole person so far as he is manifested in the flesh (Calvin), or as man in conjunction with the Word (Aquinas/Hilary), in his being born by the power of the Holy Spirit and being designated as holy–the Son of God (Lk. 1:35), for a holy task, which is a fitting extension in time of his procession in eternity.

Parsing things in terms of mission and procession may be tricky for our third option. Or, at least, for me. Thinking about the decrees, the Reformed talked about essential internal acts of God that are immanent to his life, but that respect and relate to something outside himself. They are internal, yet have to do with God’s own counsel about what he himself is going to bring about outside himself, so to speak. They are eternal, but ordered to time. As Thomas says of the Predestination of Christ that it can be considered in respect to its antecedence in God, but also with respect to its temporal effect. While not all decrees are related or reducible to the missions or processions of the persons (take creation), but decrees regarding the missions seem like they ought to be. So the question is how to read the idea of a decretal sanctification.

The trick is that according to Aquinas, missions are not eternal, but temporal. Or rather, mission signifies procession from the principle, but also determines the temporal term, or endpoint, of the procession, which is temporal. “Or we may say that it includes the eternal procession with the addition of a temporal effect” (ST Q 43, Art. 3, Pt. 1 Rep. 3).The problem is that this sanctification does not seem to be the same kind of thing Augustine is talking about in terms of generation as sanctification, though it is grounded and flows from it. Instead, it has to do with the way the Son becomes present to us in time in a new way. That definitely seems missionish. Perhaps what we’re grasping for is a way of stating the eternal origin, ground, and depth of the mission? Or perhaps the moral is that that decrees just are the decrees and they logically exist between the missions and processions? Or rather that the proper axis here is not procession and mission, but decree and execution? Or perhaps it just means that I’ve gotten way out of my depth here? That last seems likeliest.

In any case, this is where I pull the ripcord before I say something too Barthian and have to cancel myself.

With that final punt accomplished, how should we read the text? Materially, I think Augustine’s suggestion is true as doctrine. I find the idea of generation as sanctification to be dogmatically fruitful. Nevertheless, I think it less likely as exegesis. Calvin and Aquinas’s read is more likely with respect to the text due specifically to the context of Jesus’ dispute with the Jews.

I don’t have a big spiritual take-away here except that: (1) Scripture is theological and demands to be read theologically otherwise we have not grappled with it on its own terms, (2) there is a lot of underdeveloped material on Christ’s holiness in the Gospels, and (3), even when I’ve exhausted myself tracking down dogmatic rabbit-trails that don’t render an absolutely clear conclusion, meditating on the being and work of the thrice-holy Trinity always leaves me full of wonder.

Soli Deo Gloria

If Jesus Died for Our Sins, Why Do We Still Die? A Response to Farris and Hamilton

crossJoshua Farris and S. Mark Hamilton have raised an interesting objection to penal substitutionary accounts of the atonement in their recent article, “The Logic of Reparative Substitution: Contemporary Restitution Models of Atonement, Divine Justice, and Somatic Death” (Irish Theological Quarterly, 2018, Vol. 83 (1): 62-77). As part of a much broader, sophisticated case to establish their own “reparative substitution model” (a development of an Anselmic satisfaction model), they argue that penal substitution theorists have a bit problem with their theory: despite Christ’s atonement, people still die.

If “somatic” or bodily death is truly part of the legal penalty for sin, and in his death on the cross Jesus does actually pay the debt of punishment we owe to God’s Law, then “why is it that human persons still die a somatic death?” (73) This is not a bad question. Farris and Hamilton are relying on the intuition central to the “double-payment” objection made famous by John Owen in his defense of a particular or limited atonement: namely that it is wrong for sin to be punished twice. Again, if Christ suffered a penal death in humanity’s place, then why do we still die? Wouldn’t that be unjust?

How might one go about answering this objection? I’ll leave to the side Farris and Hamilton’s own proposal, for now, though it is worthy of careful engagement in its own right. In what follows, I’d like to give three possible avenues of response for advocates of penal substitution, which may be taken individually, or as a cumulative set of considerations for why believers still die despite the efficacy of Christ’s penal death.

Rejecting the Double-Payment Principle

Farris and Hamilton consider several possible answers, but I’d like to start by outlining one possibility that they never really consider: relying on the insights underlying hypothetical universalism of the sort espoused by divines such as James Ussher, John Davenant, and more lately, Oliver Crisp (Deviant Calvinism) in order to reject the double-payment premise.

Recently, Michael Lynch has written helpfully on this option and I’d like to draw on his excellent historical work here in his article “Quid Pro Quo Satisfaction? An Analysis and Response to Garry Williams on Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Definite Atonement”, (EQ 89.1, 51-70). Without getting into the weeds of the whole thing (which is definitely worth reading), he makes a few points relevant to our question.

First, not every modern Reformed theologian held Owen’s “idem” (exact same) punishment model of PSA, whereby Christ suffers the exact same punishment the elect deserve or would suffer. Several held something like a “tantundem” (a just equivalent) view, which held that Christ suffered an equivalent punishment satisfying the debt. In which case, the atonement is not clued in, so to speak, on each sinner’s particular sins meriting death, even though they are covered by it. Second, several (though not all) of those who held this view also held that this equivalent punishment was universal in sufficiency, if not in efficiency. And this would require them to deny the double-payment thesis.

How do they answer this objection?

In answering the question for those who do not believe in Christ, Aquinas points out they are simply not united to Christ and therefore have not availed themselves of the remedy of his satisfactory suffering on their behalf (Summa Contra Gentiles, 4.55). Lest we think this is only a Roman Catholic response, Zachary Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, also agreed.

Second, in answering the question with respect to believers in Christ, Lynch calls attention to R.L. Dabney’s response to the argument. I’ll quote Lynch at length here:

The structure of the double payment argument looks like this:

Major Premise: If Christ was punished for any person’s sins, then that person cannot be punished for their sin.

Minor Premise: Christ was punished for the elect’s sins.

Therefore: The elect cannot be punished for their sins.

Dabney challenges the major premise, but affirms the minor. Dabney questions the major premise, asking, if justice forbids the same sin to be punished once in Christ and then in a sinner, how can God ‘justly hold elect unbelievers subject to wrath till they believe’ (cf. Eph. 2:l-3)? In other words, according to Dabney, both experience and Scripture teach that the elect are punished for the sins for which Christ made satisfaction. The wrath that rests upon all unbelievers, whether elect or non-elect, is on account of sin. If it is granted…that the elect are under God’s wrath until they believe, how is such wrath not a punishment for the same sin twice over? In other words, would not the double-payment argument also forbid God to punish the unbelieving elect for their sins on the grounds that their sins have been punished in Christ? (66)

Now, I’m not actually here affirming hypothetical universalism, but it seems that a Penal Substitution defender might appropriate this logic in order to duck Farris and Hamilton’s objection.

If God is just in punishing the elect before they avail themselves of Christ’s atoning work on their behalf, then perhaps this double-payment intuition is not as rock-solid as all that. Indeed, Scripture seems to still speak of God’s hand of punishment or chastisement still falling on believers in this life, despite having trusted in Christ (Heb. 12:5-10; 1 Cor. 10-11; 1 Thess. 4:6). Most Penal Substitution advocates would readily affirm that and so it seems that some might try to walk down that avenue to answer Farris and Hamilton.

Transforming the Penalty of Death

But say some respond that the punishments believers face are not the execution of judicial wrath, but a different kind of punishment, say, a “fatherly chastisement”, which is the character of all of God’s punishments upon his children. Well, this starts to point us in the direction of another possible avenue of response. It is possible that our changed relationship to the Judge, our status as sinners, and our relationship to sin may yield a change in the nature of his judgments upon sin–or those things that once were considered to be such.

A couple of analogies might prepare our minds for the argument. First, consider the way relationships change the meaning of actions. A man and a woman having sex on Tuesday may be engaged in an act of fornication, but after their wedding ceremony on Saturday, that same activity is an act of lawful sexual union. Their new relation, the new status of the participants, changes the meaning and character of the exact same activity.

Take another common example in these matters: a man taking a knife and stabbing it into the chest of another man. In a bar, in the middle of a fight between two men who hate each other, it is a vicious attack and at least attempted murder. In a hospital, when the knife is in the hands of a trained doctor whose intent is to operate on another, it is called surgery. Again, the status, the relation, or intention of the actors matters for determining the character of the act.

Here we turn to what Farris and Hamilton call a recent, “awkward tactic” to answer the question. Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach have appealed to Philippians 1:21 where Paul declares that “to live is Christ, to die is gain” to argue that for Christians, bodily death is no longer penal in nature (Pierced for Our Transgressions, 262). They argue that death for believers is transformed by the death of Christ, which has atoned for their sin, given them a new status, and brought them into a new relation to God. Farris and Hamilton are not convinced, arguing that this is an exegetical stretch beyond Paul’s main point, which was to encourage the Philippians in life and death. The text is not designed to answer the question of whether death remains a penalty.

In response, I’ll briefly note that in theology, the relation between exegesis and dogmatics is not a clean one. Often texts answer theological questions directly. Other times, however, texts can offer us theological answers by way of implication or corollary, especially when set in relation to other texts, or a broader theological framework (“good and necessary consequence” WCF 1.6). The text may not “mean” that, or teach it directly, but it follows from it. Half of our doctrine of the Trinity works that way. It’s plausible to see something like that working here.

Second, it’s important to realize this not only a recent tactic, but can be found in the work of Herman Witsius where, in answering a similar question, he says, “By the death of Christ, death hath ceased to be what it was before, the punishment inflicted by an offended judge, and the entrance into the second death, and is become the extermination of sin and the way to eternal life; and at the last day it shall be altogether abolished” (Economy of the Covenants, Bk. II. VI. XLV, pg. 230-231).

In fact, Witsius isn’t being very original here. As he points out, this is just the answer the Heidelberg Catechism gives:

Q. Since Christ has died for us,
why do we still have to die?

A. Our death does not pay the debt of our sins. (Ps. 49.7)
Rather, it puts an end to our sinning
and is our entrance into eternal life. (John 5:24; Phil. 1:21-23; 1 Thess. 5:9-10)

Heidelberg sees our death transformed by the death of Christ into our pathway to eternal life and the final resurrection. For as Witsius says in this, “there is no wrath and curse of God, and the formal nature of punishment” is absent.

Lest we think this is just a Continental answer, the Westminster Divines answered similarly in the Larger Catechism:

Q. 85. Death being the wages of sin, why are not the righteous delivered from death, seeing all their sins are forgiven in Christ?

A. The righteous shall be delivered from death itself at the last day, and even in death are delivered from the sting and curse of it; so that, although they die, yet it is out of God’s love, to free them perfectly from sin and misery, and to make them capable of further communion with Christ in glory, which they then enter upon.

The death of believers is no longer a penal death to be feared now that the sting of death, sin and the law, has been removed (1 Cor. 15:56). Instead, it is a gentle falling asleep from which we will awake in glory (1 Thess. 4:16). In the death of believers, God is demonstrating his mercy and his love by drawing them to himself, setting them free from the last vestiges of sin, which dwells in their mortal members (Romans 7). In that sense, we can see how now that we do not face God as an avenging judge, we meet death, not as his punishing sword, but as his gracious scalpel performing an operation that ends in our eventual, immortal glory.

Again, it is worth reflecting on the fact that this theological judgment about the nature of the death of believers is not an innovation, hastily thrown up as a rearguard defense in recent times. Instead, this is broadly seen to be consistent with the obviously penal satisfaction accounts in the Reformed Confessions that happens to be binding on several Reformed communions.

Weird Eschatology, God’s Patience, and God’s Purposes

A third line of reflection we ought to pursue relates to God’s discretion over life and death in relation to his providential purposes. What do I mean?

Well, think for a minute about weird it would be if all of a sudden, right in the middle of history, everybody who believed in Jesus just stopped dying. The Apostle John exiled to Patmos? He just kept living while all of his island neighbors kept dying. Christians all over the Mediterranean and Middle East, converting and then continuing to live 200, 300, 400 years past their Pagan and Jewish neighbors. Yes, I know the Resurrection and the gift of the Spirit means we have an already/not yet eschatology, but this would seem to tilt the balance a bit much, wouldn’t it?  And would this also require not just longevity and the cessation of death by natural causes? Invulnerability to disease? Sort of like the Elves of Middle-earth, I suppose. But death by war, persecution, or murder also would seem to fall afoul of death as penalty, if all death just is penalty. Wouldn’t we need to be invincible as well? Would we need some sort of glorification before the eschaton? Semi-glorification?

Without necessarily jumping into the deep end of our theology of belief, it would be safe to say that would mess with the epistemic conditions involved in calling people to faith and hope in Christ, wouldn’t it? You sort of wonder what missions would look like when all you have to do is send an immortal or two to a new country to get the whole nation to convert.

Beyond that, you do wonder how terrible that sort of longevity might be. Imagine immortality before the general resurrection and the closing of this evil age? It’s the stuff of tragic fantasy fiction novels: immortals cursed to unending life in this vail of tears.  Imagine seeing non-Christian friends and family continue to die, not just for the 80-90 years most of us have on this earth, but for 200? 300? That kind of pain and heartache would accumulate in a way that I don’t think an un-resurrected, un-glorified body and soul could take. Yes, we would have the hope, even the possession of a semi-glory of sorts, but at least for a while we would be subject to so many other increasing miseries. In a situation like this, death may easily be understood as a mercy.

Another example may illustrate the way the same condition might be mercy or judgment depending on the context and intention of its application. Say you have a prisoner who has been convicted of a vicious murder and is serving time in prison. New evidence comes out to exonerate him and the judge pronounces him innocent. All the same, it is widely believed in the community that he is guilty, and it will take some time for the fact of his innocence to become widely established. If he were simply released, it is likely that he would be gravely harmed or even killed by the general populace. And so, in his care and wisdom, the judge orders that the now exonerated prisoner remains in a sort of protective custody until it is safe for him to be released. The prisoner’s condition remains roughly the same—he is incarcerated, possibly against his will. But now it is no longer restraint being imposed as an act of punishment, but restraint as an act of mercy and protection.

Returning again to our eschatological considerations, it does seem that if you press this logic to its ultimate conclusion, it would require an immediate glorification of each individual Christian, or the immediate closing of the Age, which would cut off the gathering in of the saints across time and space.

It is worth recalling here, then, what Turretin says about God’s justice and forbearance in punishing sin. He argues that while the necessity of the punishment of sin is an absolute principle, it does not follow by natural or physical necessity like lightning follows thunder, but of moral necessity which is consistent with the “positive and free” right of God the Judge to determine its time and mode of infliction. And so, consistent with his own perfect will and counsel, God showed forbearance and exercise a relaxation so as to not execute his judgment on sin immediately, but delayed and executed it in Christ, the Surety, so that his providential purposes could be furthered (Institutes, Vol. 2, 14.10.10, 16).

In a similar way, we might see the death of believers as God’s invitation of believers into a participation in the exercise of his forbearance (2 Peter 3:3-9). His patience with sinners might require the temporary death of his saints until they can be raised again to new life. Or from another angle, in his positive and free right as the Lordly dispenser of the gracious goods of life, both spiritual and physical, he may choose when and where to dispense his gifts as well.

It seems, then, that we have another set of considerations for why God might in his sovereignty, wisdom, and grace, take believers home to himself in death even though they no longer owe their death as a penalty. At this point, it becomes a wise, discretionary measure for the furtherance of the kingdom of God, its spread to every tribe, tongue, and nation through the sort of historical progress we have seen throughout Church history.

In conclusion, then, it seems there are three possible avenues for a defender of penal substitution to pursue in dealing with the problem of somatic death. Even more, we have reason to reflect upon the Lord’s mercy and wisdom, the unfathomable love and grace made manifest in the death of Christ, the benefits of which we enjoy even in our own deaths in Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Chrysostom on Colossians 2:14-15: “He Tore It Asunder”

ChrysostomI was doing a little digging in Colossians 2 and I came across a magnificent little passage on the work of Christ by John Chrysostom. The crucial passage is 2:13-15, which reads:

13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities[b] and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.[c]

Chrysostom is amazed at the condensed glory of Paul’s description of Christ’s work here. “Nowhere has he spoken in so lofty a strain” about the forgiveness worked through the cross to blot out our sins and set us free from bondage to the Devil.

Chrysostom then sets himself to explaining Paul’s meaning:

Seest thou how great His earnestness that the bond should be done away? To wit, we all were under sin and punishment. He Himself, through suffering punishment, did away with both the sin and the punishment, and He was punished on the Cross. To the Cross then He affixed it; as having power, He tore it asunder. What bond? He means either that which they said to Moses, namely, “All that God hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Ex. 24:3), or, if not that, this, that we owe to God obedience; or if not this, he means that the devil held possession of it, the bond which God made for Adam, saying, “In the day thou eatest of the tree, thou shalt die.” (Gen. 2:17.) This bond then the devil held in his possession. And Christ did not give it to us, but Himself tore it in two, the action of one who remits joyfully.

“Having put off from himself the principalities and the powers.” He means the diabolical powers; because human nature had arrayed itself in these, or because they had, as it were, a hold, when He became Man He put away from Himself that hold. What is the meaning of “He made a show of them”? And well said he so; never yet was the devil in so shameful a plight. For whilst expecting to have Him, he lost even those he had; and when That Body was nailed to the Cross, the dead arose. There death received his wound, having met his death-stroke from a dead body. And as an athlete, when he thinks he has hit his adversary, himself is caught in a fatal grasp; so truly doth Christ also show, that to die with confidence is the devil’s shame.

-Homily VI on Colossians

There’s a lot going on here, but I simply want to take a moment to point out a few things I never tire in pointing out on this blog.

The first is that here we find another example of a Church Father explaining Christ’s atoning death in a way that fits within the family of satisfaction or penal atonement “theories.” He very clearly states that Christ was punished on the cross. But he was not punished for his own sins, but rather to do away with our sins and punishment. Somehow Christ’s death for sin and punishment, which itself is a punishment, eliminates our sin and punishment. His death was a matter of remitting the sin, indeed, doing more–“He tore it asunder.”

It’s important not to get confused here. It’s true, he does speak about the bond which bound us to punishment, which showed our guilt, as possibly being held by the devil. Here you can see shades of “ransom” theory that folks talk about. All the same, Chrysostom is clear that the bond or IOU was one that came from God himself either in the Mosaic covenant, or the general obedience humanity owes God, or the one written in the original covenant which Adam broke in the Garden and thereby became liable to death. Satan is only ever the holder, or accuser of the saints, on the basis of a deserved debt of sin that originates in God’s good commands.

Second, note the way that this all dovetails with Christ’s victory over the devil and the principalities and powers. There is no thought in his mind about pitting Christ’s death as a punishment for sin with his conquest and shaming of the devil. Christ dies for us, rises to new life, and sets us free. And there are several dimensions to this victory. By his death, the debt to sin is release. By this, he broke their hold on humanity. And he arose again from the dead and made a show of the devil, showing the world that not only had he not capture or defeated Christ, but he had lost what he had previously held–namely, us.

The reason he can do this is because he is reading the verses. He doesn’t come to the text with preconceived notions about pure atonement theory types (Penal Substitution or Christus Victor or Moral), and so forth, in order to figure out which one the text teaches. Instead, he sees Paul putting together several things at once and assumes they can work together without much of a fuss.

Third, I’ll just note that Chrysostom died in 407 AD. This is close to 630 years before Anselm was born, and over 1100 years before Calvin was born. We should not be anachronistic and impute to Chrysostom every jot and tittle of later Medieval and Reformation articulations of penalty accounts. This is not something cooked up by Anselm and Calvin and foisted on the West. Instead, it is very clear that this basic way of thinking about what Christ did on the cross has its roots planted firmly in the soil of the Fathers, both West, and in this case, East.

Finally, it’s appropriate to meditate on all of this during Holy Week. But not only in a technical, academic fashion. Let your heart sit with the glory of Christ’s passion, his suffering, his death for your forgiveness. Let it wait, wonder, and hope at his coming resurrection. And let it exult and rejoice in that mighty victory over the Devil, by our conquering King and Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria