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

The God Who Hears Our Laments

Pastoral theology is tested in a time of crisis. War, famine, natural disasters, and plagues are winds that sift the chaff from the wheat, or purifying fires revealing so much dross mixed with the precious gold of the gospel.

What do you do when you can’t meet? When you can’t take the Lord’s Supper together as a body? When you want to counsel the sick and the needy, but you’re unable to reach them? How should Christians respond? With repentance, fasting, and prayer? Jeremiads of judgment? Long-winded theodicies?

N.T. Wright has weighed in with a widely-shared bit of pastoral counsel over at TIME. Against rationalists who want either an easy explanation for everything (it’s God’s judgment, it’s a trial, it’s for the greater good), and Romanticists looking for a “sigh of relief”, he wisely reminds us that the Christian Scriptures offer the tradition of lament. In lament, Christians follow the Psalmist in crying out to God, giving full vent to our frustration, horror, and pain. We bring before him our confusion, our loneliness, our misery, our sins and our accusations We grieve before God’s face.

Of course, that raises the ultimate question: who is God in the middle of all this? What kind of God are we lamenting to?

You can read my examination of Wright’s answers over here at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

It’s All the Same Story: Paul on the Exodus, the Conquest, and Jesus

violence of Biblical GodIn Acts 13 we read a remarkable sermon of Paul to the Jews of Antioch in Pisidia in the synagogue.

“Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. [17] The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. [18] And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. [19] And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. [20] All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. [21] Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. [22] And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ [23] Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. [24] Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. [25] And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’

[26] “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. [27] For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. [28] And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. [29] And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. [30] But God raised him from the dead, [31] and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people.

The sermon continues, but this section is what drew my attention the other morning.

Paul is constructing a brief, periodized, universal history of God’s dealings with Israel from the time of the Exodus to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God elected Israel and saved them from bondage by his own hand. God led them into the promised land of Canaan. God gave them leaders like the Judges, the Prophets, and the Kings, especially David, whom he chose to supplant Saul. And finally, in fulfillment of all prophecy, he gave them Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah and true Son of David. In his life, trial before Pilate, crucifixion on a tree, and resurrection God has accomplished our salvation in history.

Unlike his argument in Galatians 4:21-31, in this section Paul does not betray any interest in what might be termed allegorical or even typological connections, which only appear in the following verses where he cites several Psalms as having been fulfilled in Christ. For the most part, Paul is dealing with what might be termed a simple, narrative history where events like the Exodus are happening on the same plane as events like Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan, his trial before Pilate, and his post-resurrection appearances before witnesses–the types of events of which Luke sought to make a diligent search and an orderly account in his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4).

And right there, in the middle of this orderly, historical account of God’s gracious dealings with Israel, he says, “And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance” (v. 19). Just as God set Israel free from Egypt by his own hand and delivered the promised land to them just so he destroyed the seven nations in the land of Canaan. The narrative of election, the Exodus, the Davidic Covenant, and the Resurrection is the narrative of the Conquest. And the chief Protagonist and Agent in each event is none other than the One God of Israel.

Now, I know there’s more to say here. As even conservative OT scholars point out, there are all sorts of important narrative tells within the conquest account leading us to see that the destruction was not total, that God is also said to “drive them out”, that much of what we’re dealing with is Ancient Near Eastern rhetorical exaggeration, and so forth. For more on that, see here.

All the same, it’s clear that for Paul not only are, “the narratives of exodus and conquest are inseparable components of Israel’s origin story” (Daniel Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God, 165), but that they are inseparable components of the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel. Indeed, assuming Paul knows the narratives well (which his letters give us no reason to doubt), then not only does he know that the conquest was carried out by the hand of Joshua and the Israelites, but that doesn’t stop him from ultimately attributing their works to God as their ultimate author.

If we look to the apostles to guide us in approaching the Old Testament in light of the Gospel, then this is one more data point leading us to conclude that we must wrestle with these narratives as historical happenings. And not only as happenings but as divine doings. The works of the same God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Powers, “the Mystery of Created Freedom”, and Hart’s Pointless Deal with the Devil

that all may be savedDavid Bentley Hart wrote a book on Universalism, That All Shall Be Saved. I won’t attempt a full review, critique, or summary of his main arguments, as you can find those elsewhere (see Myles Wentz and Douglas Farrow). That is far beyond the scope of this piece. I’ll skip comment on his handling of Scripture for others, even though that’s a foundationally critical place to engage the argument. I’ll also mostly leave to the side his characterizations of other theological traditions, tone, etc. except to say that it’s much as one would expect from Hart except to the nth degree. The first thirty pages or so are something of a tour-de-force in well-poisoning and rhetorical posturing.

Instead, I want to point out a couple of issues with the book that I don’t think are entirely resolved; a couple of lacunae in the argument, especially in relation to some of his earlier positions regarding God and evil. Perhaps they are not insurmountable, but so far as I can see they lead to some very troubling consequences for folks buying into his program. 

Whence the Fall?

We begin with a problem that stems from one of his central arguments. I already rehearsed the heart of it on Twitter (as one does), but essentially I’m curious what the issue of the angelic fall does to his argument against the freewill defense of hell.

I’m summarizing and butchering terribly here, but Hart basically argues that the libertarian conception of freedom often invoked by the free-will defenders of hell is impossible and incoherent. No will is that radically, spontaneously “free.” The will is ordered toward ends, specifically the chief end of the Good, who is God. True freedom is the realization of our nature and end, ergo, union with God. Even the bad we will, we will confusedly, thinking it a good, and so forth; nobody wills the bad as the bad for themselves and so on. Furthermore, it is incoherent to see that sort of deliberative power to reject God and turn towards evil with finality as necessary to the concept of freedom when looking at Christ, who certainly had no capacity or potential to reject God and yet was fully human and perfectly free. Not only that, God’s relation to human wills as the transcendent one, interior to all reality, the Primary Cause to all secondary causes, is not like one agent among others, but is rather the One who can actually move wills without violating their freedom and so forth. Great. So far, so Augustinian/Thomist (and, dare I say, Reformed?).

From there the basic logic then is, given all that, “who, in the face of the presence of God, his glory, his love, his goodness, etc. is going to resist that Good forever? How can those wills not eventually be purified, transformed, and turned to reconciliation and repentance? Who can imagine a will resisting that transformative presence of God forever? Keeping your eyes closed to the blazing glory for eternity?”

Here’s where my initial question arises: in a number of places, Hart makes a big deal about the place of demons, the rebellious powers, the Archons, or fallen angels in his account of what it is Christ came to defeat (TASBS, 205). Indeed, he very explicitly pins much of the blame for why the work is such a messy, horrible place on these powers who exercise of a “sphere of created autonomy” against the Kingdom of God and his will, even if only for a time (The Doors of the Sea, 62, 65).

The question that arises is what do we make of their freedom? On the assumption that as finite creatures Archons/powers/fallen angels have the same sort of will that Hart argues is the only sort of will that makes sense for rational agents to have, how did they fall? How did they turn from the Good that they presumably were beholding, maybe not directly, but more clearly in the heavens than humans on the earth? For humans, Hart likes Ireneaus’ suggestion that we’re dealing with an initial child-like immaturity that rendered them susceptible to temptation and deceit by the Tempter. And that’s fine. But does something like that hold true for the unfallen angels who presumably were not in the same position as our first parents? Who fell with a presumably greater knowledge of God as well as un-tempted from without, as it were?

I know the force of Hart’s claim for us is largely eschatological–that in the end, even if it takes ages, folks will see the glory and be transformed–but given the force with which he argues for the unthinkability of ultimate rejection and the way our wills work, it really does end up making any sort of fall or defection for creatures such as the angels unthinkable and insane.

We’re left, then, with a couple of other options. Maybe God created them wicked? Or he willingly-knowingly-given-his-omnipotence-and-omniscience-permitted/ordained their fall? It seems like one of those follows despite Hart’s rejection of those options, or something like the freedom Hart is rejecting is not as illogical as all that.

Of course, someone might suggest he can appeal to the irrationality of the Fall as some sort of surd, the mystery of evil. But that doesn’t seem to close the lacunae here, because that would fall right into the hands of his infernalist opponents. If you’re willing to admit the surd of the irrationality of sin and the defection from the Good on the front end, does that not admit the possibility of unending recalcitrance on the back end?

Now, I get that the Fall is a natural limit case for any theology, and that this probably not insuperable, but it seems to present an analogy for the kind of choice that Hart thinks is unthinkable. A lacunae in his approach to the big story of Christianity that raises other questions in its train.

The Risk of Freedom and Theodicy

Turning to one of those questions, as I already suggested, reading this work by Hart pointed me back to the issues involved in his earlier anti-theodicy theodicy, The Doors of the Sea. In that work he goes about trying to do two things: answer atheistic skeptics of the goodness of God in the face of evil as well as correct what he considers to be defective attempts to defend God’s honor.

He famously (at least among his fans who quote him relentlessly on this point) invokes Ivan’s argument in The Brothers Karamazov, against any sort of explanation, justification, or defense of God’s dealings that would make the tortured suffering of an innocent child a necessary ingredient in the totalizing, absolute harmony of the cosmos and the ultimate plan of all things to unveil the fullness of God’s glory in either a deist, semi-Hegelian, or even Calvinist form. 

This involves recognizing that much evil is simply unredeemed, damned, not intended for good or as a component of some necessary good. God permitted it, sure, but does not purpose or cause directly or indirectly the evil of the world. Much is of it is utterly pointless and totally irredeemable. You can take comfort looking about at various tragedies in this life and tell yourself, “God had no specific reason for that to happen. It just did.”

And so the Powers and an appeal to their realm of created freedom are an important component of the portrait. This is because Hart especially wants to reject any option that sees God’s sovereignty either as a direct or total cause of the tragic eventualities of history in the fallen world. In their disobedience, humans have handed over rule of the world, in a sense, to the powers who are a serious, partial cause of the injustice of history. Indeed, created freedom as a whole figures quite prominently as his non-explanation explanation of evil:

“As soon as one sheds the burden of the desire for a total explanation — as soon as one has come to see the history of suffering as a contingency and an absurdity, in which grace is ever at work but upon with it does not depend, and has come also to see the promised end of all things not as the dialectical residue of a great cosmic and moral process, but as something far more glorious than the pitiable resources of fallen time could ever yield–one is confronted with only this bare choice: either one embraces the mystery of created freedom and accepts that the union of free spiritual creatures with the God of love is a thing so wonderful that the power of creation to enslave itself to death must be permitted by God: or one judges that not even such rational freedom is worth the risk of a cosmic fall and the terrible injustice of the consequences that follow from it. But, then, since there can be not context in which such a judgment can be meaningfully made, no perspective from which a finite Euclidean mind can weigh eschatological glory in the balance against earthly suffering, the rejection of God on these grounds cannot really be a rational decision, but only moral pathos.” (69)

The thing that has always been curious to me with this is the way Hart rages at theodicies of another sort, he basically ends up affirming some sort of freewill theodicy because the union of souls is worth the risk. The “union of free spiritual creatures with the God of love is a thing so wonderful” that to the eye of faith, it’s basically worth all the carnage, all the death, all the destruction, the abuse and tears of Ivan’s little girl, because the gift of being and the ultimate gift of being in communion with God outweighs it, despite however much Hart says we shouldn’t let this affirmation degenerate into a banal confidence in God’s great plan.

A few things are worth noting here. First, this doesn’t sit well with his rejection of the freewill defense of hell. There the moral pathos overwhelms that judgment that the risk is worth the beauty. And that’s not totally inconsistent. In one it is the calculus of eschatological glory v. earthly suffering and not final, eschatological glory v. final, eschatological suffering. Indeed, he works through the calculus and says as much (82-87). Even still, it’s not just that he judges the damnation of a single soul weightier in the balance than, say, Stalin’s wide-scale butchery, the massacre at My Lai, the killing fields of Cambodia, or the slave trade. It’s that in his telling in the 4th Meditation of TASBS, the mystery of created freedom becomes quite a bit less mysterious and not quite as glorious a gift so as to raise questions about it’s earlier justification of even earthly suffering.

Indeed, given what Hart says in TASBS, the “risk” he appeals to in TDOTS essentially evaporates. In critiquing the free will defense for hell, he very forcefully argues for God’s ability to providentially order every eventuality such that he could move all wills freely to choose him, or really, just about anything, given the coincidence of omnipotence and omniscience. Relatedly, earlier Hart presses the point of God’s power to the point of rejection the distinction between antecedent and consequent will in God to get God off the hook (TASBS, 82). If creation ex nihilo and the doctrine of eternal damnation are true, the evil of damnation is folded within even his positive intentions for creation, since “[u]nder the canopy of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, the consequent is already wholly virtually present in the antecedent.” 

My point here is that under this “canopy of God’s omnipotence and omniscience”, this supremely efficacious providence, this will that can work interior to all other wills without violating such wills, the “risk” involved in the mystery of created freedom is essentially eliminated, along with the coherence or purchase of that defense. The suffering that followed only did so by God’s knowing-and-able-to-do-something-about-it-but-didn’t will from all eternity. Not only that, a God with that sort of power and that sort of relationship to the universe is one eminently capable of preventing a fall and bringing free creatures into unity with himself without the pain, suffering, and consequences of brought about by either human freedom, or that of the powers. 

A Pointless Deal with the Devil?

In this way we begin to see that a freewill defense or theodicy such as Hart gives us in TDOTS does not really get us much further (if at all) than, say, someone appealing to a mysterious, meticulous, inscrutable plan for the whole. At this point, I’ll just repeat myself and note that when it comes to evil, unless you’re working with a tiny, little mythological Zeus-god—the Triune Creator of heaven and earth could stop each and every act of evil should he desire it.  Either God’s permission is willing or coerced. Assuming it’s not coerced, if he doesn’t stop an act of evil, he either has a good enough reason or purpose for it occurring or he does not.

On this point even the Arminian (or Hartian) and the Calvinist is agreed. It’s only that the Arminian typically appeals to a general good reason or purpose (free will or freely chosen love) and that the Calvinist some more meticulous, specific (though probably/possibly unknown) providential purposes. If you appeal to the mystery of free will which is necessary for love, moral choice, and so forth, you’re still saying God had a good enough reason for evil and even that specific evil. It’s just happens to be a very, very generic one. The untimely death of your wife and child have no particular purposes in God’s economy. They are just collateral damage in a marvelous, but thankfully quite broad and general plan.

At which point, though, you have to begin to push further back into and beyond the act of creation. Unless you’re an Open Theist or a Process Theist, you still have to face the fact that God freely created this world with a perfect knowledge of every nook and cranny of sin, evil, and the goods connected to them that would unfold. God willed to create this world and derivatively these evils exist as a part of his providential order for a reason. And so they are knowingly connected, included within the purchase price of that good by a God powerful enough to have stopped it or ordered things differently, even if they were ultimately unnecessary to it. Even Hart’s universalist portrait, where God can say, “All’s well that ends well,” the final beatitude and glory of God being all in all, every soul, comes with the same price tag.

Perhaps Hart could have recourse to some sort of felix culpa defense of evil? Only with evil and sin do we get Christ and his marvelous, redemptive victory over evil. Indeed, in some places I thought I saw hints of it. But overall it would not fit with his rejection of the notion that God might have any need of sin and death to manifest his glory (TDOTS, 74). 

Similarly, that rejection would seem to rule out the notion that perhaps only on this particular schema of history, with all of its bloodshed and horror, could God bring into union with himself every single created soul. Or even that the Lord wanted these souls, who could only be the particular persons-in-relation-who they are after being forged in the fires of history, to be the body of Christ. For again, that would seem to make evil necessary to the revelation of God’s glory.

And so, if we are to believe Hart’s earlier statements about the gratuity of evil, then these instances (really, aeons) of unnecessary, unredeemed, and pointless suffering constitute their own form of horror within the Christian story Hart is telling. By Hart’s own standards it seems another “secret compromise with evil,” only in this case, there was no point in making the bargain at all. 

Soli Deo Gloria

Does God *Need* Our Obedience? A brief thought on the “necessity” of sacrifice

In recent atonement discussions, one annoying bit of equivocation turns on the notion of who “needs” the cross. Actually, it comes up most of the time in discussions of sacrifice where the question is often framed as,”Who needs the sacrificial system? God or us?” Now, given God’s own declarations in Scripture that he stands in need of no one and nothing, not our rams or bulls, nor the blood of goats or rams, etc., well, it seems that the obvious answer is “us.” In which case, it is strictly speaking unnecessary.

In which case, so the argument goes, we should not talk about God being appeased, or needing sacrifice, reparation, etc. to forgive us. He doesn’t need them. No, God instituted these things in Israel (or allowed them to be instituted) for us. It is then further asserted that things are “for our benefit” in a way analogous to a mother and father marking gifts as “from Santa” and leaving out cookies for him on Christmas Eve is for the benefit of their children until they are old enough to understand what’s going on. We needed a visual system of assurance that God is gracious and so God accommodated himself to us, but the sacrificial system isn’t actually doing anything in procuring forgiveness, mediating our relationship to God and so forth.

And from there, we get a trail of steps leading forward into the NT, such that if such things were unnecessary and efficacious in the OT,  we can go on to understand they are absolutely unnecessary, and so reject anything like a divine necessity to the cross, or rather as a particular interpretation of it as an efficacious sacrifice effecting atonement, and so forth.

It’s all more complicated than that, but I just wanted to briefly point out the way these discussions fudge the nature of necessity and tend to run several together. Some take the fact that an act does not benefit God, or adds nothing to the fullness of his Triune life, and is therefore “unnecessary” to him metaphysically, to rule out the idea that it plays any necessary role in governing our relationship to him at all. That as unnecessary to him, they are not truly ordered to him, or an effective component in our moral relation to him.

I think if we tried that same sort of argumentation with other acts directed to God, the problem with that sort of move would become clearer.

Let me ask it differently, “who needs our obedience? God or us?” Again, not God. There is a very clear sense in which God doesn’t need our obedience to maintain any ontological or moral equilibrium in himself. In fact, as Ireneaus points out, it is we who need our obedience for the fulfillment of our telos, the glorification of God and the enjoyment of his presence. Strictly speaking, again, our obedience is not anything God needs. Obedience benefits us.

Okay, but that said, that doesn’t settle the matter of the necessity of obedience in our relation to God. Our obedience is unnecessary to God in one sense, but it is still ordered to God, owed to God, and properly demanded by God. God doesn’t lose anything he needs when we disobey him, but there is a sense in which it is still a necessary ingredient to our relationship with him that concerns him. It is morally required and in that sense necessary.

The same sort of reasoning can be deployed with respect to worship. God doesn’t need our worship: it doesn’t benefit him, nor does he depend on it, but rather it is something that benefits us. That said, it is rightly ordered towards him, demanded by him, is owed him as a recognition of the truth of his glory, and is therefore an ingredient to our relationship with him that does concern him. Insofar as we are going to be rightly related to him as he is, worship is necessary and required by God.

We can say something similar with respect to a sacrifice of atonement. God doesn’t need it, it doesn’t “benefit” him, but it is still not a morally self-enclosed act. Though not *needed* by God it is still ordered to God, owed to God, and properly demanded by God as an ingredient of our continued relationship to him. It may be entirely for our benefit but that doesn’t rule out that it is rightly required by God and morally necessary in some sense given who God is.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

A Little RUF Update + Mailing List and Support Info

RUFHey all, so a couple of weeks ago I made the announcement that my wife and I have taken a job with Reformed University Fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. I’ll just report quickly that McKenna and I have since made it out to UCI and met a number of the students a little over a week ago. And it was a blast.

I cannot exaggerate how much we enjoyed these students. They are sharp, funny, excited about what God is doing at UCI. We’re connecting well and, to be honest, I miss them already. We cannot wait to get back and just start going deeper with this group. Based on the testimonies I heard, I can see that my predecessor Chad and his wife Christie, and the interns Lana and Hailey, have been used by God immensely there already and we’re eager to be a part of that continuing story of God’s work there.

Now, I also said that I’d be getting back to you about how you can get involved, especially by being added to the email and mailing list for our regular Newsletter and such. This blog will not be regularly devoted to RUF updates, appeals for support, etc. It will still be primarily devoted to theology, thoughts about ministry, preaching, and cultural commentary. All the same, many of you have been following along with me for the last few years of reading notes, articles, podcasts, etc. and many of you have written encouraging notes, and prayed for me as I’ve been pursuing studies. Given that encouragement, I figured I’d give folks the opportunity to now follow along with this new thing that God is calling us into. So this is that detail post.

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These are a few of the students. They apparently hammock every week and have become experts.

First of all, there are the Newsletters. We will have regular newsletters updating folks on how the ministry is going, stories about the students, and how you can be praying, both for McKenna and I personally, as well as the Ministry as a whole. To get on that list just email me with your preferred mailing address at derek.rishmawy@ruf.org. I’ll place you on the list and you’ll begin getting those as soon as I begin sending those.

Also, if you email me, I will also have your email for the email form. I do suggest you do not simply leave your email or address in the comments, for obvious reasons.

Beyond that, there is financial support. The initial mailer will include and update as well as information about a variety of ways to participate in the ministry financially (though that will not always be the case). For those who are just eager help us get started, though, you can actually begin right now by going to https://www.givetoruf.org/, then typing in my name (Derek Rishmawy), and give securely via credit card either a one-time gift, or elect a recurring amount and this will be designated towards our ministry at UCI.

With all that said, if you have been praying for us already, thank you so much. We have already seen and felt prayers being answered! And we’re going to keep needing those prayers as we prepare to move, continue to wrap things up in Chicago, keep working on continuing projects (dissertation, etc.), and begin our long-term preparation for the ministry in Irvine. (If you want more details, again, check out my earlier post.)

Soli Deo Gloria