“It’s Only a Metaphor”

“None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable , you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you — even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers and triumphs over all opposition.”

Thus Neil Gaiman opens one of the latter chapters in the novel, American Gods (p. 551). It’s clever as an ironic bit of storytelling in that it plays with a typical, modern approach to belief in the gods, as only so much metaphor, right before it launches into the rest of a narrative about a battle of the gods.

Of course, much of our popular view of metaphor and religious belief is confused as well. You find this both in popular and academic contexts. Often when someone says something like, “It’s a metaphor, don’t take it literally,” they don’t mean, “well, be careful misinterpreting that particular figure of speech.” What they end up meaning is something like, “it’s only a metaphor, don’t take it too seriously, or as reality.” To call something a metaphor is to say it is only a florid way of saying something that, if we really wanted to understand as it is, we ought to express in a more straightforward, literal fashion. Like, say that of the sciences.

LewisNow, the problem with that view is one C.S. Lewis pointed out long ago in his essay, “Is Theology Poetry?” when dealing with the charge that much Christian Theology is only so much un-purified metaphor.

We are invited to restate our belief in a form free from metaphor and symbol. The reason we don’t is that we can’t. We can, if you like, say “God entered history” instead of saying “God came down to earth.” But, of course, “entered” is just as metaphorical as “came down.” You have only substituted horizontal or undefined movement for vertical movement. We can make our language duller; we cannot make it less metaphorical. We can make the pictures more prosaic; we cannot be less pictorial.

Nor are we Christians alone in this disability. Here is a sentence from a celebrated anti-Christian writer, Dr. I. A. Richards.

“Only that part of the cause of a mental event which takes effect through incoming (sensory) impulses or through effects of past sensory impulses can be said to be thereby known. The reservation no doubt involves complications.”

Dr. Richards does not mean that the part of the cause “takes” effect in the literal sense of the word takes, nor that it does so through a sensory impulse as you could take a parcel through a doorway. In the second sentence “The reservation involves complications,” he does not mean that an act of defending, or a seat booked in a train, or an American park, really sets about rolling or folding or curling up a set of coilings or rollings up. In other words, all language about things other than physical objects is necessarily metaphorical.

We could dispute some of Lewis’s parsing, but the fact of the matter is the language of science is typically shot through with metaphor. Any good science writer who is paying attention to what’s going on will admit as much metaphor and analogy is involved in the models used to describe the more theoretical reaches of physics (think of the now-defunct String Theory) as there is in the doctrine of Eternal Generation.

What’s more, much of our “literal” language is littered with the detritus of metaphor that has died and been forgotten. For example, we speak straightforwardly about the “leg” of a chair on analogy with the “leg” on an animal or a human. What was once a notable metaphor has become “literal” by being lexicalized through regular use. Again, this happens in science: think of the language of an electrical “current” that “flows.”

This brings us to one of more important points Janet Martin Soskice makes in her work Metaphor and Religious Language. The use of metaphors has an important role to play in extending language, as one of the ways where we supply terms where one is lacking in our vocabulary. Metaphors can extend, not only our vocabulary, but our way of conceiving reality by suggesting “new categories of interpretation” which lead us to think of “new entities, states of affairs, and causal relations.” This is why metaphors are so useful, not only in the hard sciences, but in conceiving social, political, and, yes, even theological realities.

I’m barely scratching the surface of the discussion of metaphor, but my point has simply been to note that labeling some bit of language “metaphorical” is not say it is “less real,” or, “not referring to anything out there.” Yes, they can be terms of art, literary dressing, and so forth. But all the same, metaphors are useful in everyday language, the language of science, and in theology insofar as they are reality-depicting. Metaphors are not a distraction from clear thinking about a matter, or a way of distancing us from understanding the truth of the world. Instead, they can be a way of perceiving and understanding them in a more adequate way than we could otherwise.

In which case, when we hear the phrase, “God is our father,” it’s not so much a choice between deciding whether or not its true or only a metaphor. Rather, it’s about deciding whether the metaphor is a true and good one, and if it is, in just what way. And for Christians, this is where Scripture is our guide. Reading the Bible attentively allows us to see God’s own deployment of metaphorical language for himself, attuning us to the ways he wills to be understood and known.

Soli Deo Gloria

The God of James

It’s amazing how much theology the NT writers get done in a short space. And not just “theology” in general, but theology proper–teaching on the nature, existence, and character of God. James is an excellent example of this that I only noticed recently. Consider how much we learn of God in the first chapter alone.

First, we are told that, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (1:5). We very quickly learn, then, that God is generous and the source of wisdom. Indeed, he is not just the source of wisdom alone, but the benevolent One, the heavenly Father, who bestows every good gift upon the world from his bounteous plenty (1:17). To be the source of wisdom and all good things, one must have them and, indeed, be their all-powerful, all-wise source. Indeed, you must transcend them in order to give them.

What’s more, this is who he constantly is, because he is one “who does not change like shifting shadows” (1:17). In other words, God is unchangingly and immutably this all-generous source of all that is. But this divine stability is not just metaphysical, but moral as well. God is also beyond temptation, nor is he a tempter (1:13). It is not only that he is pure from evil, but impervious to evil. His is a moral perfection.

This perfection is executed, not only in his good gifts of wisdom and “every perfect gift”, but in the ultimate gift: salvation. “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (1:19). God is the author of salvation, the one who sovereignly elects to bring forth fruit through the truth of the gospel in the lives of those who had none. God is, therefore, merciful. 

But why does God show this mercy? To bring forth holiness and righteousness, though this righteousness is a particular sort–not the kind that can be produced by man’s anger (1:20). Instead, what God desires, the kind of religion that is pleasing to God the Father, is this: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (1:27). In other words, he aims to produce in creatures an analogical extension of the generosity and purity that marks his own life.

There is more to be said of God, of course–and James does so. But it is remarkable how much he does say in such a short space. It’s always a good reminder for me as a theology student, just how much you can get from applying myself directly to the text of Scripture, and not simply mediating theological texts.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Spirit of this Letter

And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Cor. 3:4-6)

holy terrorPaul’s contrast here between the Spirit and the letter which kills has given rise to a host of curious interpretations throughout Christian history.  It has become a favorite of antinomians and enthusiasts old and new, it has often been used as a justification for a spiritualizing interpretation of given text, beyond the mere “letter of the Law” to the spirit of the Law. Or, rather, to pit one’s own leading by the Holy Spirit against the mere letters of inspired Scripture. From properly theological discussions, the phrase then passes into idiomatic usages and comes up in debates about hermeneutics in general, the spirit v. the letter of Constitutional law, and so forth. And that’s how most of us hear it today.

Of course, in its own context of the discussion in 2 Corinthians, the contrast is primarily one of covenants not hermeneutics. The Law, the Torah, the letter and the ministry associated with it is one of death because, even though it is good and glorious, by it there is only condemnation. Paul is a minister of the new covenant, though, which is that of the Spirit who gives life in Christ. As a secondary issue, hermeneutics does come up towards the end of the passage. There we read that the Israelites of the day cannot properly read the Law, they have a veil over their eyes to shield them from the glory. But it is only when one turns to the Lord, in the Spirit, that the veil is removed from our eyes when we read the old covenant to see it for what it truly is.

With that I clear, I wanted to briefly turn attention to an intriguing comment by Terry Eagleton on the spirit v. letter dichotomy in his work Holy Terror. He has been expositing the purpose of the Law as educational, good, “holy”, and yet limited. It is a work of love to “train us up in its habits and protocols”, and yet it generates unintended consequences such as guilt, provocation to sin, and so forth.

The law’s education in the ways of love is bound to backfire, which is why the law is a curse. This is partly because to encode the law in writing opens up the possibility of turning it into a fetish, as Shylock makes a fetish of his bond [Merchant of Venice]. He does so because as an oppressed Jew he needs his scrupulously worded contract for his protection, and would be foolish to rely on the hermeneutical vagaries of the Venetian Christian Establishment.

It may be the spirit of the law which counts, but there is no spirit without a letter, no signified without a material signifier. The spirit of the law is an effect of the signifier, not a substitute for it. It is a matter of the creative interpretation of letters, not the spontaneous diving of something lurking bodiless behind them. Otherwise the spirit of the law could included pretty well any arbitrary implication which sprang to mind, which would be to make a mockery of the law. This ‘spirit’ of the law must be the spirit of this letter. It is not a question of ditching the letter for the spirit, but of grasping the letter of the law as spirit and meaning, rather than, say, as some numinous icon in its own right–some totem or mantra which has merely to be magically chanted or brandished to have its effect. (37-38)

Now, as a straightforward interpretation of that particular verse in Paul, it tends to be working with the problem posed in popular idiomatic sense. But even there, Eagleton is instructive. Yes, there can be fetishistic, legalistic ways of interpreting and applying the letter. Jesus makes this critique of the Pharisees often and we’ve all seen it in the worst sort of fundamentalistic interpretation. (Think Jehovah’s Witnesses forgoing all celebrations of holidays and birthdays because Ecclesiastes says, “the day of death than the day of birth”).

All the same, his critique of the enthusiast interpretation is worth repeating, “This ‘spirit’ of the law must be the spirit of this letter.” The spirit must not be used as an excuse for turning the letter into a wax nose. Indeed, we can only try to discern that spirit from those particular letters: “the spirit of the law is an effect of the signifier, not a substitute for it.” Discerning the spirit of Hamlet can only happen when we attend to the text of Hamlet.

Of course, Eagleton is speaking of the “spirit” in the non-theological sense of the term when he says this, but I think it also points us in the direction of a Reformation hermeneutic of “Word and Spirit,” where the one is never separated from the other, nor should they be pitted against each other. For with Scripture, we see that the letter, the signifier of the Law is actually an effect of the Spirit of Christ. But we can only know the Spirit of Christ truly if we attend to the letters which are his revelatory work.

In other words, there can ultimately be no appeal to the Spirit beyond or against this letter of Scripture precisely because he is the Spirit of this letter.

Soli Deo Gloria

Perhaps Just One More Thesis on Church Discipline?

Wes Hill has written a provocative reflection on the matter of church discipline (or seeming lack thereof) in the Episcopal and Anglican communions. Framed around the challenge of his Reformed friends about why these churches seem never to ask people committing flagrant, public sin to refrain from communion, he forwards five theses on Church discipline. Now, as with just about anything Wes writes, it’s all very thoughtful and worthwhile to engage with.

To summarize, as one of those Reformed folks with questions about Anglicanism, I’ll say that I sympathize broadly with the piece. I think thesis #1 is very over-stated, but much of the problem with disciplining individual members for sexual failures does ignore the broad context of pastoral and disciplinary failure in the church as a whole. I see this with badly catechized college kids all the time. In that sense, yes, we’re all complicit here. What’s more, in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, conversion on these culturally-disputed matters takes time. Finally, we need to exercise patience in our recovery or rediscovery of the practice of discipline, especially when we consider that discipline is aimed at forgiveness.

All of this reminds me of Lewis’s words about the way God may judge different generations by different standards with respect to different sins. Cultural forces, church failures, etc. can indeed shape the moral subject and make obedience on certain issues harder or more confusing than at other times in church history. I do think this is one area where that is true for our age (though not absolutely), in the way that other issues were in others.

That said, it’s precisely for that reason my mind returns to the earlier conversations around “orthodoxy” language being used for matters of sexuality, or on the sort of labels we affix to pastors, theologians, and priests who teach contrary to Scripture on these matters. Should we call them, the pastors in charge of God’s flock, false teachers or no? Is this an orthodoxy or catholicity issue, or not? And should we say so?

Which is to say, my biggest question with Wes’s piece is that I don’t see a clear answer on what seems to be the deepest issue of discipline within the Anglican or Episcopal church, which is not the sinful laity, but the fact that the clergy are not held to account for explicitly teaching that things that ought not be done can be done. As with Israel, It is the theological laxity and moral corruption of the priests who do not guide or guard the sheep which is the prior issue (Ezek 34). If discipline is to be recovered, it seems wise to start at the top. Otherwise we will never start.

Or again, if the matter is the lack of catechesis and moral instruction of the church, then it seems all the more important we use strong language to communicate just how wide a departure these teachers have taken from Scripture and the catholic tradition. We may exercise patience with individuals, yes. But such patience paired with a broader unwillingness to use the clearest possible language about about the issue is exactly the sort of thing which yields the situation Wes is lamenting.

It is that language, and that clarity, I’m not at all sure I find in Wes’s proposal. Perhaps, then, one more thesis is needed?

Soli Deo Gloria

 

the call to sexual holiness is unavoidable

Recently at London Review of Books, Amia Srinivasan published a very interesting and very profane (reader warning) article entitled, “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?

She begins by examining the case of Elliot Rodger, the disturbed young man who went on a rampage in Isla Vista in protest of his status as an incel (an involutary celibate, ie. someone who can’t get sex), and killed roommates, sorority girls, and caused general mayhem as part of his perverted quest for ‘justice.’ With this story as our departure, it becomes fairly obvious that the answer to the titular question is, “No, nobody has the right to have sex” and none of the young women who had refused Rodgers had wronged him.

But then Srinivasan goes on to complicate the matter through a long, extensive, instructive dive through the history of feminist and queer reflection on “the political critique of desire,” which interrogates the shape of our sexual desires. For those unfamiliar with it (as I myself largely am, getting most of my knowledge second-hand from long articles such as this), she charts the stages of conversation from Catherine Mackinnon’s critique Freud’s portrait of sexual desire as pre-political, to seeing it as inherently corrupted and shaped by patriarchal ideological structures of dominance, etc. and correspondingly calling for political lesbianism and so forth.

Now, in the 80s and 90s came the backlash of the pro-sex feminists. They championed the importance of allowing women to pursue what they genuinely felt was pleasurable in the manner and means they wanted, without some neo-Victorian schema to foist guilt upon them once more. To this were added concerns from intersectional analysis which made theorists even more wary about universal moral prescriptions that really only fit the situations of white feminists. Furthermore, there was an increasingly discomfort with the concept of false consciousness, which the political critique assumes, and so you have to start taking women at their word when they say whatever sexual activity (be it sex-work, porn, nudity, etc.) is sexually liberating.

From there we get further development and refinement to the point where now the main concern and boundary line of OK sex is “consent”, and the free exchange of sexual goods. Of course, that may provoke the worry and critique that this plays right into the hands of capitalist neo-liberal conceptions of the self that ought to be questioned. But this shouldn’t be raised in such a way that we fall back into guilt and authoritarianism, which would fetter and bind the right of consenting agents to their preferred sexual acts. Remember, talking about what people ought to want and desire is a quick road to political oppression.

But then we come back around to questioning, “but why do we desire what we desire?” Especially when we still can’t shake the feeling that under the constraints and pressures of a patriarchal culture, our desires are not fully free or unproblematic. And this is where it gets interesting (and for context, she has been engaging with Ellen Willis’ essay “Lust horizons” up at this point):

When we see consent as the sole constraint on OK sex, we are pushed towards a naturalisation of sexual preference in which the rape fantasy becomes a primordial rather than a political fact. But not only the rape fantasy. Consider the supreme f#$%ability of ‘hot blonde sluts’ and East Asian women, the comparative unf#$%ability of black women and Asian men, the fetishisation and fear of black male sexuality, the sexual disgust expressed towards disabled, trans and fat bodies. These too are political facts, which a truly intersectional feminism should demand that we take seriously. But the sex-positive gaze, unmoored from Willis’s call to ambivalence, threatens to neutralise these facts, treating them as pre-political givens. In other words, the sex-positive gaze risks covering not only for misogyny, but for racism, ableism, transphobia, and every other oppressive system that makes its way into the bedroom through the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference’.

This is the wrench that contemporary intersectional concerns throw into a purely consent-based, desire-driven account of sexuality. It can easily function as a cover for all sorts of sexual discrimination and exclusion under the guise of just affirming whatever sexual desires someone finds within themselves. But what if those desires are racist, transphobic, fat-shaming, and so forth? Shouldn’t those desires be different? Shouldn’t we discourage them? But how, without falling back into authoritarianism?

The argument cuts both ways. If all desire must be immune from political critique, then so must the desires that exclude and marginalise trans women: not just erotic desires for certain kinds of body, but the desire not to share womanhood itself with the ‘wrong’ kinds of woman. The dichotomy between identity and desire, as Chu suggests, is surely a false one; and in any case the rights of trans people should not rest on it, any more than the rights of gay people should rest on the idea that homosexuality is innate rather than chosen (a matter of who gay people are rather than what they want). But a feminism that totally abjures the political critique of desire is a feminism with little to say about the injustices of exclusion and misrecognition suffered by the women who arguably need feminism the most.

Srinivasan continues her analysis along these lines for some time, tracing the problematic bind these tensions generate. She concludes with this humdinger of a paragraph:

To take this question seriously requires that we recognise that the very idea of fixed sexual preference is political, not metaphysical. As a matter of good politics, we treat the preferences of others as sacred: we are rightly wary of speaking of what people really want, or what some idealised version of them would want. That way, we know, authoritarianism lies. This is true, most of all, in sex, where invocations of real or ideal desires have long been used as a cover for the rape of women and gay men. But the fact is that our sexual preferences can and do alter, sometimes under the operation of our own wills – not automatically, but not impossibly either. What’s more, sexual desire doesn’t always neatly conform to our own sense of it, as generations of gay men and women can attest. Desire can take us by surprise, leading us somewhere we hadn’t imagined we would ever go, or towards someone we never thought we would lust after, or love. In the very best cases, the cases that perhaps ground our best hope, desire can cut against what politics has chosen for us, and choose for itself.

This is an astonishing ending that posits placing hope in the ability of our sexual desire itself to surprise us and set us free from the shackle politics. Perhaps Aphrodite truly does hold the key to liberation?

Now, I don’t have a really substantial critique of Srinivasan’s piece–for that, see Carl Trueman’s incisive piece–except to make two quick comments.

First, that last line just cries out for an Augustinian analysis of both the problem of the bound will and the way idols somehow manage to keep tricking us into believing that trusting one idol will set you free from another. We really do need a City of God for a new age.

Second, and this is the more striking (if a bit obvious) point to me: the call to sexual holiness is unavoidable. Srinivasan is not a Christian, nor does she espouse anything close to a Christian sexual ethic, but as her reflections make clear, leaving behind a Christian normative frame does not solve the problematic, obviously disordered nature of our sexual desires. As Alastair Roberts has noted, the contemporary choice is not one of simply abandoning sexual morality, but of trading it in for another.

And so while you may not have a problem with pre-marital sex, pornography, same-sex desires, or consenting polyamorous adults doing their thing, but the reality is that on just about any moral framework, you’re eventually going to be asked to consider that your desires are in some way distorted, deformed, and whether “there is a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires” so they are not conformed to the (patriarchal, capitalist, etc.) pattern of this world.

There is no question, then, about the call to sexual holiness in the world. We all know deep down we need it and we ought to strive for it. The question is who sets the terms: Jesus, or someone else.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Simplicity of God and the Diversity of Creation

compendium

I’ve been working my way through Aquinas’s late, brief summary of his system, Compendium Theologiae, and it’s been a dense, instructive dive so far.

Early in his series of questions on creation, he treats the matter of why there is plurality, or a diversity of things in creation. Why are there trees and monkeys and mountains and starfish, instead of only, say perfectly spiritual beings like angels? Why stars of various shapes, colors, and sizes, instead of one, perfect, massive orb? Why diversity instead of simple, orderly, uniformity?

Well, as with most things in Aquinas, he finds the answer in God who is their creating and sustaining cause. Even more than that, he roots this diversity in the simplicity of God.

How so?

Any active cause must produce its like, so far as this is possible. The things produced by God could not be endowed with a likeness of the divine goodness in the simplicity in which that goodness is found in God. Hence what is one and simple in God had to be represented in the produced things in a variety of dissimilar ways. There had to be diversity in the things produced by God, in order that the divine perfection might in some fashion be imitated in the variety found in things.

Furthermore, whatever is caused is finite, since only God’s essence is infinite, as was demonstrated above. The finite is rendered more perfect by the addition of other elements. Hence it was better to have diversity in created things, and thus to have good objects in greater number, than to have but a single kind of beings produced by God. For the best cause appropriately produces the best effects. Therefore it was fitting for God to produce variety in things. (1:72)

One might think that the indivisible, simple being of God would stifle diversity. Thomas reminds us, though, that the simple being of God is infinite. A mere repetition of the same finite effects will not do. In order to begin to communicate the fullness of his refulgent glory by way of finite creaturely reality will require a diversity of finite causes!

Despite it’s philosophical garb, I think this really functions as a metaphysical gloss on Scriptural teaching. Consider what the Psalmist tells us:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world. (Ps. 19:1-4)

Or again:

How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small. (Ps. 104:24-25)

Thomas tells us that all this marvelous diversity is a reflection, a testimony to the wisdom, glory. and beauty of the simple God. In the creation of diverse effects, it is as if the pure, undivided brightness of the infinite divine light is refracted before our eyes as through a prism as broad and as wide as the universe itself.

Soli Deo Gloria

On the “Legal Influence” of the Latin West (A thought on culture and atonement)

iustitiaI wanted to follow up that last post on Anselm and the culturally-situated nature of our atonement accounts. As mentioned, a frequent objection is that his framing is rooted in feudal conceptions of Lord and vassal relationships, and the place of honor within them, which were quite different from other social arrangements throughout history.

A similar sort argument is often lodged against the Western tradition in general. Depending on the subject, it is charged that the Latin tradition has always tended towards a more forensic, legal conception of the salvation, the relationship between God and man, etc. Instead of blaming feudal social arrangements, here we meet the claim that the Roman legal tradition exerted undue force, through say, Tertullian, Ambrose, or that perennial (because undeniably influential) whipping boy, Augustine.

Sometimes this is done with an eye towards promoting a superior Eastern account of deification. Or it is used by contemporary theologians to try to supplant the account with some proposal of their own, more attuned to the cultural needs of the current moment. Because, you know, moderns have no concept of guilt and such.

Now, as Sonderegger demonstrated in that last post, simply noting that a point is contextually-rooted, or more appealing to someone in a different cultural context, does not mean it is not translatable or valid in our own.

But let’s go even further. Conceding that Anselm was influenced by feudalism, and the West in general by Latin legal tradition, isn’t it just possible that was a good thing at points? Isn’t it just possible that these cultural influences were not hindrances but providential helps in aiding the church recognize real truths within Scripture that, say, a more Eastern perspective focused on gnosis and ontology might tend to gloss over? Or from which our contemporary culture, possibly over-prone to therapeutic denials of guilt, might want to avert its gaze?

I mean, think about the narrative of Scripture. God is presented as Lord, king, and judge of the earth. He gives Israel a Law-covenant to order their relationship summed up in the 10 Commandments. This covenant is a legal-relational reality which, beyond cultic elements, has large sections of material concerned with the organization of Israel as a people, the administration of justice, courts, and so forth. Indeed, both Leviticus and Deuteronomy have large chapters which include blessings and curses based on the legal-relational matter of obedience and fidelity God as the covenant-Lord.

We could press further, consider how much of the prophetic material presupposes this legal orientation. Israel is condemned on the basis of her violation of the Law of the Lord. Yes, it is a relational reality. But it is also one ordered by Law and prosecuted accordingly. Indeed, OT scholars will tell you that some prophets even modeled key prophecies on the legal form of a law-suit, a rib. 

In my devotional reading of Ezekiel this morning, I was struck by this passage:

Now the end is upon you, and I will send my anger upon you; I will judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. And my eye will not spare you, nor will I have pity, but I will punish you for your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the Lord. (Ezek. 7:3-4)

The Lord God, the Judge of Israel, will punish her for her sins “according to your ways.” Why? For her abominations, both criminal and cultic. And in so doing, “you will know that I am the Lord.” God, apparently, is concerned with his Name being known in Israel and the world as a God who is just, who does not let oppression reign in his kingdom unchecked forever. Witness the confluence of themes of legality, honor, and the matter of punishment in this prophecy.

Clearly this is not all that could be said about Scripture, both Old and New (it would take little effort to find the NT riddled with legal terminology and conceptions), nor about the realities relevant to our reflection on atonement. Nor does it justify every move made by Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, or any other Western theologian who has made matters of honor, justice, and legal satisfaction central to their account of atonement.

Nonetheless, it should give pause to those of us tempted to appeal to neat “just-so” stories about cultural influence, which often amounts to no more than a sophisticated form of the genetic fallacy. The question can never merely be a matter of whether Calvin’s legal background pushed him towards a legal understanding of atonement. The question is whether that legal background blinded or enlightened him to something in the text.

What’s more, the question can never merely be whether our own culture resonates or connects with some theme or metaphor in the same way Anselm’s did. The question is whether there is Scriptural reason to hold on to that theme despite its counter-cultural intuition. While I have become skeptical over the years that our culture really has fully abandoned a sense of guilt, even if it had, that would not erase the fact that Scripture testifies to the problem of guilt, nor that it needs to make it into our proclamation.

Indeed, that’s why it is such a good thing to read widely in theology across time, space, and culture. It keeps us from being blinkered and beholden to our own.

Soli Deo Gloria