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

 

“Why the Lord Jesus Christ freed the human race through harsh suffering, not through power.” A Translation of Caesarius of Arles by Ben Wheaton

This holy week I am pleased to present this sermon translation of Bishop Caesarius of Arles’ sermon, “Why Christ Redeemed Man Not through Power, But Through Suffering,” by Dr. Ben Wheaton. Dr. Wheaton has recently completed a Ph.D. in Medieval studies at University of Toronto, and I’m very grateful he has allowed me to share the fruit of some of his work. Besides being a perfect meditation for the time, it’s also an excellent example of finding atonement as penal substitution wonderfully synthesized with Christ’s victory in the Fathers.

caesariusBio: One of the more remarkable figures in Late Antique Christianity, Caesarius of Arles was born in 470 in the city of Chalons in southern Gaul (modern France). He was appointed as bishop of Arles in 502. Arles was at this time the administrative and ecclesiastical capital of southern Gaul, making Caesarius immediately the leading figure in the southern Gallic church. He remained there as bishop until his death in 542, leading his congregants and ecclesiastical subordinates through the politically tumultuous times that followed the dissolution of Roman power in Gaul.

 

Sermon XI 

Why the Lord Jesus Christ freed the human race through harsh suffering, not through power.

This question, dearly beloved brothers, occurs to many; the thought of this matter sends many men of little understanding into anxiety.  For they say: “Why did the Lord Jesus Christ, the Power and Wisdom of the Father, work the salvation of man not by his divine power and sole authority but rather by his bodily humility and human struggle?  For without a doubt he would have been able by the heavenly power and majesty to overthrow the Devil and to free man from his tyranny.”  Certain others ponder: “Why did he who is proclaimed to have given life in the beginning by his word not destroy death by his word?  What reason was there that lost men should not be brought back by the same majesty which was able to create things not yet existing?  Why was it necessary for our Lord Christ to receive so harsh a period of suffering when he was able to free the human race through his power?  Why his incarnation?  Why his infancy?  Why the course of his life?  Why the insults?  Why the cross?  Why his death?  Why his burial?  Why?  Why did he take up all these things for the sake of man’s restoration?”

This is what men of little understanding say.  Without a doubt our Lord would have been able to triumph over the Devil by his divine authority and to free man from his rule.  He would have been able, yes; but reason resisted, justice did not give its permission: and these are more important to God than all power and might.  These two attributes are praised even among men; how much more are they praiseworthy to God, who is the Creator and Judge of reason and justice!  Now it was in the mind of God to restore man, who had been deceived by the Devil, to eternal life.  This then had to be kept in mind: compassion must not destroy justice, love must not destroy equity.  For if He had finished off the Devil and rescued man from his jaws by His majesty and power, there would indeed have been power, but there would not have been justice.  For the Enemy of the human race would have been able to say: “O Lord, you are just and true; you made man in your goodness, you who created me as well as a good not an evil angel.  You gave to me as much as to man the free power of the will; you gave the law with this threat of judgment: if we touched something forbidden, we would die the death.  I ruined myself at the very beginning by a voluntary envy; then I persuaded man to do a wicked deed.  I persuaded, I did not force; for I was not able to force one having the freedom of his own will.  I was listened to more than your word was preserved.  We received by your judgment sentences befitting our merits: I the eternal word sent into evil, man was sent with me to death and terrible punishment.  Man joined himself to me by his own will; he separated from you not unwillingly but by the same will: he is mine.  Together we are destined for punishment; if he is torn away from me, it is not justice but violence, it is not grace but an injury, it is not compassion but plunder.  Why should man, who did not wish to live when he had the ability, be made alive unwillingly?  I presume to say this, O Just Judge: it is not fitting for there to be unequal sentences in the same case.  Ultimately, if it pleases you that man be saved against all justice and reason, we ought both to be saved—both he who perished and I who was ruined.”

Should that speech of the Devil not have seemed to God to be just and reasonable, since He did work and still works all things justly and reasonably?  And so in order that this criminal voice should not have any place and that all the deeds of God should be consistent with justice and reason that very Strength came from heaven; it came not to tear man away from the Devil through power, but rather only after it had preserved equity in all things.  This is just as the Lord Himself reminded John the Baptist at the time of his baptism—when John wished to decline—saying: “Without delay; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all justice.”  Therefore for this reason our Lord and Saviour came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” as the apostle teaches and endured all things without sin; so that thus with justice having been fulfilled he might condemn sin in his flesh, since his flesh was taken up without sin from a sinful substance.  That encounter in the desert orchestrated by the Spirit proves this, when the Devil was conquered not by divine majesty but by the memory of a command, by fasting and by a lawful response.  The many different tests of the Pharisees also prove this, by whom the Lord was often challenged.  When He benefits the ungrateful, when he does not resist an injury, when by his patience he overcomes an insult, by his goodness conquers ill-will, all justice is necessarily fulfilled and every sin is condemned.  Because of this the same Lord preached: “The Prince of this world comes, and he possesses nothing in me.”  This is the first victory: that the flesh, assumed from a sinful race, stands forth as having no part in a misdeed; and so in that same flesh sin was condemned, in which it had believed itself able to reign; the same flesh, which at one time sin had conquered, conquered sin.  For if divinity alone had conquered, the Devil would not have been in great confusion, and it would not have inspired confidence in bodily men that it would conquer.

Let us see what the cross might want from itself, how the sin of the world is remitted upon it, how death is destroyed and the Devil triumphed over.  The cross is certainly not deserved, insofar as it pertains to the form of justice, unless by sinners; for both the law of God and of the world is recognized to have decreed the cross for guilty men and criminals alone.  Therefore with the Devil hurrying about working through Judas, through the kings of the earth and through the princes of the Jews, who “came together as one” to Pilate “against the Lord and against his Christ,” Christ was condemned to death; an innocent man was condemned just as the prophet says in the Psalm: “But the righteous man, what has he done?”  And again, “They will seek against the spirit of the righteous and will condemn innocent blood;” the man guilty of not even a trivial sin is condemned, since the serpent was able to leave no trace in this rock.  He patiently endured both insults and blows, the thorny crown and scarlet robe, and the other mockeries which are contained in the Gospel.  He endured this without any guilt, so that filled with patience, as “a sheep to the sacrifice,” he might come to the cross.  He received this in a dignified manner who would have been able to inflict injury upon his enemies.  He endured very powerful forces, as David sings, “as a man without help,” who would have been able to avenge himself by his divine majesty.  For he who withered the fig tree to its roots by his word would much more easily have immediately withered all flesh, which was reckoned as grass, if he had wished to resist.  For if even those who had come to capture him retreated backwards when they were questioned with a gentle speech, that is, “Whom do you seek?” and they were made like dead men, what would he have done if he had wished to resist?  But he fulfills the mystery of the cross, for which purpose he also came into this world; so that by means of the cross, by means of a salvific justice and reason, the note of our indebtedness to sin might be cancelled, the enemy power be captured after being enticed by the bait of the cross and the Devil lose the prey he used to hold.

Now, it is necessary for this to be believed to have been done in this way.  Christ the Lord without any guilt, without any blame, underwent a penal sentence; the innocent man is crucified without sin.  The Devil is made guilty by the death of an innocent man; the Devil is made guilty by bringing the cross upon a righteous man who owed nothing.  The death of Christ benefitted man: what Adam owed to God Christ paid by undergoing death, having been made without any doubt a sacrifice for the sin of men and for their race, just as the blessed Paul taught: “Christ,” he says, “loved us and handed himself over for us as an offering and sacrificial victim to God in a pleasing aroma.”  For that original sin was not easily able to be dismissed unless a sacrificial victim had been offered for the fault, unless that holy blood of propitiation had been poured out.  For the saying of the Lord at the time of the Exodus remains in force now: “I will see the blood, and I will protect you.”  For that figure of the lamb points to this Passion of the Lord Christ.  When blood is paid out for blood, death for death and a sacrificial victim for a fault, even so did the Devil lose what he was holding.  It is now rightly said to him: “O enemy, you do not have that on account of which you had a legal case.  The first Adam sinned but I the last Adam did not receive the stain of sin; let my righteousness benefit the sinner, let my death, imposed upon me unowed, benefit the debtor.  You are no longer able to hold man in endless death, for he conquered, overcame and crushed you through me.  You were not truly conquered through power, but by justice; not by domination, by rather by equity.”  Thus the Enemy vomited up what he had gulped down and justly there was taken away from him what he used to hold, since unjustly he dared to infringe upon that which under no arrangement was his concern.

Behold, dearly beloved brothers, how much I deem that a reason has been given for why our Lord and Saviour freed the human race from the power of the Devil not through power but through humility, not through violence but through justice.  For this reason let us, to whom the divine compassion gave so many benefits with no preceding merits of our own, labour as much as we are able with the help of that same divine compassion so that the grace of so great a love should not produce a judgment for us but a reward.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sometimes Judgment is Mercy

disturbing

At one point in his work Disturbing Divine Behavior, Eric Seibert presses his readers with a choice, “God either is or is not merciful” (173). If we decide God is merciful, then we should recognize that all texts involving violent judgment sit uncomfortably with that basic axiom.

At which point, we might realize it is wise to make a distinction as Seibert does between the “textual God” given in these violent narratives and the “actual God” who is merciful. You can have a coherent God or try to affirm all the contrasting portraits of God in Scripture, but you can’t do both.

W. Derek Suderman raises a number to telling criticisms of Seibert’s work (“Wrestling with Violent Depictions of God: A Response to Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior” Direction 40/2 [2011]), but the one I want to focus on is his complication of the matter of God’s mercy. He does so by pointing out the apparent contrast between the prophetic portrayals of God’s relationship to Nineveh in Nahum and Jonah.

The book of Jonah famously tells the story of God’s forgiveness–at least temporarily–of Nineveh in the face of their repentance. God threatens judgment, but then relents. Nahum, on the other hand, prophesies the Lord raining down judgment, fury, and violent destruction upon Nineveh for its iniquities, sins, and gross wickedness.

What’s funny is that both Jonah and Nahum appeal to God’s self-definition in Exodus 34:6-7. Jonah highlights the fact that he is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger” (Jonah 4:2), while Nahum notes that while he is “slow to anger”, he is “great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty” (Nahum 1:3). Both prophets are wrestling with what it looks like for the fullness of God’s character to be exercised and revealed in history.

Now, Suderman points out that against Seibert’s suggestion that we allow historical-critical criteria help us to discern the textual God versus the actual God, things don’t work out cleanly for him here. We know Nineveh and the Assyrians did actually have the hammer laid on them by the Babylonians. But that’s violent. Meanwhile, on a historical-critical read (which I’m not endorsing), Jonah is the historically more dubious prophecy–but it’s the nice, merciful God Seibert wants.

More than that, though, Suderman points out that the situation itself reveals how facile the choice between a God who either is or is not merciful is when posed with respect to God’s historical dealings. For one thing, mercy conceptually assumes the propriety of judgment. Second, consider the context of Nahum’s prophecy of judgment against the Assyrians: it is one of comfort and mercy for Israel!

This is what the Lord says:

“Although they have allies and are numerous,
they will be destroyed and pass away.
Although I have afflicted you, Judah,
I will afflict you no more.
Now I will break their yoke from your neck
and tear your shackles away.” (Nahum 1:12-13)

If God’s punishment upon Israel is the exile and judgment executed by the Assyrians, then the judgment of God upon Assyria is actually the exercise of mercy towards Israel. Judging Assyria is God’s way of breaking the yoke from their neck. The same thing can be seen in God’s mercy towards Judah after the Babylonian exile. Babylon had to be judged, to fall at the hands of Persia, for Israel’s salvation and rescue to come. Conversely, if God were to show mercy to Assyria and Babylon forever, he would never show mercy to the people of Israel who live under their boot.

The same tension is at work in many other texts in the Prophets and the Psalms. Consider Psalm 6, David cries out for God to have mercy upon him (v. 1), to save him from his afflictions, and by the end of the psalm we see that means turning back his enemies and putting them to shame (v. 10). God’s mercy upon David, hearing his cries and pleas, means working against his enemies.

In God’s dealings with Israel and the nations, then, it is not a simple matter of God being merciful or exercising punitive justice. Rather, the questions of whom, why, when, and how to show mercy all enter into the portrait. This is the work of merciful judgment. And at times, that merciful judgment looks like exercising punishment against oppressors.

Soli Deo Gloria

“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 as a theology student, just how much you can get from applying yourself 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