Thoughts of a Living Christian

Musings of an amateur theologian and hopeful writer

Archive for the category “Philosophy and Ethics”

Jesus – God and Man

Introduction

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Jesus – God and Man[1] set a Christological precedent. He approached the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity with rigorous rational thought and historical-critical methodology, contemporary philosophical enquiry and sensitivity to tradition and ecumenacy, concluding that the majority of the core tenants of Christian orthodoxy are, in fact, sound doctrine, whilst placing high importance on Jesus’ resurrection. This latter point is what makes Pannenberg’s Christology distinctive: the resurrection must be the point of departure and the central concern for any discussion regarding Jesus’ divinity.

This essay shall analyse the theological landscape from whence Pannenberg’s Christological triumph emerged, through the turbulent responses to Enlightenment thinking, differing historical-critical arguments, philosophical, existential and eschatological speculation, to the theological positions that influenced Pannenberg’s Christology ‘from below,’ his desire to go behind the New Testament texts and assertions that Jesus’ resurrection is the key to unlocking the mystery of Jesus’ being. First shall be discussed the several broad categories of differing Christologies, before analysing the first two “historical quests for Jesus” and then how these have influenced theological approaches to Jesus’ resurrection in recent history. The essay shall conclude with a discussion of how Pannenberg emerged out of this theological landscape as a distinctive theologian in his own right.

The Theological Landscape

‘Types’ of Christology

Hans Frei broadly categorizes Christian theology into five ‘types.’ The first places theology within a purely philosophical discipline; the second gives weight to Christian self-description, but remains predominately a philosophical discipline; the third ambiguously merges the disciplines of philosophy with Christian self-description; the fourth gives Christian self-description superiority, but includes philosophical reflection; and the fifth has solely to do with Christian self-description, rejecting any other influence.[2] Ford expands these categories into a Christological context, and provides the following examples:[3]

  • Kant falls into the first Christological ‘type,’ arguing Jesus was a prototype for human morality.
  • Bultmann is an example of type two, who, engaging with the distinctive elements of the proclamation of Jesus, argued Christology has more to do with immediate and present experience of Jesus than anything else.
  • Schleiermacher fits into type three, for whom Jesus was both an historical person and the mediator of Christian experience.
  • Barth falls into type four, giving precedence to Christian self-description, arguing Jesus was both a particular human and God, and thus beyond normal human experience.
  • D. Z. Phillips, arguing there is no place for philosophy in the discussion about the biblical Jesus, is an example of the fifth type.

Apart from these five types, there are two distinct methodological approaches, commonly labelled as either Christology “from above,” and “from below.”[4] The former are exponents of traditional Chalcedonian Christology, insisting that the basis of Christological understanding is Christian kerygma, not historical-critical analysis, nor upon rational argument. Occasionally caricatured as Docetism, examples include Barth, Bultmann, and Brunner. Those who fall into the latter approach assert a necessity upon historical research, that the possibility exists to arrive at the divinity of Jesus as a conclusion rather than a presupposition. Käsemann and Pannenberg are examples of a Christology “from below,” and have received criticisms of reviving elements of Nestorianism.[5]

Historical Quests

A precursor for these two approaches to Christologiy is what has been labelled the “historical quest” for Jesus. The Enlightenment thinking of the 18th century began to question with unprecedented vigour the historicity (or lack thereof) of the Gospel narratives. A succession of authors in the 19th century sought to reconstruct the life of the ‘historical Jesus’ through stringent historical-critical scholarship, most concluding that the Jesus of the Christian faith was an invention of Christianity. Feuerbach (1804-1872) argued Christianity was mere introspection and Strauss (1808-1874) argued the supernatural elements in the gospel were myth, primitive expression of spiritual ideas. Strauss’ work demanded objectivity in historical research of Jesus, for the Gospels were not historically reliable. Strauss’ work influenced many others, including Renan’s Life of Jesus in the 1860s. Drews (1865-1935) argued the historical Jesus was a myth and hence the quest for the historical Jesus was pointless, and then Schweitzer (1875-1965) wrote The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its progress from Reimarus to Wrede in 1906, tracing the history of this quest, and insisted these attempts at the historical Jesus should stop, for they domesticate Jesus and had become more about the historian than the history. Schweitzer’s attack on the historical quest effectively stopped this first ‘quest.’

Kähler also had a significant role in the cessation of this Quest through his critique of its methodology in The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, in 1896. He argued it was impossible to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith; the only Christ academics should be interested in is the one preached through the ages. Searching for the historical was not only unsuccessful, but counterproductive. He also, however, argued faith should not be dependent on historical research, this latter statement greatly influencing Tillich and Bultmann who focussed not on the historical events of Jesus, but on the faith and teachings of the church, wherein meaning is found in existential encounter.[6] Witherington argues this separation causes problems, for Christian faith is based on historical events and thus separating the Jesus of history from the Jesus of Christian kerygma leads to a form of Gnosticism.

Until the second half of the 20th century, the academic quest for the historical Jesus was nonexistent. However, in 1953 a gathering of Bultmann’s former students launched a new revitalized quest for the historical Jesus, particularly in Käsemann’s (1906 – 1998) work. He argued against Bultmann’s assertion that the Gospels had no historical credibility and that Bultmann was too extreme in his scepticism about what could be known of Jesus. Bornkamm (1905 – 1990) had an influential role in this second quest. His publication, Jesus of Nazareth in 1956, argued that by applying critical scholarship we can know something about the historical Jesus.[7] This paved the way for Pannenberg, who insisted that, in fact, we can know something about Jesus only by applying critical scholarship.

The Resurrection

Fergusson begins his historical analysis of the doctrine of the resurrection with the simple question: “Is the resurrection an event in the life of Jesus or an event in the life of the believer?”[8] He argues the different doctrines can be divided into three broad positions: radical, liberal, and traditional. The ‘radical’ and ‘liberal’ positions argue there was no historical resurrection; the former posits the resurrection is a reference to faith itself, the latter that it is myth emerging out of faith. The ‘traditional’ position claims the resurrection was an historical event in Jesus’ life which gave rise to that faith. Bultmann and Marxsen are examples of theologians who fit into the ‘radical’ position, Küng and Schillebeeckx into the ‘liberal’ position, and Barth and Pannenberg into the ‘traditional’ position.[9]

According to Schleiermacher (1768-1834), the only support for the resurrection of Christ comes from Scripture, which is historically unreliable. After a detailed historical analysis of the Gospels, he concludes that much of what was said during Jesus’ life, pre- and post-resurrection, were the result of redaction. He then questions why Jesus would devote his time after his resurrection strictly to a few, rather than many, which would clearly have a greater impact. Furthermore, he argues the resurrection has no significance for Christ or the individual, for the cross itself has no redemptive significance.[10] However, he does not deny the historicity of the resurrection, for that would mean Jesus chose his disciples poorly as unreliable testimonies, or that he intended to deceive humanity. The resurrection is therefore a kerygmatic tool arising out of the disciples’ faith who “recognized in Him the Son of God without having the faintest premonition of His resurrection and ascension.”[11]

There seems to be some tension present in Schleiermacher’s understanding of Scripture. On the one hand he refuses to acknowledge the reliability of the resurrection accounts, but on the other does not question the disciples’ statements about Jesus. Furthermore, while the biblical accounts attest to the disciples’ acknowledgment of Jesus as Christ, none of them addressed Jesus as God until Thomas did so after the resurrection. Hieb details a further inconsistency within Schleiermacher’s theological schema, in particular regards to his positivistic nature-system which inherently disallows supernatural miracles. His doctrine of reconciliation denies the need for resurrection and his nature-system denies the possibility of resurrection – yet he refuses to deny Christ’s resurrection.[12] As is evident, there is ambiguity to Schleiermacher’s interpretation of the resurrection and unresolvable tensions. His doctrine is thus irrevocably untenable.

Strauss interpreted all stories through the lens of myth and thus any hint of supernaturalism was denied from a historical perspective. He “regarded the Gospels as a hopeless conglomeration of mythical stories from which no trustworthy picture of Jesus could ever be won,”[13] arguing that either Jesus had not really died, or he had not really been raised. The resurrection was, rather, a primitive myth. Similarly, Tillich (1886-1965) rejected the notion of Christ’s bodily resurrection and insisted it was a metaphor, a reference to the return of Jesus to Christ in the minds of the disciples.[14] For Troeltsch (1865-1923), historical-critical methodology threatened traditional dogmatics. If certain traditions or ‘facts’ did not correspond to present experience – such as the resurrection – it is deemed improbable. His aim was to present Christianity purely as an historical phenomenon compatible with historical-critical methods.[15] Ruling out any supernatural explanation, he concluded that “Christianity is in actuality the strongest and most concentrated revelation of personalistic religious apprehension.”[16] While viewing Christianity as the highest religious truth, in regards to morality, the resurrection must be denied on a historical basis – we do not experience people resurrecting today, therefore we cannot say that anyone has in the past.

Bultmann (1884 – 1976) believed that what is significant is the ongoing, existential meaning of the cross and resurrection. More important than any historical evidence is the individual’s experience of Christ in the present. Like Tillich he viewed the resurrection as metaphor, but insisted that the resurrection should not be understood as an event of past history, nor can its saving significance be proven historically. Instead, it represents “the elevation of the Crucified One to the status of Lord,”[17] a belief arising out of the early Christians’ proclamation to be prepared for his imminent return. According to Bultmann, “The resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost and the parousia of Jesus are one and the same event, and those who believe have already eternal life.”[18]

For Barth (1886 – 1968), the resurrection was entirely a work of the Father, and it was unnecessary for redemption. Reconciliation occurred in and through Jesus’ obedient life and death, and so Christ’s resurrection was a sovereign act of God’s free grace as an entirely new act – as was the creation of the cosmos. However, the resurrection functions epistemologically; “In His resurrection He reveals Himself as the One He is – the genuine, true and righteous man, the real man, who kept the covenant which all others broke.”[19] It does not alter who Jesus is, yet there is definite transformation. He is “the same whole man, soul and body,” who “rises as He dies,”[20] yet it “crowns this event [of Jesus’ ministry on Earth] as its disclosure and revelation.”[21]

For Barth, “The resurrection is an event in the life of Jesus that gives meaning to the disciples’ faith and to ours today through the power of the Holy Spirit and thus through faith.”[22] Furthermore, “It is…an objective event within history whose meaning is always tied to Jesus himself as subject and object and thus requires faith in him to be understood.”[23] Jesus was a particular man in a particular time, and is saviour only so long as he, his incarnation and resurrection, are historical events. However, understanding these events cannot come through normal historical-critical methods, rather can only be understood through faith, given through our unification with the risen Jesus by the Holy Spirit. He argues that his death and resurrection “must be understood in the flesh, as a real event, yet not as a single event or as many single events, but as the totality of the event of the existence of Jesus.”[24] For Barth, the resurrection is an historical event but is unlike any other historical event; it is God’s history with humanity, more than it is empirical human history.[25]

Rahner (1904 – 1984) attempts to hold the resurrection as both an event in Jesus’ life and as an event within the faith of the disciples. He insists the resurrection be linked to the cross, arguing it is “the manifestation of what happened in the death of Christ,”[26] and in his resurrection, the transfiguration and renewal of the world has begun; in his death and resurrection, Christ is the fulfilment and consummation of all of creation.[27] According to Rahner,

The resurrection of Christ is essentially…the event in which God irrevocably adopts the creature as his own reality, by his own primordial act, as he had ‘already’ done in the incarnation of the Logos. It is likewise the event in which God so divinizes and transfigures the creature that this glorification is accomplished as the total acceptance of this divine assumption by the freedom of the creature itself.[28]

The resurrection was an actual, historical event that gave rise to faith, but without faith there would be no resurrection, as Molnar notes, “The resurrection of Jesus is not a historical fact existing independently of the disciples’ faith and ours.”[29] While it was an historical event, it cannot be understood as any other historical event, for it does not exist within our normal realm of experience of empirical and recurring data. The resurrection cannot be separated from faith for “it is only in this faith that its own essential being is fully realized.”[30] In this faith we receive and experience Christian hope, for since Jesus has been raised, we can hope for our own resurrection, which shall be a resurrection into Jesus himself.[31]

Where Rahner links the resurrection to hope, Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009) links it to Christ’s glorification: “Jesus’ resurrection is directly associated with his exaltation.”[32] The empty tomb tradition did not lead to the belief in Christ’s resurrection, rather God exalted Jesus to the heavenly places after his death, which in effect was his resurrection, and thus resulted in the tales of the empty tomb as a consequence. He argues the early Christians would have reflected upon Apocalyptic texts such as Wisdom of Solomon, and concluded that upon his death, Jesus lived on in God. Therefore, the resurrection of Christ is merely a reference to his exaltation into the heavenly places, and not a literal historical event. Yet through this exaltation, “God’s definitive saving action has been accomplished.”[33] Macquarrie, reflecting upon this position, concludes that simple contemplation upon a passage would not result in the dramatic turnaround in the disciples’ lives – something had to have happened to cause them to insist, to their deaths, that Christ was risen.[34]

For Moltmann (1926 – present), the resurrection represents the antithesis to Christ’s crucifixion. The former represents death and the absence of God, the latter represents life and the presence of God. Despite this contradiction, Jesus remains the same man, though in his cross he is identified with sin and death and in his resurrection is identified with God’s promises. The Christian hope arises out of this resurrection, wherein the general resurrection, the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the new re-creation of all, are ensured.[35]

Conclusion: The Arrival of Pannenberg

This essay has attempted to outline the major theological currents that paved the way for Pannenberg’s Christological publication, Jesus – God and Man. To be noted, of special interest, is the sheer diversity of Christological assertions and how these conclusions have been influenced by an even greater diversity of factors, including philosophical presuppositions and approaches to the role of historical research. The essay began with an overview of Ford’s five ‘types’ of Christologies; with Bultmann, Pannenberg fits into the second type, in that his study of Jesus had as its foundation a rigorous historical-critical methodology. He refused to accept, without question, Christian self-description and kerygma, seeking to go behind the early church proclamation to find the real, historical Jesus. He insisted that “the task of Christology is to establish the true understanding of Jesus’ significance from his history,” and thus “all statements…are to be tested in the light of Jesus’ history.”[36] Emerging out of the ‘Second Quest’ for the historical Jesus, Pannenberg argued that it’s not just possible to discover the real Jesus through historical-critical methodology, but, in fact, we can discover the real Jesus only through historical-critical methodology.

Evidently, Pannenberg approaches Christology from below and provides three reasons why a Christology from above is not feasible:[37]

  1. It presupposes Christ’s divinity. Determining who Jesus was and is is the primary task of Christology, and thus nothing can be presupposed or assumed.
  2. It does not fully recognize the distinctive elements and attributes of the historical human figure. For example, if a universal nature is presupposed in Christ’s being, Jesus’ relationship with historical Judaism loses importance.
  3. It assumes a position any human interpreter cannot inhabit: the position of God himself. We can only ever think from a humanly, historical perspective.

While he would fit into Fergusson’s ‘traditional’ position on the resurrection, with Barth, Pannenberg’s position is very different to Barth’s, due to Barth’s methodology being a Christology from above. Where Barth placed emphasis on the epistemological significance of the resurrection, Pannenberg prescribed it a greater ontological significance, arguing,

Only because in Jesus’ resurrection the end of all things, which for us has not yet happened, has already occurred can it be said of Jesus that the ultimate already is present in him, and so also that God himself, his glory, has made its appearance in Jesus in a way that cannot be surpassed. Only because the end of the world is already present in Jesus’ resurrection is God himself revealed in him…[and] in Jesus, God himself has appeared on earth.[38]

In other words, the resurrection – and the eschatological significance inherent within it –ontologically determines Jesus’ divinity. McClean expands,

[Pannenberg] argues that the Easter event ‘determines’ the meaning of Jesus’ life and his relationship with God. That is, the proper understanding of Jesus’ life and his identity depend on the resurrection, not simply for their being known, but for their being what they are.[39]

Pannenberg’s Christology in Jesus – God and Man is progressive and groundbreaking. Though his thought didn’t change dramatically as he aged,[40] it did develop and thus there are evident differences in his Christology in his later publication Systematic Theology, where a greater anthropological emphasis leads to slightly different conclusions regarding Jesus’ humanity and our relation to him.However, the purpose of this research is on his early work and as such, such discussion is best left elsewhere. Though technically falling into Fergusson’s ‘traditional’ position, he clearly is anything but.

 

References

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Trans. H. Knight, G. W. Bromiley, J. K. S. Reid, R. H. Fuller. Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1960.

Bauckham, Richard. “Jürgen Moltmann.” In The Modern Theologians, edited by David F. Ford.2nd ed. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Bloesch, Donald G. Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997.

Bradshaw, Timothy. Pannenberg: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: T&T Clark International, 2009.

Bray, G. L. “Christology.” In New Dictionary of Theology, edited by Sinclair B. Ferguson, and David F. Wright. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.

Bultmann, Rudolf. Jesus Christ and Mythology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958.

Edwards, Denis. “The Relationship Between the Risen Christ and the Material Universe.” Pacifica 4, no 1. (1991)

Eitel, Adam. “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: Karl Barth and the Historicization of God’s Being.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 10, no 1. (2008)

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998.

Fergusson, David. “Interpreting the Resurrection.” Scottish Journal of Theology 38, no 3. (1985)

__________. “Barth’s Resurrection of the Dead: Further Reflections.” Scottish Journal of Theology 56, no 1. (2003)

Ford, David. “Christology.” In The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, edited by Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh Pyper. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Ford, David F. and Mike Higton. Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Frei, Hans W. Types of Christian Theology. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Gilbertson, Michael. God and History in the Book of Revelation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Grenz, Stanley J. and Roger E. Olson. 20th-Century Theology. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Haight, Roger. Jesus: Symbol of God. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999.

Harris, Horton. David Friedrich Strauss and his Theology. London: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Hieb, Nathan D. “The Precarious Status of Resurrection in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre.International Journal of Systematic Theology 9, no 4. (2007)

Janssen, Claudia. “Bodily Resurrection (1 Cor. 15)? The Discussion of the Resurrection in Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Dorothee Sӧlle and Contemporary Feminist Theology.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 79. (2000)

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospel. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.

Macquarrie, John. Jesus Christ in Modern Thought. London: SCM Press, 1990.

McClean, John. From the Future: Getting to Grips with Pannenberg’s Thought. Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2013.

McGrath, Alister E. The Making of Modern German Christology. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1986.

Molnar, Paul D. Incarnation and Resurrection: Toward a Contemporary Understanding. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man. Translated by Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane A. Priebe. London: SCM Press, 2002.

Rahner, Karl. Theological Investigations. Vol. 4. Trans. Kevin Smyth. London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., 1974.

__________. Foundations of Christian Faith. Translated by William V. Dych. London: Darton Longman & Todd Ltd., 1978.

Schillebeeckx, Edward. Jesus: An Experiment in Christology. Translated by Hubert Hoskins. London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1979.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. The Christian Faith. Ed. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1968.

__________. The Life of Jesus. Ed. Jack C. Verheyden. Translated by S. Maclean Gilmour. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

Schwӧbel, Christoph. “Wolfhart Pannenberg.” In The Modern Theologians, edited by David F. Ford.2nd ed. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Smith, J. W. D. “The Resurrection of Christ: Myth or History?” The Expository Times 72, no 12. (1961)

Thiselton, Anthony C. The Two Horizons. Exeter, UK: The Paternoster Press, 1980.

Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Digswell Place, Great Britain: James Nisbet and Company Ltd., 1968.

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Absoluteness of Christianity. Translated by David Reid. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1971.

Witherington III, Ben. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997.

 

Footnotes

[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus – God and Man, trans. Lewis L. Wilkins and Duane A. Priebe (London: SCM Press, 2002).

[2] Hans W. Frei, Types of Christian Theology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). 28-55.

[3] David F. Ford, “Christology,” in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). 116-118.

[4] G. L. Bray, “Christology,” in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. Sinclair B. Ferguson, and David F. Wright (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998). 137-140. He argues this splits Christology into two opposing camps.

[5] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998). 684. Cf. Pannenberg. 1-11.

[6] Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997). 6-11. Also, Michael Gilbertson, God and History in the Book of Revelation (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003). 11-16.

[7] Witherington. 11. Though the second quest was largely a reaction to Bultmann, his influence remained, portraying Jesus as an existentialist philosopher (p. 11).

[8] David Fergusson, “Interpreting the Resurrection.” Scottish Journal of Theology 38, no 3. (1985). 287.

[9] Ibid. 287-305. Cf. Paul D. Molnar, Incarnation and Resurrection: Toward a Contemporary Understanding (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007).

[10] It is not within the scope of this essay to detail and critique Schleiermacher’s understanding of redemption, but in short the satisfaction of sin is found not in the suffering, but in the active obedience of Christ throughout his life. If humanity’s sin is infinite then the punishment must equally be infinite. Christ’s death, having occurred within time and space, is not infinite and thus cannot satisfy the punishment for sin. Reconciliation comes through Christ’s obedience, and that obedience is transmitted to those who have fellowship with Christ (Cf. Nathan D Hieb, “The Precarious Status of Resurrection in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 9, no 4. (2007). 401-03).

[11] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith. Edited by H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1968). 418. Cf. Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Life of Jesus. Edited by Jack C. Verheyden. Translated by S. Maclean Gilmour (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975). 392-465.

[12] Hieb. 399, 407-14.

[13] Horton Harris, David Friedrich Strauss and his Theology (London: Cambridge University Press, 1973). 272.

[14] Stanley J. Grenz, and Roger E. Olson, 20th-Century Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992). 129; Paul Tillich. Systematic Theology (Digswell Place, Great Britain: James Nisbet and Company Ltd., 1968). Cf. Alister E. McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1986). 37-38.

[15] Gilbertson. 3-4.

[16] Ernst Troeltsch, The Absoluteness of Christianity. Translated by David Reid (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1971). 111-12.

[17] Grenz and Olson. 95.

[18] Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958). 33. Cf. J. W. D. Smith, “The Resurrection of Christ: Myth or History?” The Expository Times 72, no 12. (1961). 372-73.

[19] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. Ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Trans. H. Knight, G. W. Bromiley, J. K. S. Reid, R. H. Fuller (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1960). III/2, 214. Cf. Adam Eitel, “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: Karl Barth and the Historicization of God’s Being.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 10, no 1. (2008). 38. Cf. p.40 – “Barth understands Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead as the event in which God the Father acted unnecessarily and graciously.”

[20] Barth. III/2, 327.

[21] Ibid. III/2, 337.

[22] Molnar. 1.

[23] Ibid. 6.

[24] Barth. III/2, 337.

[25] Ibid. 8-14. Cf. Claudia Janssen, “Bodily Resurrection (1 Cor. 15)? The Discussion of the Resurrection in Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Dorothee Sӧlle and Contemporary Feminist Theology.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 79 (2000). 64.

[26] Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations. Vol. 4. Trans. Kevin Smyth (London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., 1974). 128. Furthermore, the death of Christ was “the imposed and enforced handing over of the whole bodily man to the mystery of the merciful loving God, by the concentrated freedom of Christ as he disposes of his whole life and existence,” (p. 128).

[27] Denis Edwards, “The Relationship Between the Risen Christ and the Material Universe.” Pacifica 4, no 1. (1991). 11-12.

[28] Rahner. Theological Investigations. 128-29.

[29] Molnar. 63.

[30] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith. Translated by William V. Dych (London: Darton Longman & Todd Ltd., 1978). 267-68.

[31] Molnar. 45-66. Cf. Rahner. 267-68 – “Jesus is risen into the faith of his disciples…that faith which knows itself to be a divinely effected liberation from all the powers of finiteness, of guilt and of death, and knows itself to be empowered for this by the fact that this liberation has taken place in Jesus himself and has become manifest for us.”

[32] Edward Schillebeeckx. Jesus: An Experiment in Christology. Translated by Hubert Hoskins (London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1979). 533.

[33] Ibid. 543.

[34] John Macquarrie. Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (London: SCM Press, 1990). 311-312.

[35] Richard Bauckham, “Jürgen Moltmann,” in The Modern Theologians, edited by David F. Ford. 2nd ed. (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1997). 210-213.

[36] Pannenberg. 12. Emphasis mine.

[37] Ibid. 17-18.

[38] Ibid. 59.

[39] John McClean. From the Future: Getting to Grips with Pannenberg’s Thought (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2013). 99-100.

[40] It should be noted at this point that his earlier work is marked but a focus on methodology, as seen in his works Revelation as History and Basic Questions in Theology, thereby establishing his theological schema for healthy growth and development. Hence his overall direction taken in his theological work remained true and did not change or wave.

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Positive Positivism?

What is Positivism?

It’s not a way of life that insists you remain happy all the time. It’s got nothing to do with magnets and electricity. And it doesn’t have anything to do with chemistry or physics, per se.

Positivism is a philosophy that insists that the only true statement is a statement that can be proved through empirical evidence. You’re probably aware of this way of thinking, even if you didn’t know what it was called – or that it even had a name. The insistence upon measurable evidence based proof comes from a Positivistic methodology.

This way of thinking is extremely pervasive in the world today, even in an increasingly postmodern world…whatever that may mean.

There are many good things about this philosophy, things I think make an extremely large amount of rational sense. However, there are aspects of this philosophy that I think are irrational and perhaps harmful.

If the only things that can be considered true are those things that can be measured, our science is restricted. We are limited by what we already know, or are at least restricted to a short field of view. What I mean by this is that we are restricted by rules that we have constructed based on recurring patterns that we have observed in the observable, material universe.

However, I have two concerns with this:

  1. In the world we live in, occasionally things happen that defy these rules. Events occur that are un-explainable because they are outside the rules we have created.
  2. Science is continually updating with new evidence, and old rules become obsolete. If we restrict ourselves to the rules we have already created, we deny ourselves further scientific development. Any development is restricted to a very limited field of view before us, constrained by observable and measurable rules.

Let’s take Jesus’ resurrection for example. Our experience of this material universe tells us that dead people do not come back to life. The 19th century philosopher and theologian David Strauss argued that because we don’t experience resurrections today we cannot say there ever has been any. This is a very Positivistic way of thinking.

But just because resurrections don’t regularly occur doesn’t mean we should insist they don’t happen at all.

Just because something lies beyond the rules we have constructed doesn’t mean we should believe them to be false. If we were to insist on this, we would never make any scientific progress at all. There will always be things lying outside of our observable rules; we will always revise old rules and expand our present knowledge. But to do so requires that we do not immediately reject those things that defy our present rules.

Hence I believe we should construct a revised Positivism.

I do not wish to reject Positivism outright, for I believe there must be precedence given to recurring patterns. Earth gravity will always cause things to fall down, not up, and will always stop me from floating into space. One plus one will always equal two. Applying enough heat to plain water will always cause it to heat up enough to make my coffee. Drinking too much of my 15 year old Glenfiddich in one night is never a good idea.

There must always be space for measurable rules.

But there must always be space in our understanding for those things that defy our present understanding. We must always leave space for those things that are un-explainable, confusing, bewildering and surprising. We must always leave space for mystery.

Yes, apply a reasonable amount of critical skepticism to these things that lie beyond our rules, but do not immediately reject them.

A revised Positivism encourages measurable evidence without immediately rejecting the immeasurable. It encourages skepticism but leaves space for the mysterious.

A revised Positivism allows reason and faith in God to coexist in harmony. It allows a belief in Jesus’ resurrection, as well as our own future resurrection. It allows scientific progress to stand side by side with a belief in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

Let us not deny what God has done, but let us not deny God all together.

What Part of “Free Will” is Free?

The contemporary concept of freedom pertains to the capacity to objectively decide on a single, particular course of action, out of a numerous array of possible actions. Freedom is the ability to do whatever one pleases without limitation, having recognized and understood all possible actions and inevitable consequences. To an extent, however, this freedom does not exist. All human action is influenced by feeling and emotion, subjective experience and influence, particular worldviews and value systems, and all human action is held in tension with laws, societal customs and norms, common etiquette, etc. We cannot simply do whatever we please if it is forbidden by law, or previous experience tells us it results in negative consequences. Of course, we can do this, but reason compels us to do otherwise.

But if feelings and experience influence our reasoning capacity – a wholistic view of the human, as opposed to Hellenistic division between psyche and soma – doctrines of sin and anthropology, and inevitably soteriology, are affected. It’s clearly biblical that at our core, humans are sinful and in fact hostile toward God (Rom. 5; Eph. 2). James tells us that what is at our core will come out in our actions and speech (James 2). In other words, our innermost emotions influence our cognitive processes. What we think to be reasonable is determined by what we have learned. What we think is reasonable, therefore, is determined by sin; we are all slaves to sin (Rom. 6; John 8). Hence, humanity cannot be anything other than hostile toward God, thus we do not – we cannot – have the freedom of will to turn toward God.[1]

The debate between Erasmus and Luther reflect similar perspectives, but I have difficulty with both. Luther’s perspective leads inexorably, despite Forde’s objections otherwise, to a deterministic perspective of God’s divine will.[2] Luther makes a distinction between the will over those things that are below us, such as time and money, etc. and that which is above us, such as God and the life he offers. The former is under our free control, the latter is not. For Luther, we, as humans, literally do not have the strength to break our bondage, for we are prisoners of sin and of Satan. We are justified, not by our own merit, for we have none, but through God’s gift of righteousness. Furthermore, we are justified, not on our ability to trust God, for we cannot, but on God’s calling and creating within us the capacity to respond.[3]

It is that last little part of Luther’s argument that bothers me tremendously. He argues that we are slaves either to Satan or to God, and it is entirely up to God to decide which, for even Satan is under God’s control. You cannot deny it: Luther’s God elects some for salvation, and elects others for damnation. This I believe is a serious problem. John 3.16 says God loves the world and 1 John 2.2 says Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Luther’s absolute rejection of free will leads him to an abhorrent God. And he defends this position as an attribute of God’s love by essentially arguing we should ignorantly put our heads in the sand; God’s hidden purposes are not to be questioned, and we cannot know these purposes until the end of time. This to me seems to be a copout.[4] Barth argued vehemently against this dualistic nature of God; there is no hidden purpose to God, for God is revealed fully in Christ. The picture we have of Christ is one of love, whose teachings underscore the universal scope of his activity (not a limited atonement theory).

Either none of us are elect, or all of us are elect. Either we are all permanently bound to reject God, or we all have an opportunity to respond to God’s gift of righteousness. Our will, clouded by darkness, will always shrink away from the light. Like gazing into the sun, our eyes adjusting to the brightness, we can uncomfortably allow the light of the Son to overcome us until it is no longer uncomfortable, or we can turn away, retreating back into the darkness that we for so long have found so comfortable.

 

References

Forde, G. O., The Capitvation of the Will: Luther vs. Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 47-59.

Packer, James I., “Luther Against Erasmus” Concordia Theological Monthly, Vol. 37 no. 4 (1966), 207-221.

Rupp, E. G., “The Erasmian Enigma” in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation (Library of Christian Classics Vol. XVII; London: SCM, 1969), 1-28.


[1] Forde recounts part of Luther’s argument, arguing that we cannot accept God’s predestination and election, for as humans our inability prevents us – we are bound to say no to God, (Gerhard O. Forde, The Captivation of the Will: Luther vs. Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005). 50).

[2] Forde, The Captivation of the Will. 47-59.

[3] James I. Packer, “Luther Against Erasmus” Concordia Theological Monthly, Vol. 37 no. 4 (1966), 207-221.

[4] NB: I use that term cautiously, for Luther was an incredible man and an excellent theologian.

Once saved, are you saved forever?

The purpose of this paper is to present a biblical and theological discussion of the highly debated and controversial topic of eternal security. Eternal security is the doctrine that once a person has become a Christian, they are Christian permanently and cannot slip out of salvation. There are varying theological positions, such as the Calvinist ‘Perseverance of the Saints’ (though many argue for the ‘Preservation of the Saints’), or ‘Once Saved, Always Saved,’ largely held by Reformed and Presbyterian traditions to varying degrees; or the belief that a Christian can, in fact, lose their salvation, held largely by Arminian, Wesleyan and Methodist traditions.

However, this paper is not a debate over tradition. When approaching any biblical interpretation, a presupposed theological bias will inevitably result in distorted exegesis and hermeneutics. Any systematic theology must be formed as a result of biblical interpretation, not vice versa. It is vital to avoid eisegesis. This does not disqualify the importance of systematic theology, but rather stresses the importance of correct order and methodology. Hence, this paper begins with a survey (albeit brief and certainly not exhaustive) of the relevant biblical material.[1]

Old Testament

A central theological theme in the Old Testament is that of covenant. The covenantal connotations pertinent to this discussion lie in, firstly, the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12-17) wherein Yahweh promised to build a nation out of Abraham’s descendants, and secondly, the Mosaic covenant wherein this nation would be blessed if she is obedient to the Torah or cursed if she is disobedient (Exod. 19-24). But above all is the promise that Yahweh would never leave, nor forsake Israel (Deu. 31).

Isaiah 54

This is like the days of Noah to me: just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you. For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you. (9-10)

vv. 1-17 of this chapter begin with a discussion on abandonment and loss, then leads to the sorrowful recognition that Yahweh had turned his face from them (v. 7), before recounting his oath made to Noah. God is shown as agent and source of transformation, whose covenant is more reliable than creation itself.

Jeremiah 14

Although our iniquities testify against us, act, O Lord, for your name’s sake; our apostasies indeed are many, and we have sinned against you. O hope of Israel, its saviour in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveller turning aside for night? Why should you be like someone confused, like a mighty warrior who cannot give help? Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us! Thus says the Lord concerning the people: Truly they have loved to wander, they have not restrained their feet; therefore the Lord does not accept them, now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins.

In the previous chapter Yahweh was threatening to ruin Judah and in this case it seems he is doing so through drought. And so they cry out to him, but their request – “act…for your name’s sake” – was a challenge against his character. They had it wrong, however, for this was a covenantal curse and thus it was the responsibility of Judah who needed to act. And so no assurance of salvation was offered. In fact, Yahweh then warned Jeremiah to not even pray for the people.[2] Not only had Israel wandered, but they enjoyed wandering, and so Yahweh would destroy them.[3]

 

These two passages are a snap shot of the Old Testament promises to the prophets of Israel regarding the fulfilment of the covenant. The former reveals that Yahweh did turn his face from the people in their time of sin, but then reassures them that it will never happen again; the latter reveals Yahweh’s justice, for the people sinned and, as was promised, punishment was given.

Many times these passages are used to argue either for or against the doctrine of eternal security, depending on how one interprets them. However, Old Testament texts such as these are irrelevant in the discussion. The covenants prior to Christ were entirely different to the Christocentric, New Testament covenant, as discussed above. Obedience led to blessing whereas disobedience led to cursing. Furthermore, Hebrew tradition focused predominately on a corporate context, rather than individuals. The covenant regarded ethnic Israel as object of Yahweh’s love, whom he would never forsake, rather than the individual Israelite.

Hence, texts commonly used in support of eternal security that are taken from the Old Testament are quite often taken out of context purely for the reason that the context is generally in relation to the Mosaic covenant of blessing/curses. From a New Testament perspective, Jesus has promised never to forsake his Church. He has promised to be with his Body and protect it from the gates of hell. But this cannot be immediately related to the individual Christian, just as the Mosaic covenant cannot be immediately related to the individual Israelite. In other words, the Old Testament covenants should not be used to support eternal security arguments, for they refer primarily to the corporate, whereas the issue at hand relates primarily to the individual.

Christ came to spread salvation beyond the property of Israel; the Gentiles were now a part of the family. As the Gospel spread it became evident that it was now about far more than just an ethnic group, for other people groups were now grafted onto God’s people. Hence there was more concern surrounding the issue of individual salvation, as opposed to corporate salvation. It is to these texts we now turn.

Matthew Texts

There is very little reference to eternal security in the synoptic gospels. The Johannine literature has an abundance of predestinarian theology, including eternal security, but interestingly there isn’t such an abundance in the synoptics. However, Matthew’s gospel does contain several references to this issue, which we’ll now look at.

Matthew 7

“Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire…Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” (19, 21-23)

The people Jesus is talking about in this passage are clearly people who at least thought they were Christians. And why shouldn’t they think they are Christians? Their list of credentials are impressive! I would be very happy to be able to say Jesus, “Look, Lord, at what I have done: prophesying, exorcisms, demonstrating your power!” But still Jesus says, “I never knew you.”[4] However, Jesus is here is pointing to a more important theme than outward actions. He is saying that more important than anything we could possibly do, even actions as impressive as this list, is to know our Lord Jesus Christ, implying a deep, intimate relationship. If we do not have this intimacy with Christ it does not matter what we do in his name. For Christ cares more for relationship than showmanship. Hence I do not believe this passage should be used, as has been used, to argue against eternal security. The emphasis of this passage, as with its surrounding context (Sermon on the Mount), is less about individual actions and more about the state of the heart. The question still remains however: can non-Christians do impressive acts such for Christ, such as prophesying, driving out demons, etc.?

Matthew 18

“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that any of these little ones should be lost.” (10-14)

This passage seems to make it very clear that God will not allow any to follow away. He is the Good Shepherd and will protect us. Should we stray, he will come after us and bring us back into the flock. Why? Because the Father would hate to see us be lost. However, I don’t think this passage should be used to argue for eternal security. The implication in this passage is the sheep was lost out of mere ignorance. It lost its step and fell away, because it didn’t know any better. We don’t know why the sheep was lost, perhaps it couldn’t hear the voice of the shepherd, perhaps it got distracted and went in a direction it wasn’t supposed to go, or perhaps it found a piece of particularly delicious grass and the flock moved on without it. Hence, the passage implies that God will not allow any of his sheep to fall away as a result of ignorance – this, then, doesn’t rule out the possibility of deliberately turning away from the shepherd.

Pauline Theology

A great deal of predestinarian theology comes from the Pauline corpus, which invariably is linked with the doctrine of eternal security. The great difficulty of Pauline theology of placing the particular epistle within its context, and placing the particular passage within its broader argument. One cannot simply read Galatians as though it were meant for the Colossians, nor the Corinthian correspondence as though it were meant for Timothy. The theology breadth, depth and variation of argument and themes within the Pauline corpus are vast and intimidating; it is only possible to understand the Pauline argument within their particular context.[5]

Romans 2, 10

For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. (2:6-8)

For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. (10:10)

These two passages essentially deal with the same issue: how one receives salvation. And they both a) place some responsibility on the individual, and b) imply an ongoing and continuous activity. Firstly, those whom God will justify and give eternal life must “by patiently doing good…seek for glory and honour and immortality,” and “believes with the heart and…confesses with the mouth.” Yet this does not imply a work-based salvation, rather it argues justification comes solely through believing, not works. Secondly, the implication is that salvation is a process. In 10.10 Paul makes a distinction between justification and salvation. Of course, this is more of a literary device than a precise dogmatic soteriological statement; to be justified is to be saved, and to be saved is justified.[6] Yet he seems to be making a distinction between a once of justification and an ongoing sanctification, similar to the idea of “patiently doing good.” Those who will be saved are those who patiently endure.[7]

Romans 8

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (38-39)

The central issue in this passage is the protective nature and vast love of God. God loves us so much he will protect us from anything that comes our away. Of course this protection pertains to our spiritual wellbeing, rather than to our physical bodies; there is nothing so powerful that can overcome God’s love for us. It has been argued that this passage reveals that we are protected even from our own will. Nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even us! This, I believe, is an unsatisfactory argument, for the passage says nothing about us and everything about God’s love.[8] Paul is emphasizing God’s great love for us, similar to Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Sons. To argue that this passage means we cannot wilfully leave the protective love of God is eisegesis, nor does it mean, however, that we can leave God’s protective love, for that is not the purpose of this passage.

1 Corinthians 15

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain. (1-2)

The function of this ­­­chapter is to correct those Christians who have gone astray. Some have argued against the physical resurrection of Jesus, and Paul, in this chapter, says that the resurrection is, in fact, vital for salvation. But here it implies that salvation is an ongoing action. He says the Corinthians are “being saved,” and then he uses the biggest theological word in the Christian language: “if.” Salvation comes, thus, if the Corinthians would hold firm to his teaching. Notice the ordering of this: Paul is not saying, “You are saved, so you will now stand,” rather he is saying, “Stand so that you will be saved.”

Ephesians 2

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (8-9)

This passage is fairly self-explanatory: Humans cannot possibly save themselves; it is only by the grace of God, his gift to us, that we can be saved. This is relevant to the discussion because a common argument against the Arminian/Wesleyan/Methodist position – that it is possible to lose salvation – is that this becomes a work-based soteriology. However, this is an incorrect assumption. The bible is extremely clear on the fact that humans cannot save themselves, and the Arminian position does not deny this. It is possible to reject the doctrine of eternal security and still place God and God alone as the source of salvation. Cf. James 2.24.

Philippians 1

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ…And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (6, 9-11)

Throughout Philippians there is tension between human and divine activity. According to Silva,

A point often ignored by commentators yet fundamental to this epistle [is] the tension that exists between the believers’ accountability for their own spiritual conduct and their need to rely totally on God’s grace to meet that obligation.[9]

That God will finish what he started is quite a clear indication of God’s activity, particularly in regard to internal sanctification. However, later the Philippians are urged to work out their own salvation in Christ (2.12). The implication is that God is doing something, but it will efficacious only when the Philippians allow it to be. They must work out this salvation for themselves.

1 Timothy 4

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. (1-2)

This passage is fairly straightforward: some will renounce Christianity, turning to “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” This is a very scary thought, that there are some who follow the teachings of demons. However, this passage is neither an assertion for or against eternal security, for there is no mention of whether those who renounce the faith were previously Christians or not. For all we know, this passage is warning us against atheism, or any other religion for that matter.

2 Timothy 2

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure: if we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself. (10-13)

The immediate thing that jumps out of this passage is the number of times “if” appears.


[1] Texts taken from the NRSV.

[2] Just as a sidenote, this a very interesting commandment. Why should Yahweh care if, and for what or whom, Jeremiah prays, if Yahweh had already made up his mind? The implication is that Jeremiah could indeed persuade Yahweh to change his mind.

[3] On a pastoral note, Yahweh then declared that the teachers were prophesying lies, leading the people astray. What struck me was the responsibility that is placed on those who preach the Word of God. Today, are we leading our people astray, or are we leading them toward righteousness? We are warned several times throughout the scriptures that leaders will need to give an account for what they have said and done, and will be responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of those we lead – tough words! Of course, God is a just and merciful God, but the bible places a lot of responsibility on church leaders!

[4] This is reminiscent of Jeremiah 9, where Yahweh is bringing justice upon Israel because “‘they refused to know me’ says the Lord,” (v. 6) which is probably one of the saddest things the bible records God of saying.

[5] This is, of course, required of any aspect of biblical interpretation. Accurate exegesis will never neglect context. The reason I stress this point is that far too many interpreters read Paul as though the epistles are 20 minutes old, written specifically to the Baptists in Western Australia, or the Evangelicals in the United States, in such a way that the epistles are amalgamated into one, rather than appreciating the texts as thousands of years old, written to specific groups of people that no longer exist with traditions that would seem alien to us, in a language not even spoken any more, paying close attention to the particular, specific and nuanced arguments of the individual epistles.

[6] I would probably argue that this a good example of how Paul argues for both a propitiatory and expiatory atonement.

[7] Scot McKnight’s book, The King Jesus Gospel, deals with this issue in great depth and well worth a read. His essential argument is that the mantra “justification by faith alone” has destroyed any need for an understanding of the broader narrative of Israel, which culminates only in the eschaton. God’s story has not finished, he argues, but will finish at the general resurrection. This is similar to Bonhoeffer’s ‘Costly Grace.’ I think I am inclined to agree.

[8] Of course, in saying that God loves us, Paul is indeed saying a huge amount about us. God loves us and so we are of infinite worth to him. However, the focus of the passage is entirely on God.

[9] Moisés Silva. Philippians (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2005). 45.

Once Saved, Always Saved?

I preached a sermon recently where the bible passage seemed to imply that someone could lose their salvation. It made me think.

The passage was Colossians 1:21-23:

And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before – provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.

Some translations use the word “if” instead of “provided that” but either way the implication is that a person is saved only so long as they remain established in the faith. The text looks to be very clear on the fact that the human will must always, continuously, be involved.

When someone hands you a gift you have to reach out and take it, and then you must hold onto it. If you don’t stretch out and take it, do you truly receive the gift? Of course not. And if you decide to drop the gift and break it, give it back, forget about it, neglect it, allow it grow old and dusty sitting on a bookcase in your office, do you really appreciate the gift? Certainly doesn’t seem like it.

So it is with salvation; the human will must respond in faith and acceptance.

I have heard the argument, “Well the people who allow the gift of salvation to grow old, to grow weary, to not remain steadfast in the faith, never truly received the gift of salvation in the first place.” I think this argument is somewhat naive. There are far too many warnings in the bible against becoming complacent, giving up on the faith, etc.

I have also heard the argument that eternal life means it’s eternal, therefore if we have eternal life it’ll last forever and thus cannot be partial. But this begs the question: what is eternal life? Jesus tells us what eternal life is in John 17:3 and there is no mention of time at all. Rather he says that eternal life is to know God. In other words eternal life is about having an intimate relationship with God the Father.

Is the word ‘eternal’ even a good translation? Probably not. The word aionios means pertaining to an age, aion meaning age. Aionios does not, therefore, mean immortality, or forever, or eternal. This is also why I do not believe hell is a permanent place of torture and punishment.

Hence, eternal life has nothing to do with living forever, but everything to do with an intimate relationship with God that we can experience right here, right now. Therefore, the argument that the eternal life Jesus gives lasts forever and thus cannot end, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny for it is an incorrect understanding of the relationship God offers.

Now let’s consider these two passages out of Hebrews:

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt. (6:4-6)

For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy “on the testimony of two or three testimonies.” How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? (10:26-29)

These passages make it pretty clear to me. “Those who have once been enlightened…tasted the heavenly gift…shared in the Holy Spirit,” etc. and have been sanctified,  can fall away and can profane “the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified.” You can experience the Holy Spirit, you can be sanctified, you can be given a new life and can still fall away.

Those who were once hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, are now reconciled by the blood of Christ – IF they continue steadfast in the faith. This passage certainly is Paul warning the Colossians not to become like those mentioned in the above two Hebrew passages. Paul is warning us not to become complacent so that we don’t slip away from the salvation given us.

The ideas of Perseverance of the Saints, and Once Saved, Always Saved, which aren’t technically the same thing, are both wrong. The myth that you cannot lose salvation has led to so many churches and so many Christians becoming bland, Spirit-less and devoid. We must – like Paul and the author of Hebrews…and Jesus himself (cf. Matt. 7.13-23) – warn our people, our churches, not to slip into complacency because the consequences are absolutely terrible.

Deuteronomy 7

Introduction

Deuteronomy 7 is a difficult passage to understand. Its themes and exhortations seem initially shocking. The command to destroy the Canaanites totally, and the labels ‘detestable,’ and ‘abhorrent’ imply a terrible genocide. Contemporary readers would find difficulty in seeing God as a God of love in this passage. However, this essay seeks to argue for this very understanding. The essay argues that this passage does, in fact, teach God’s love. The allusions to war and genocide do not contradict this core message. The essay shall initially exegete the passage, dividing the passage into three sections: vv.1-5, 6-15, 16-26. The focus of these sections will be analysing such things as the understanding of the seven nations and their destruction, the removal of idols and religious paraphernalia and treaties. Following this exegesis will be a theological reflection, wherein the essay shall probe the difficult question pertaining the purported justification of a ‘holy war.’ The essay shall conclude with a discussion on how this passage should be discussed within a contemporary, post-modern culture.

Exegesis

On a brief reading of this chapter, it is easy to come to the conclusion that it is callous. However, with the surrounding chapters is an admonition to remember God’s love and to cherish his gracious election. Furthermore, as Brueggemann asserts, “The intention of the chapter is to take deliberate steps so that the coming generation will choose covenant with YHWH.”[1] God has chosen his people, who must give themselves totally to him. Thus, idolatry is prohibited.[2] The chapter must be read as one unit, due to literary and conceptual themes and is carefully structured, centred on vv. 11-12, reference to the commandments, and is bordered by reference to Israel’s distinctive nature.[3] The emphasis of this passage lies in relationship; YHWH’s love toward Israel, and Israel’s response to YHWH.[4]

An area of exegetical contention lies in the specifics of the nations. Brueggemann argues this text was written no later than the eighth or seventh century, hence these seven nations are long extinct, “Thus the list of seven nations is an archaic slogan that represents, in context, any alien culture with its religious temptations for Israel.”[5] This seems, in some way, a scapegoat. However, his thesis is supported by Rofé who, after a long analysis of the text, concluded a second stratum of Deuteronomy was added during Josiah’s time, which includes this passage.[6] Furthermore, Kline and Cairns argue for a metaphorical reading; “The seven specified here possibly is a figure for completeness.”[7] Hence, it is likely these were not literal nations, but simply an allusion to God’s requirement of total purging.

This purging, known as the ban, was intended to keep Israel safe from idolatry. However, these nations were not simply ‘cleared away,’ but “stayed and became integrated into Israel…In this theological retrospect, the Deuteronomic writer is tacitly acknowledging that fact and tracing Israel’s apostasy to these indigenous influences.”[8] In other words, this purported later author, perhaps around the Exile, has accredited Israel’s present apostasy with this earlier influence of Pagan nations. Vv. 2-3 include prohibitions of treaties and marriages, which casts doubt on the command to annihilate all the Canaanites. Furthermore, Exodus 23 and Leviticus 18 reveal a different portrait of the entrance into the land; the Canaanites ‘disappearing’ in the former, and being ‘vomited out’ by the land in the latter. Thus, Brueggemann’s argument for an allegorical reading of the nations seems most likely.[9]

Brueggemann further regards this text as “articulation of Israel’s distinctiveness,” which begins with destroying “seductive alternatives.”[10] The alters, sacred stones and Asherah poles in v. 5 refer to Baal worship. The pillar identified a locale where a deity could be contacted, and often had male associations, even portraying a phallic symbol. The Asherim was the corresponding female symbol representing the fertility goddess. Hence we can surmise these images represented a setting for fertility rites.[11] Thus, as Miller argues, “the ban is grounded in the insistence on no accommodation to the religious practices of the inhabitants of the land.”[12] This is further insisted by the prohibition on marriage or treaties. Craigie helpfully states,

The Israelites were bound primarily by the berîṯ (covenant, treaty) with the Lord, and though this was a religious bond, it was also a political bond, for it set aside Israel as a distinctive nation among other nations. To make a treaty with other nations would indicate a lack of faithfulness on the part of the Israelites to their suzerain God. Likewise, the Israelites were forbidden to undertake a marriage alliance them; although there may be a prohibition of mixed marriages between Israelites and non-Israelites implicit here, the specific prohibition probably has in mind the forging of political treaties by means of marriage. This course of action, as with the making of a treaty (v. 2), would be an indication of compromise and could lead to a disruption of the covenant faithfulness to the one God…Thus both prohibitions (vv. 2-3) have in mind the preservation of the covenant relationship with the Lord by forbidding any relationship that would bring that first and most important relationship into danger.[13]

Involved in marriages was commonly the acceptance of one another’s religion. Hence, the need for covenantal faithfulness to YHWH is paramount. Israel’s relationship with YHWH certainly is the “most important relationship,” and thus they must respond in absolute obedience; exterminating other religious options and cultic installations ensured chaos would not swallow up this relationship and other religions did not tempt them away.[14]

Verses 6-15 make up the core of this passage, the focus being the Holy God’s election of Israel for covenantal relationship. The people are called to be “holy to the Lord your God,” which “here means separated for and belonging to” YHWH.[15] In other words, as holy people, they are YHWH’s exclusive property. Furthermore, they are not called to be holy, but are holy.[16] This separated them from other peoples and practices, further reflected in the assertion that “God has chosen you out of all the peoples of on the face of the earth” (v. 6).[17] They are also called YHWH’s “treasured possession,” meaning they are more valuable than all the other nations. As Brown states,

Moses knew that the only true God had made a unique covenant with his Israel, his greatly valued people. It was not that God lacked compassion for other nations or cared nothing for them; his universal sovereignty and unlimited love are amply illustrated elsewhere in this book. He deliberately chose Israel, however, to be a special instrument of his purposes in the world.[18]

The phrase “set his affection (v. 7) comes from the verb implying a strong physical desire a man would have for an attractive woman. Thus, YHWH’s intimate love is evident.[19] This intimate love is, however, not based in any excellence on Israel’s part; there is nothing about the people that would cause YHWH to choose to love them. In fact, they were “the fewest of all peoples.” Why then does YHWH choose them of all people? Because he loves them. Cairns labels this a “wonderful tautology: God loves because God loves!”[20] They are holy people, not because of inherent merit, but because of divine election.[21] Hence, this passage is warning against pride.[22]

The passage then includes requirements of the people; God’s chosen nation is to be obedient in response to his gracious election. According to Brueggemann, “The relationship is grounded in free grace, but it operates according to symmetrical expectations in which there is no easy, assured forgiveness.”[23] Continual obedience, however, does not imply achieving merit, but rather maintains the proper covenant relationship. Their health and prosperity depended upon such obedience. YHWH would be their ‘fertility God’ over and above the Canaanite gods, and would provide no agricultural setbacks. The terms ‘grain,’ ‘wine,’ ‘offspring,’ and ‘young’ are also names of Canaanite deities, but, as Chritsensen argues, the people were likely unfamiliar with these terms.[24] The point is that there is no other god who the Israelites need; YHWH can and will provide everything. However, the people must reciprocate this covenantal faithfulness. The “horrible diseases you knew in Egypt” is likely a reference to diseases such as elephantiasis, skin boils, eye and bowel afflictions, among others, which were common in Egypt.[25]

Verses 16-26 then return to the command to destroy everything in Canaan, and to destroy the land’s inhabitants. Israel is threatened by these people and their religion, “because they will talk Israel out of the obedience that is the prerequisite to its prosperity in the land of promise.”[26] Yet the focus is not on Israel’s strength, but on YHWH’s. They cannot allow their enemy’s strength to cause them to forget their Lord’s power, who should be their focus. They were to remember the miraculous signs and wonders that YHWH performed in Egypt and expect a repetition of such marvellous events, so long as they trusted him. This same God who rescued them from Egypt is to war on their behalf.[27]

Furthermore, verse 20 implies that YHWH has many possible courses of action, thus emphasizing the totality of his might.[28] The exact meaning is unclear however, particularly in reference to the ‘hornet’ (Cf. Exodus 23:28). Craigie argues it should be understood to refer to the inability of the Canaanites to find a hiding place from God.[29] Kline, alluding to it being understood as a symbol for Pharaoh’s power, argues it should be read as a reference to “the terror of God which, descending on Israel’s foes, produced panic and rout.”[30] Cairns argues for a reference to nature itself fulfilling YHWH’s purposes.[31] Of the three it is difficult to discern which is correct. It is likely the phrase is deliberately ambiguous, simply referring to YHWH’s absolute faithfulness to and power to achieve his promises. Thus, it could be one of these three, or it could be none, something which only YHWH knows.

Verse 22 reveals a slow conquest, wherein gradual growth and control will occur, while the Canaanites become less and less numerous and powerful. This avoids the danger of the “land returning to a primitive state of natural anarchy.”[32] To destroy a name completely, furthermore, was a common ancient Near East curse, meaning total annihilation, even out of history annals. The reason for this is to avoid idolatrous worship and contamination. Israel was to stay away from and remove anything abhorrent that would eventually destroy Israel.[33]

Theological Reflection

This chapter has certainly been seen by many as an abhorrent affront to modern sensibilities. Today, especially in a post-modern society, tolerance and acceptance are a must and anyone demanding genocide is deemed inhuman. One needs only look at Hitler to see brutal nationalism. According to Christensen, “The command to ‘utterly destroy them’ (7:2), without showing any mercy, is simply more than most people today can accept. Such language suggests fanaticism and intolerance.”[34] Furthermore, Millar regards, “These chapters have been dismissed as indefensible, vicious nationalism, which can have no relevance in the modern world. This is a pity, because such sentiments do justice neither to the wider Deuteronomic context nor to the passages themselves.”[35]

It is important to note that this is not historical recounting, but theological preaching. The author is urging Israel to obedience. However, this obedience is not “brutal free-for-all” but carefully controlled and “a unique command of the God who owns not only the land, but the whole earth.”[36] The command to destroy nations is not primarily a reference to warfare, but rather a recognition of the temptations of the Canaanite lifestyle and culture will face the Israelites, temptations which the author clearly believes will lead the nation to absolute destruction – the exact opposite reason YHWH saved the people from slavery in Egypt. The influence of this pagan nation must be purged.[37] Earl furthers this argument,

Deut 7 is concerned with the preservation of Israel’s distinctive identity in a way that encourages the transparent manifestation of the relationship between YHWH and Israel that is characterized by love. The preservation of this identity is developed in terms of the separation from idols and of the avoidance of relationships with non-Israelites, relationships that are assumed to lead to idolatry, since relationships of this sort entail allegiances that compete with allegiance to YHWH, compromising Israel’s relationship with YHWH, leading to diminishment and death.[38]

Furthermore, as Christensen argues, the text is to be read poetically. It is an expression of YHWH’s holiness. YHWH’s holiness – then, as today – demands an absolute avoidance of evil.[39] Thus, the call is to Torah obedience and the author admonishes avoidance at all cost of any cultural accommodation.[40]

In today’s society, pluralism is often not merely accepted, but applauded, observes Mann.[41] The concept of a single religious authority, let alone one brought about through genocide, is obviously one that causes many to shudder. This is especially so in an age where secularism and atheism is growing rapidly. Firstly, as this essay has argued above, the passage does not command absolute genocide. Rather, it is exhortation that the nation avoids any temptation that will lead to apostasy and thus destruction. Secondly, pertaining to religious pluralism and tolerance, how a Christian relates to a post-modern world is particularly difficult. How should one convince others that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, when they may simply respond by saying their truth is their truth and entirely up to them. This is a digression, but the point is clear, should we take the avoidance of temptations as seriously as this text argued the Israelites should?

Cunliffe-Jones argues,

Apart from the question of humanity, the issue which it raises for us is the relation between principle and human relationships in daily life. Loyalty to God is of course of the greatest importance, and we cannot expect never to give offence in doing this. But it is possible to offend against the corporate life of mankind by insisting unnecessarily on religious principle, and by failing to recognize that Christ and non-Christian share a common life in which both must, within limits, work together.[42]

In other words, sole loyalty to God and preaching the need for loyalty to this one God will cause offence in today’s culture, but the offence should not be in the way we present the Gospel, but from the cross of Christ itself. When we focus on religious principle that we become judgmental and separated from the world, we fail to see that we are, in fact, in this world and thus must work with the world. Cairns, quoting Matthew 5:43-45 implores that what is required is not a total elimination, but a transformation, of the enemy.[43]

Conclusion

In conclusion, Deuteronomy 7 is a magnificent exhortation for the Israelites to recognize YHWH’s holiness and to obey by keeping his commands. Inherent in keeping these commands is the rejection of all other possibilities, hence these temptations must be destroyed. This chapter, bordered by the admonitions to destroy these temptations is centred on the loving and gracious election of Israel. Initially, this passage may seem callous and harsh, but is a poetic recounting of YHWH’s love, and the covenantal relationship between the two. God is mighty to save a nation that is not great by any standard. He faithfully keeps the promises he made to the Fathers. He demands faithfulness from his people; obedience will result in blessing, but disobedience will result in curse. To avoid this curse, the people must remove any temptation.

In today’s culture, it is vital to teach this passage of not justifying any form of war. Though the passage may have been used historically to justify such wars as the Crusades, but the focus should remain on the Lord. We must understand God’s faithfulness through a Christological lens to the cross. God still loves his people absolutely faithfully, enough that he would send his Son. This passage can so easily be misinterpreted. But it absolutely must be read in terms of God’s faithfulness and gracious love.

Bibliography

Brown, Raymond. The Message of Deuteronomy. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993.

Brueggemann, Walter. Deuteronomy. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.

Cairns, Ian. Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

Christensen, Duane L. Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9. Nashvill: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001.

Craigie, Peter C. The Book of Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.

Cunliffe-Jones, H. Deuteronomy. London: SCM Press Ltd, 1971.

Earl, Douglas. “The Christian Significance of Deuteronomy 7.” Journal of Theological Interpretation 3, no. 1 (2009): 41-62.

Kline, Meredith G. Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy: Studies and Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963.

Mann, Thomas W. Deuteronomy. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.

McConville, J. G. Deuteronomy. Leicester, England: Apollos, 2002.

Millar, J. Gary. Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy. Leicester, England: Apollos, 1998.

Miller, Patrick D. Deuteronomy. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990.

Miller, Patrick D. The Way of the Lord. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007.

Rofe, Alexander. Deuteronomy. London: T&T Clark Ltd, 2002.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001). 93.

[2] Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990). 111; Thomas W. Mann, Deuteronomy (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995). 64. Evidently, this is an extension of the second commandment.

[3] J. G. McConville, Deuteronomy (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2002). Contra. Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9 (Nashvill: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001).

[4] Douglas Earl, “The Christian Significance of Deuteronomy 7,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 3, no. 1 (2009). 43 – “Deut 7 gives content to Deut 6:4-5, understood in terms of the preservation of this relationship and thus of the identity of the “elect” community. This is expressed here primarily in terms of unswerving allegiance to YHWH as life is lived with reference to torah.”

[5] Brueggemann. 94.

[6] Alexander Rofe, Deuteronomy (London: T&T Clark Ltd, 2002). 6.

[7] Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy: Studies and Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963). 68. Cf. Ian Cairns, Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992). 89.

[8] Cairns. 89. Cf. Rofé. 125.

[9] Cf. Earl. 44; Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976). 177.

[10] Brueggemann. 94. Cf. Craigie. 179; Christensen. 156 – “The paraphernalia of worship among the foreign peoples in the land was to be totally destroyed, so as to remove all temptations to follow pagan religious practices.”

[11] Cairns. 89.

[12] Patrick D. Miller, The Way of the Lord (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007). 85.

[13] Craigie. 178-179. Cf. Mann. 65; Raymond Brown, The Message of Deuteronomy (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993). 105.

[14] Brown. 106; Rofe. 13; Brueggemann. 95; Mann. 65; Kline. 68. Cairns. 90.

[15] Brueggemann. 95.

[16] Brown. 103-104 – “They must be what they are.”

[17] Cf. Craigie. 179.

[18] Brown. 107. Cf. H. Cunliffe-Jones, Deuteronomy (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1971). 64; Miller. Deuteronomy. 111 – “To be God’s special possession is to be holy to the Lord, set apart from others for the Lord’s service.”

[19] Miller, Deuteronomy. 112. Cf. Cairns. 90.

[20] Cairns. 91. Cf. Miller, Deuteronomy. 112.

[21] Craigie. 179. Cf. Cunliffe-Jones. 64.

[22] Cairns. 90. Cf. Brown. 104; Kline. 68-69; Christensen. 156 – “God chose them not because of any inherent superiority, but because he loved them. It was a matter of grace.”

[23] Brueggemann. 97.

[24] Christensen. 164. Cf. Brueggemann. 98; Cairns. 91-92; Craigie. 180.

[25] Craigie. 181; Christensen. 164. Furthermore, Rofe argues, “Deut 7.15 hints that God redeemed Israel from Egypt where they knew ‘all manners of illness and evil diseases’…But the text is a promise for the future, not a resume of benevolent acts of the past,” (p. 227).

[26] Brueggemann. 98.

[27] Kline. 69; Craigie. 181.

[28] Cf. Brueggemann. 98-99.

[29] Craigie. 182.

[30] Kline. 69.

[31] Cairns. 94.

[32] Craigie. 182. Cf. Christensen. 164-165.

[33] Christensen. 165; Cunliffe-Jones. 66. Cf. Brueggemann. 99.

[34] Christensen. 157.

[35] J. Gary Millar, Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy (Leicester, England: Apollos, 1998). 156.

[36] Ibid. 156.

[37] Ibid. 157.

[38] Earl. 46.

[39] Christensen. 157, 166 – “The strong language of the concluding verses (Deut 7:25-26) bears witness once again to the demands of holiness in our relation to God. We must shun the very appearance of evil.”

[40] Brueggemann. 100.

[41] Mann. 65.

[42] Cunliffe-Jones. 63-64.

[43] Cairns. 92.

The Illogic of Protestantism

Kids say the darndest things, don’t they?

My girlfriend has told me so many stories of the funny things her kids say, like “Miss Harris, you look like a hippy soccer player” or “if you have kids, could I please be your child?” When I was a kid, I said some strange things…surprise surprise. I had about a dozen older brothers and sisters. My ‘favourite’ brother and sister lived in their separate houses down the road. My year one teacher even asked my mum if this was true.

Catholics say the darndest things, don’t they?

Like purgatory (that place most Christians go to work off their debt and be purified before entering heaven), indulgences (what you can buy for yourself or for others to reduce time, say 50 years, in purgatory) and papal infallibility (whatever your priest says is true and authoritative, as though it were Christ saying it Himself, full stop).

What has this got to do with the illogic of Protestantism?

Well, in my readings I have heard so many Catholics proclaim that very statement. Some ex-Protestants are now Catholics because of the ‘lack’ of logical theology in Protestantism.

…interesting.

I am a proud Baptist, lover and follower of Christ, part of the universal (Catholic) church, and worshipper of the One True, Triune God. However, despite Catholicism having not nearly as many denominations as Protestantism, being the major influence in doctrines such as the Trinity, and pretty awesome cathedrals, relics and flower arrangements, I am by no means – at all – a supporter of Roman Catholicism.

Despite all this, Protestantism is still far more illogical.

I know…I know. Let’s all calm down. Let me explain.

Catholicism has many sacraments that are essential to your salvation. You are judged by what you have done in this life. If you reach the mark of a “good” Christian you can skip purgatory. If you are above the line, the Pope can sell your Christianly awesomeness to others who don’t reach the line. If you are extremely Christianly awesome, and if your mortal hands have caused a few miracles, people can pray to you. However, if you don’t quite reach the line – but you have partaken in the sacraments all your life – you go to purgatory where you are painfully purified before entering heaven.

Sounds a bit like capitalism, currency, or basic economics, right? You get what you payed, or didn’t pay, for.

From the outside, from a human perspective, this makes at least some sense. In a world where you receive goods or payment depending on how much you have payed or worked, a works based religion makes a lot more sense than God dying for God’s enemies. This Catholic, works-based faith is a lot easier to accept for someone who has grown up in a capitalist society. However, this approach nearly obliterates most of what is at the heart of the Good News.

That is the whole point of the Gospel – that it is a faith-based faith, not a works-based faith. Paul says it in Romans – “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Ro. 3.21-24).

Also in Galatians – “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” (Ga. 2.16). Paul is so adamant about his rejection of a works-based salvation he even says that “if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” (Ga. 2.21). I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to paraphrase this to say: “if justification comes through the sacraments, then Christ died for nothing”.

Notice how there is no mention of an on-going need for continuous redemption?

Notice how there is no mention of the need for a mediator between us and Christ?

We don’t need to continuously go back and re-do the whole salvation process through the sacraments, or eat and drink the literal body and blood of Christ (through the process of transubstantiation) to make sure we are still Christian. We don’t need to pray to a saint or pope – a human person, just as sinful and deserving of death as us…..no offence. We can just pray directly to God the Father, through Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit, who dwells in every Christian. That is scripturally acurate, and if ‘tradition’ says otherwise, how could such a contradiction be tolerated? If tradition is just as divinely inspired and infallible as scripture, why would they be contradictory?

That was a wee bit of a digression.

My point is that Protestantism places far more emphasis on grace and faith alone for salvation (“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” Ro. 5.1,2).

But from a human perspective, this makes no sense!!!

1 Co. 1.21-23 – “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

It makes no sense that God would come in the form of a human being, the creator in the form of the creation, and be humbled to the very bottom rung, a servant (considered less than nothing, pets were treated better than servants), and die the worst possible way – crucified (that’s where we get the word excruciating, because crucifiction tickled…immensley), rejected by friends and family (Phillipians 2), and forsaken by God (Mark 15). Horrible.

The very idea that God would – or even could – die was an idea absolutely foreign to the people of the time. It’s the equivalent to believing that gravity makes things fall upward, that blood gets pushed around our bodies by little men, and that Kobe is innocent. Believing such things is ridiculous.

That’s exactly what the Gospel is.

Ridiculous.

And it is that ridiculousness that makes Protestantism shine.

The Gospel according to the Reformers is a glorious, wonderful Gospel. Any Gospel that has anything remotely human takes away from it’s glory. “If anyone adds to [the words of this book], God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this  prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city” (Re. 22.18, 19).

A Christian Critique of Marxism

Karl Marx was a German born Jew who became an immensely influential atheism. Today’s New Atheism movement, Darwinism, and the Cold War communism owe some of their success to Marx’s philosophy. He is heralded as the Father of Communism[1], because his philosophies greatly influenced socialism throughout Europe. Marxism shares many similarities, and many conflicting ideas, with Christianity. The focus on community and the improvement of human conditions is one such similarity, but the rejection of supernaturalism and absolute humanism is one aspect of Marxism that clashes with Christian thought. This essay will analyze Marxism, in light of its philosophical assumptions, historical background and similarity with Christianity, and will propose approaches Christians can take when dealing with Marxism in today’s society.

Marxism

To understand Karl Marx’s philosophy is simultaneously to understand his approach to history. Marx’s philosophy is often labeled ‘dialectical materialism’,[2] or in other words an interpretation of history as progression through conflict,[3] where “man is the highest essence for man”.[4] He was influenced by the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, in which he saw a pattern in the social structures.[5] Furthermore, Hegelian philosophy was a great influence. Hegel argued that the only truth comprehendible to humanity is that which is presented through reality; all human thought is a progression toward ultimate truth, which “is slowly uncovered through the unfolding evolution of the history of ideas”.[6] Hegelians argued that Christianity was merely a primitive form of this philosophy.[7]

A further influence was Feuerbach, who developed Hegelian philosophy, with a focus on materialism. He argued that religion caused alienation, of which Marx and his colleague Engels noted as “a separation from nature, and from the opportunity to act freely and creatively upon it.”[8] Marx’s personal experience of alienation was fueled by the fact that as a boy he was Jewish in a Catholic community, within a Protestant state. Thus, alienation became a major influence on his philosophies.[9]

Before entering into politics and economics, Marx studied literature and philosophy. He saw himself as an artist, “a poet of dialect”.[10] Marx became highly intelligent, and was able to present his views effectively, often quoting Shakespeare to further his point. Influenced by materialism, his atheistic approach caused him to be expelled from France in 1845, at the age of 27, hence adding to his experience of alienation. He and Engels began production of The Communist Manifesto, which was published in 1848.[11] This publication was essentially a response to capitalism and outlined his initial views of the process of history inevitably leading toward a revolution against capitalism, to be replaced by a purely socialist community.

Where Hegel believed the progression of human knowledge fueled social and political change, Marx asserted that it was the progression of economics, ultimately leading toward a change of thinking, and thus a change in society and politics.[12] At the time, capitalism was developing, with great industrialization occurring. Marx was thus influenced to define a person’s class position as determinable by ownership of property or not. The two main classes he distinguished between were the ‘Bourgeoisie’, or the land-owners, and the ‘Proletariat’, or those without property. The Proletariat were essentially the working-class, working for the Bourgeoisie, who made the profit.[13] As a result, the Proletariat had no emotional attachment with their labor, which was exclusively done for the Bourgeoisie. The Bourgeoisie exploited the Proletariat, and Marx and Engels considered this inevitable capitalist process as dehumanizing and alienating. The Proletariat were the majority, and increasingly became so; the Bourgeoisie were the minority. The former got poorer, the latter richer.[14] Marx saw this process as alienating, as “the worker is forced to bring fulfillment to someone else, instead of finding personal fulfillment.”[15]

His experience of alienation and his dialectical materialist philosophies lead him to conclude that this continuing tension would “eventually build up to such a point that a socialist revolution would occur,”[16] resulting in an economic system that, rather than alienating people from one another and from the world,[17] was devoid of private property and state implementations, effectively emancipating all humanity. Rather than attacking capitalism as unjust, as his contemporaries had done so, Marx argued that “what mattered most not that capitalism was morally wrong, but that it was already out of date and therefore historically doomed.”[18] Believing everything to be influenced by material and economic conditions, Marx insisted that history is essentially predetermined, shaped by developing economical factors.[19] In other words, communism was inevitable.

Being materialistic, Marxism places great emphasis on science, as Sheehan states, “Marxism took science extremely serious, not only for its economic promise in building a socialist society, but for its revelatory power in understanding the world.”[20] Marx combines this materialistic[21] approach to science and philosophy with dialectical materialism, arguing that the physical reality is prior to spirituality. This approach was furthered by Hegel’s influence upon Marx, causing Marx to analyze this human experience in relation to history.[22] This lead to his conclusion that throughout history, humans are bound by necessity to institutions, determined by evolving methods of production, fueled by advancements in technology.[23] Thus, capitalism was bound to eventually become obsolete – so Marx predicted – followed by communism, “a political system dominated by the majority of the population, not a minority or small elite.”[24]

Human beings, according to Marxism, are no more than a product of matter. The mind evolved from material; the nonliving formed the living. Thus, humanity was determined by material conditions, in turn influenced by economic factors, namely production. The only difference between humans and animals is that humans have the ability to produce what allows their continued existence; humans “work for their living.”[25] Hence, Marx argues it is essential for humans to work and produce.

Geisler outlines three characteristics of Marxist ethics: (1) relativism, (2) utilitarianism, and (3) collectivism. Firstly, Marx insists that there are no moral absolutes. The only “absolute is the unfolding dialectic world process,”[26] and what is considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is determined by society and economics. Secondly, what is good is whatever contributes to the implementation of communism.[27] This ethical construct inevitably involves the idea that the end justifies the means. For example, the – possibly violent – destruction of capitalism is justified by the implementation of communism. Thirdly, Marx saw the universal transcending the individual. The requirement of the implementation of this universal was, thus, necessary. This universal, Marx argued, was free will, found not individually, but expressed corporately. He argued that “in the perfect society private morals are eliminated and the ethical ideals of the community are achieved.”[28]

Marxism was highly influential for approximately a century and a half, existing at some point in most of Eurasia. The Paris Commune in 1871 – the French government in which the Proletariat expressed societal and political control – was influenced by Marxist movements,[29] and the German Social Democratic Party existed largely due to Marxism.[30] A major outworking of Marxism, however, was expressed in the Russian revolution in 1917. The Russian revolutionary, Lenin, further developed Marx’s philosophies. After Lenin, when Joseph Stalin reigned, the USSR Communist Party became the major interpreter of Marxism, justifying totalitarian rule; the result, however, obviously influenced by the belief that the end justifies the means, became quite different to Marx’s original philosophy, and became very violent.[31]

Since the end of the Cold War, it seems Marxism is not as influential. However, it is not completely diminished. Contemporary Marxists focus on the original philosophical assumptions made by Marx, and it “lives on, but in circuitous and complex ways, sometimes in strong, brilliant, defiant ways, sometimes in subtle yet influential ways, but sometimes, too, in weak, confused and debated ways.”[32] The Great Depression and the recent Global Financial Crisis have caused Marxists to speak out, assured that what has happened was predicted in Marx’s writings. Martin Jacques states, “This crisis shows that capitalism is…inherently prone to crisis…in this sense, Marx was, and is, right.”[33] The successive recovery of this crisis, however, has shown capitalism and society as it currently is to be a more than capable economic system.

Marxism and Christianity

As has been demonstrated, Marxism is essentially an all-encompassing ideology. For this reason, it functions similarly to a religion.[34] Some commentators have labeled Marxism as a secular religion, as it provides a meaning to life, as well as demanding complete commitment.[35] Despite functioning similarly to religious ideology, however, Marxism and religion do not have a harmonious relationship. Religion merely kept the Proletariat content, sustaining morals and supporting social order.[36] Religion was, according to Marx, “the opium of the people”.[37] It was essentially another force used to subjugate the working class. Furthermore, Marx believed that “religion, with its beliefs, attitudes, and value judgments, is a particular type of mans estrangement from his essence.”[38]

In 1946, the USSR Communist Representative, Molody Bolshevik stated:

The theoretical basis of the Communist Party is the philosophy of Marxism/Leninism – dialectical materialism. This is a complete and consistent world view which is incompatible with religion. Our worldview is based on scientific facts. Religious beliefs contradict science. And because the Party derives its activities from a scientific basis, it cannot but take a stand against religion.[39]

Marx argued that all religion, including Christianity, is merely an illusion,[40] and in 1964 the Marxist Konrad Farner declared Christianity to be irrelevant, superseded by something else – as has everything else in history.[41] Because Marxism is so all-encompassing, it can answer any question, and a system with gaps has no right to claim to be true. Further, “for a thing to be accepted and believed it has to be plausible for the human mind and things that are beyond its comprehension are by that very fact considered untrue.”[42] Therefore, Marxism rejects supernaturalism, a direct dissension with Christianity.

Being somewhat influenced by Judeo-Christianity[43], Marxism even has several doctrines which reflect Christian thought. Within Marxism, there is a doctrine for creation (found in the evolution of matter), original sin (division of labor), salvation (found in the Proletariat), ecclesiology (the church being the Party), and eschatology (with communism the aim and purpose of history).[44] However, as Bockmuehl outlines, there are 4 major issues which confront Christianity:

  1. Knowledge of truth,
  2. Practice of the faith,
  3. View of reality, and
  4. Purpose of life.

Firstly, Marxism confronts reality with what is believed to be truth. Establishing a ‘truth’ requires a presupposed standard to be analyzed in light of reality, reflecting its materialistic philosophy. The issue for Christians, then, is whether or not we believe in truth; “do we as Christians also have a truth which critically turns against rotten reality?”[45] Or, has Christianity become a religion of relatives? Secondly, Marxism requires an absolute commitment to the practicality of the perceived truth. Marx did not desire a change of interpretation, but a change of the world. As Christians, hence, how much do we put our faith into practice? John 13.17 and Matthew 7.24 assert that Christians must practically express their faith.

Thirdly, Marxism insists “on concrete reality as the theatre of human life.”[46] The practical outworking of truth must be absolutely determined by the physical reality. Christianity, therefore, comes under attack, as it declares supernaturalism. Marxism requires a changing of man and the world now, posing the challenge to Christians, who have often acted solely in relation to a future, eschatological judgment. In other words, the materialism of Marxism is in contrast with the spirituality of Christianity. Lastly, Marxism understands its truth to be attainable. Each adherent to Marxist philosophy understands the truths and goals of Marxism, and continues to work toward those goals. What results from this idea is that the end justifies the means, which – as history has shown – can have disastrous results. Furthermore, this idea essentially means those who do not have the means to attain these goals, such as the elderly, disabled people, less talented or intellectual people get left behind. Despite this fact, Christianity is posed with the challenge to be aware of its truths and goals and work towards it.[47]

Hanes analyzes contemporary Marxism, arguing that despite Marxism does not enjoy the same influence it once did, “attitudes are deeper than words”[48] and Marxist philosophies are still prevalent in some form. As has been outlined above, Bockmuehl asserts the major division between Christianity and Marxism comes down to truth. Christianity views absolute truth coming from the supernatural; Marxism views absolute truth as that which humanity, fueled by materialism and economics, progresses toward, completely rejecting supernaturalism. Hanes stresses the lack of an absolute truth in contemporary Marxism, as influenced by post-modernity, and “for residual Marxism the proof of truth depends much more on logical reasoning.”[49] Where a Christian would argue truth is found through experience and analysis, a Marxist would argue truth is merely an ideological tool. Further, where a Christian would argue humanism[50] is an expression of love, and charity an expression of grace, a Marxist would argue for anthropocentrism and that charity is humiliating and is resented. Hanes continues to argue that for a Christian to approach a Marxist, he/she must have a deep understanding and appreciation of Marxism and its similarities with Christianity. He further argues for a non-threatening approach, an acceptance of Marxist criticism, a presentation of the Christian alternative, and lastly, to rely on God.[51]

Conclusion

In conclusion, therefore, the atheistic, dialectical materialistic philosophy of Karl Marx, which has had great influence throughout the past 200 years, poses a challenge to Christianity, even today, albeit in minor forms. Marxism projects a philosophy deeply rooted in an understanding of the progression of history, different eras clearly marked by revolutions and violence. The alienation and dehumanization inevitable with capitalism eventually comes to a conclusion found in a giant international upheaval by the working-class, the Proletariat. This working-class will take control of the socio-economic factors inherent in community, leading through a process of socialism toward the final goal of communism, where privatization would be eliminated and all humanity experiencing true emancipation and true life, receiving dignity and meaning from the community.

Despite the few positive elements Marxism has provided, such as the improvement of working conditions, the emphasis on the person as a human rather than a tool to generate wealth, and the general goal of improving human life; Marxism’s negative elements have been its downfall. Marxism is a militant atheism, destroying imagination and purpose for the individual. Marx’s predictions of capitalism inevitably collapsing have, obviously, not found fruition[52], thus disproving his theory that economic factors function like physical laws. Furthermore, the “absolute denial of absolutes cuts its own throat…Socialist society has hardly avoided absolutism.”[53] We can conclude that Marxism is good in theory, but does not work in practice.

Bibliography

Bancroft, Nancy. “Marxism Requires Atheism: Implications for Religious Believers.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies  (n.d.): 567-575.

Benton, Ted. “Marxism.” In Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society, edited by Paul B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey. London: Routledge, 1996.

Bockmuehl, Klaus. The Challenge of Marxism: A Christian Response. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980.

Carmody, Denise Lardner, and John Carmody. The Story of World Religions. California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1988.

Collins, Philip. “Karl Marx: Did He Get It Right?” The Times2008.

Farner, Konrad. “A Criticism of Christianity.” In The Church and the Problem of a Christian Society: Communio Viatorum, 1964.

Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999.

Hanes, Pavel. “Christianity in the Post-Marxist Context.” EuroJTh 17, no. 1 (2008): 29-37.

Holmes, Leslie. Communism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Krejci, Jaroslav. “Religion and Anti-Religion: Experience of a Transition.” Sociological Analysis 36, no. 2 (1975): 108-124.

McBride, William L. “Marxism.” In Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Robert Audi. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Roberts, J. M. History of the World: Since 1500. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976.

Roberts, J. M. Moden History: From the European Age to the New Global Era. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, Ltd., 2007.

Sheehan, Helena. “Marxism and Science Studies: A Sweep through the Decades.” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 21, no. 2 (2007): 197-210.

Stokes, Philip. Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers. New York: Enchanted Lion Books, 2002.

West, Charles C. “Marxism.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade, 9. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987.

Wheen, Francis. Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography. London: Atlantic Books, 2006.


[1] Leslie Holmes, Communism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[2] Philip Stokes, Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers (New York: Enchanted Lion Books, 2002). 132.

[3] Holmes. 2.

[4] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999). 440.

[5] Holmes. 2.

[6] Stokes. 103.

[7] Ted Benton, “Marxism,” in Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society, ed. Paul B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey(London: Routledge, 1996). 553.

[8] Ibid. 555.

[9] Francis Wheen, Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography (London: Atlantic Books, 2006). 7-8.

[10] Ibid. 5.

[11] Geisler. 440.

[12] Stokes.

[13] Holmes. 4.

[14] Geisler. 442.

[15] Ibid. 441.

[16] Holmes. 5.

[17] Wheen. 7.

[18] J. M. Roberts, Moden History: From the European Age to the New Global Era (London: Duncan Baird Publishers, Ltd., 2007). 316, 516.

[19] Geisler. 441.

[20] Helena Sheehan, “Marxism and Science Studies: A Sweep through the Decades,” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 21, no. 2 (2007). 197.

[21] As opposed to theological.

[22] Nancy Bancroft, “Marxism Requires Atheism: Implications for Religious Believers,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies (n.d.). 569.

[23] Roberts. 317.

[24] Holmes. 5.

[25] Geisler. 441.

[26] Ibid. 442.

[27] It would not be surprising if an alleged contradiction appears here. If there is no moral code, asserted by the first characteristic, how can what is ‘good’ be determined by whether or not it helps communism? However, Marx would argue that communism is, historically, inevitable. Therefore, history leading towards communism is the dialectical absolute. Hence, what is ‘bad’, such as the continuation of capitalism, is that which is hindering history itself.

[28] Geisler. 442.

[29] Holmes. 6.

[30] William L. McBride, “Marxism,” in Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Robert Audi(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995). 466.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Sheehan. 208.

[33] Martin Jacques, Renmin University professor and previous editor of Marxism Today, in: Philip Collins, “Karl Marx: Did He Get It Right?,” The Times2008.

[34] Denise Lardner Carmody and John Carmody, The Story of World Religions (California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1988). 259.

[35] Klaus Bockmuehl, The Challenge of Marxism: A Christian Response (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980). 17.

[36] J. M. Roberts, History of the World: Since 1500 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976). 630.

[37] Roberts, Moden History: From the European Age to the New Global Era. 240.

[38] Jaroslav Krejci, “Religion and Anti-Religion: Experience of a Transition,” Sociological Analysis 36, no. 2 (1975). 108.

[39] Ibid. 111.

[40] Bockmuehl. 49.

[41] Konrad Farner, “A Criticism of Christianity,” in The Church and the Problem of a Christian Society (Communio Viatorum, 1964).

[42] Pavel Hanes, “Christianity in the Post-Marxist Context,” EuroJTh 17, no. 1 (2008). 31-32.

[43] Benton. 554. Judeo-Christianity, Benton argues, expresses a progression toward a good life. West argues that Engels saw in Christianity a universality, a vehicle for revolution. This theme influenced Bloch, was saw revolutionary themes throughout the bible, such as the exodus from Egypt. Marxism essentially “transposed the structure of Christian faith and hope into a humanist key.” (Charles C. West, “Marxism,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade(New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987). 241.)

[44] Bockmuehl. 17.

[45] Ibid. 24.

[46] Ibid. 30.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Hanes. 30.

[49] Ibid. 33.

[50] A Christian, however, would most probably avoid humanism, but should the argument rise, a Christian would likely argue for the value of human life, in light of God’s grace and love.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Even though some would argue the Great Depression and the recent Global Financial Crisis have shown Marx to be right, capitalism has continued to grow.

[53] Geisler. 443.

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