The Justice Game: A Patristic Critique of the Reformed Tradition

Predestination was the topic of a fierce debate between the Catholic humanist Desiderius Erasmus and the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. The historian Roland Bainton expressed the debate as Erasmus’ plaintive cry, “Let God be good!” and Luther’s resolute reply, “Let God be God!” Both theologians were much more nuanced in their arguments, but Bainton captured a valid insight. Advocates of predestination, when pressed, tend to emphasize God’s rights over his creatures.

The Reformed tradition, which issued out of the theological insights of Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and others, has integrated this stress on God’s sovereignty into all aspects of its theological system. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for instance, immediately after defining God, discusses God’s eternal decree, by which he “freely, and unchangeably ordain[ed] whatsoever comes to pass.” The Confession then treats creation, and then defines providence: “God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least.” In each case, the Confession mentions God’s power as coordinate with his wisdom and goodness, but the first impression of God gleaned from the Confession is his awesome power and absolutely strict control over creation.

Likewise, God’s rights over creation are expressed in the Reformed theology of worship. Calvin’s Institutes reserves its harshest criticism for idolatry, the hubris that humans exhibit when they seek to worship God on their own terms. From that premise, the Puritans developed the regulative principle of worship, which states that whatever God has not commanded is forbidden in public worship. Human invention in worship is wholly negative. A similar logic governs the Confession’s treatment of good works: “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention.” Ironically enough for an anti-Catholic document, doing good seems to be mostly a matter of learning the rules well and following them to the letter. Neither virtue nor discernment receives a mention.

Predestination, of course, is the issue that demonstrates most brusquely the Reformed appeal to God’s untrammeled rights over creation. Calvin himself, it is true, approached the subject with a pastoral humility, and never reveled in the “horrible decree” of reprobation. And, it must also be admitted that the appeal to God’s rights has at least some scriptural foundation. In Romans 9, Paul answers the objection of the vessels of dishonor not by explaining God’s logic, but by denying their right to object. Yet, one wonders whether the appeal to Romans 9 doesn’t come a bit too quickly and glibly from the mouths of Reformed theologians, who perhaps have responded to concerns about God’s justice and goodness merely by reaffirming his sovereignty.

The Church Fathers may offer a helpful insight. Their discussions of Christ’s atonement wrestled with God’s power and justice. When the Fathers explain the meaning of Christ’s death, they employ a panorama of metaphors that cannot easily be condensed into a single logically consistent theory, but two major themes stand out. First, the Christus Victor leitmotif represents Jesus’ death as a cosmic triumph, liberating humanity from the dominion of dark spiritual forces. Second, the ransom idea envisions Jesus as in some way buying back humanity from the Devil, who as a consequence of the Fall came to have certain powers and rights over people, including the power of death. The ransom idea was always a bit murky, as it is not clear whether the ransom is paid to God or to the Devil, or whether Jesus in some way tricked the Devil into this arrangement. Often the Christus Victor and the ransom concepts are found mixed together in the same Father.

The looming question regarding these two presentations is why the death of Christ is necessary. If the purpose of Christ’s death is to free humanity, couldn’t that be achieved much more easily by raw divine power? Surely God could at any point snuff out the existence of the Devil and his minions. The Fathers unanimously affirm God’s capacity to overpower the Devil, but they assert that Christ’s death is a more fitting way for God to conquer him. The Devil gained his power over humanity illegitimately, by deceiving Eve. By contrast, Christ played entirely fair. He was born under the law and kept it perfectly. In the wilderness, he overcame the Devil’s temptations. As Jesus was flawlessly filling the role of God’s Messiah, the Devil decided to win at any cost. He possessed Judas, prompting him to deliver Jesus into the hands of a crucifying mob. But the Devil miscalculated. In taking the life of a sinless person, he overstepped his bounds and was thus deprived of his earlier prize, humanity. Surely some of the details are a bit strange, and one would not be blamed for choosing to explain the atonement through other metaphors and theories. Yet, a striking insight remains.

The cross, according to the Fathers, is a demonstration arranged by God to show how he is different from the Devil. God’s superiority is not merely overwhelming power, but more significantly, unimpeachable righteousness. Whereas the Devil uses his superior power over humans to deceive and kill them, God restrains his power to win humanity back in a way that respects the rules of fair play, even  when playing against the Cheater himself. In so doing, God sets an example for humanity, that justice is more desirable than power. Augustine explains it in a beautiful passage:

The devil would have to be overcome not by God’s power, but by his justice. What, after all, could be more powerful than the all-powerful, or what creature’s power could compare with the creator’s? The essential flaw of the devil’s perversion made him a lover of power and a deserter and assailant of justice, which means that human beings imitate him all the more thoroughly the more they neglect or even detest justice and studiously devote themselves to power, rejoicing at the  possession of it or inflamed with the desire of it. So it pleased God to deliver man from the devil’s authority by beating him at the justice game, not the power game, so that humans too might imitate Christ by seeking to beat the devil at the justice game, not the power game (On the Trinity 13.17).

Reformed theology has not been wholly insensitive to concerns about God’s goodness and justice, but a prevalent style of rhetoric and the general cast of the theological system can serve to negate this crucial patristic insight, that God is most fully recognized for who he is, not when he is praised for his excellent power and minute control, but when he restricts his infinity and his sovereignty to make room for finite, rational creatures. May God teach us to play and win at the justice game.


A Bloody Cross for a Modern World

Pictures and interpretations which were once appropriate and evocative can become irrelevant in another culture. Or within our present culture, which regards, for example, the ritual slaughter of animals as repulsive, it is highly questionable whether we should go on describing the saving significance of the death of Jesus as a bloody sacrifice made to an angry God who needed it in order to be placated. In modern conditions this is likely to discredit authentic belief in the real saving significance of this death: it goes against all critical and responsible modern experience. ~ Edward Schillebeeckx

A modern person may believe in the cross, but not as bloody; in God, but not as wrathful; and in Jesus, but not as sacrifice for sins. In short, a modern person may believe, but not in Christianity.

Schillebeeckx notes that moderns find atonement repulsive. This is not surprising. Ancients, too, found it repulsive. There is nothing endearing about leading an animal to an altar, hacking it to pieces, waving its dismembered pieces, and igniting its carcass. Aesthetic satisfaction is scarce amid the blood-soaked ground, sweat-stained clothes, and charred-flesh fumes. If there was flair and bombast in the ritual, it was to obscure the gruesome reality. If there was celebration at the end, it was for the effects the sacrifices procured.

Even if we could imagine that the ancients truly enjoyed sacrificing animals to the gods, we still must explain the prevalence of “bloody sacrifice” language in Christianity. It occurs among the Calvinists, the Wesleyans, the Moravians, the Baptists, the evangelicals, and more. Yet, none of these groups were bloodthirsty neanderthals. In several of them, the contrary was quite the case. Stuffy bourgeoise values and staid characters were the norm. Yet, when they spoke of the cross, blood and propitiation were on their lips.

Schillebeeckx cringes at the response of the modern person to the cross. He seeks to fashion a passion that confirms the modern person in her sensitivities, applauds her virtues, and reinforces her concept of reality. Before we condemn him, we should remember that this process has been long in the making. Catholics fashion gold-gilded crucifixes so beautiful that they obliterate any trace of horror. Evangelicals gather to sing “The Old Rugged Cross” in dulcet, nostalgic tones. Christians paint crucifixion as three neat silhouettes casting even shadows over a hushed hillside, the sinking sun bathing all in its last splendid rays. If the cross has become so unintelligible to Christians, it is little wonder that it perplexes the world.

The cross is the resounding, “No!” to the modern world’s pretensions. It mocks our values, reverses our expectations, unmasks our ambitions, deconstructs our security. It refuses to approbate our utopias and coddle our narcissism. It testifies that the world cannot bear God’s righteousness. The world encountered a man who did no wrong, who fully embodied God’s presence and taught the ways of God’s kingdom; for this, it hated him so much it destroyed him. The modern person knows that the cross condemns him, so he must either domesticate it or reject it.

Domestication is the usual first choice. If the cross can be emptied of wrath and punishment, sin loses its sting. Indeed, the modern person applies the word “sin” now only to child molesting or over-rich chocolate cake. The gross incongruity marks the vapidness of the term. Condemnation deflected, modernity finds itself reflected in this cross of its own creation. This is the cross that found “biblical” arguments for slavery, for segregation, for domination, for apathy. It is a cross that can hang in one’s church or around one’s neck and never drive one to self-denial, to identification with the suffering or the outcast.

Yet the cross reasserts its message in every community that keeps the Scriptures. There the holy wrath of God gives meaning to sin; against the midnight backdrop of sin the Savior’s perfection shines. The perfect God, who would be within his rights to snuff out the breath of man, is instead murdered by sinful creatures! Rejected by those he came to save, forsaken by the eternal Father, God is dead! The heavens cannot bear the absurdity; the sky darkens. The earth cannot contain its outrage; the ground quakes. Hades is dumbfounded; graves open and the dead walk. But God is satisfied; the temple veil is torn in two. The Father has not forever forsaken the Son of his love; resurrection looms, waiting for the unveiling.

The cross is a parting of the ways. The modern person may see the cross and go his own way, sensibilities intact. Or, he may embrace the way of the cross, surrendering unconditionally to its “no” and finding  the “yes” that was in fact always on the other side.

Published in: on October 31, 2011 at 10:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Faith of the Forsaken

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates engages several groups of interlocutors in discussions about justice, what it is and whether it is always desirable. Socrates will take a long time to answer the question of what justice is, but he maintains that it is intrinsically valuable. It is always better to be just than unjust. One of Socrates’ friends, Glaucon, wishes to know whether Socrates really believes so.

Glaucon proposes a test. Consider two people, one man perfectly just, and the other perfectly unjust. The unjust man is a virtuoso in his profession and all the external advantages of wealth, friends and power; the just man is the mirror opposite. Glaucon proposes an additional twist, since some of the disputants have claimed that it is better to appear just to others than really to be just. The unjust man is so clever that he is able to convince all onlookers that he is in fact a just man, so that he is lauded and rewarded by all, not only for his deeds but also for his virtue. On his dying day he is enthroned on the praises of the multitude. The just man lives a mean life and is thought unjust by all. Though he does no ill, he is taken for a monster. Universally hated, he is scourged, racked, bound, his eyes gouged out, and finally impaled. What benefit, Glaucon demands, did that man derive from his justice?

Glaucon poses the question hypothetically, but for Plato the issue is factual. The just man deemed unjust is a mildly exaggerated picture of Socrates, his beloved teacher. In Plato’s eyes, Socrates was a godsend, a man of singular wisdom, pure devotion, and unshakable conviction—a just man. Yet, he aroused the ire of the Athenians and was accused of corrupting the youth of the city. Throughout the trial, he refused to compromise his principles or flatter the jury. Sentenced to death, he refused to escape, even though his friends had made arrangements and begged him to flee.

Even as Plato penned Glaucon’s question and Socrates’ answer, he was answering a deeper question burning in his readers’ minds. Knowing all that happened to Socrates, why should anyone want to follow in his footsteps? How can anyone take up the mantle of Socratic philosophy when it seems to have died with him? Appeals to fame, glory, riches, or comfort are ruled out by the historical facts. Justice is its own justifier. The just person is the one who reorients his desires so that nothing is more desirable to him than justice itself. That just man is impervious, because whatever else may be stripped away from him, he retains his justice to the end.

Christianity, no less than Platonism, must give a reason for its existence. Judging from the shelves of Christian bookstores, the prevailing evangelistic strategy is to convince unbelievers that Christianity will make you happy, healthy, wealthy, and wise. Recently, I saw two books sitting next to each other whose titles may sum up the contemporary Christian experience: Your Best Life Now for Moms by Joel Osteen and 10 Lessons from a Former Fat Girl by Amy Parham. Such an approach may be effective at recruiting followers. The sophists who opposed Socrates were numerous and confident.

Yet, anyone familiar with the historical claims of Christianity will notice a discrepancy. Jesus perfectly exemplified his own teaching. He healed the sick, championed the marginalized, and taught God’s truth. At the end, he was betrayed by a comrade, abandoned by friends, cursed by his people, mocked by his enemies, nailed to a cross, and forsaken by God.

Nor was Jesus’ fate entirely unique. He warned his disciples that they were not above their master, that they too would face persecution. The author of Hebrews devotes a segment of his work to praising faith. After listing magnificent deeds done in faith, he (or she) abruptly changes tone:

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated–of whom the world was not worthy–wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

Poverty, torture, even death are potential consequences of fervent faith? Glaucon’s challenge echoes in our ears. What good was faith to those saints? What benefit was faithfulness to Jesus?

The Christian answer contains two elements. The first is righteousness. Man was created to walk in perfect righteousness, and in doing so to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Thus, the worst ruin that can befall a man is the loss of righteousness. John Calvin spoke of the twofold grace of union with Christ. In justification, each Christian is immediately reckoned righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to his account.  This righteousness is always external to us, divorced from our performance.

But the second grace is sanctification, the process by which our bent, broken souls are restored to an unfallen state. In this process, each believer takes up his or her own cross and walks in Christ’s footsteps. As we are betrayed and abandoned, we take comfort, knowing that we can remain faithful to those we love. As we are maligned, we may speak truth. Tortured, we may heal. We may die hated, but we do not have to die with hate in our hearts. Cursed, our lips may speak forgiveness. Spurned by God in every visible way, we trust him still. Ours is the faith of the forsaken.

The second part of the Christian answer is resurrection. The world returned a guilty verdict on Jesus Christ, but Heaven would not let that stand. The resurrection overrules the world’s judgment and displays the just man as he is. Christ was “raised for our justification.” His verdict reversed is the source of our verdicts reversed and our eventual resurrection. In heaven, there are streets of gold, food in plenty, and the complete lack of misfortune. How then are we not back to the sophists’ argument that one should pursue justice (or faith) for material rewards? The two pieces of our answer, righteousness and resurrection, are not co-ordinate but consequential. Resurrection presupposes righteousness, and not merely because God says so. The message of Eden is that paradise is of no good to unrighteous people. Sooner than later, by greed, pride, and hatred, it will be ruined, and again begins the cycle of Paradise Lost. Paradise is only as good as the people who inhabit it.

In this fragile age between ages, Christians are strangers and pilgrims. Many will find wealth, comfort and happiness by practicing their faith. Others, by the same faith, will meet with unspeakable ends. We can promise unbelievers nothing but righteousness and resurrection. Who would accept such an offer? Those into whom the Spirit of God breathes, convincing them that Christ’s righteousness is all that matters.

Published in: on August 22, 2011 at 8:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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If sin is forgiven, why still pain and death?

In book 13 of De trinitate, Augustine explains the logic of God’s plan of salvation. After explaining how Christ’s blood justifies us by trapping the devil in an unjust murder, by “beating him at the justice game,” Augustine explains a problem. If pain, trouble, and death are the consequences of sin, and if Jesus forgives our sin, why do believers still experience pain, trouble, and death?

For although the death of the flesh came itself originally from the sin of the first man, good use of it has made glorious martyrs. That is why not only death but all the ills of this age, the sorrows and hardships of men, have fittingly remained even after sins have been forgiven, although they occur as the deserved consequence of sins and above all of original sin, which is the cause of life itself being constricted by the bonds of death. They provide man with something to struggle against for truth’s sake; they train the faithful in virtue, so that the new man may be prepared through the new covenant for the new age amid the evils of this age, wisely enduring the woes which this condemned life has deserved, having the foresight to be thankful that it will all come to an end, faithfully and patiently awaiting the happiness which the emancipated life of the future is going to have without end…. For the faithful who devoutly endure them these evils are very useful, either for correcting sins or for exercising and testing justice or for demonstrating the wretchedness of this life, so that the other one where true and perpetual happiness will be found may be desired the more ardently and sought the more urgently. (13.20)

Published in: on March 23, 2011 at 8:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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