Of Mystics and Men

I was recently reminded of the following oft-misquoted passage from Jonathan Edwards’ book, Religious Affections:

As the first comfort of many persons, and their affections at the time of their supposed conversion, are built on such grounds as these which have been mentioned; so are their joys and hopes and other affections, from time to time afterwards. They have often particular words of Scripture, sweet declarations and promises suggested to them, which by reason of the manner of their coming, they think are immediately sent from God to them, at that time, which they look upon as their warrant to take them, and which they actually make the main ground of their appropriating them to themselves, and of the comfort they take in them, and the confidence they receive from them. Thus they imagine a kind of conversation is carried on between God and them; and that God, from time to time, does, as it were, immediately speak to them, and satisfy their doubts, and testifies his love to them, and promises them supports and supplies, and his blessing in such and such cases, and reveals to them clearly their interest in eternal blessings. And thus they are often elevated, and have a course of a sudden and tumultuous kind of joys, mingled with a strong confidence, and high opinion of themselves; when indeed the main ground of these joys, and this confidence, is not anything contained in, or taught by these Scriptures, as they lie in the Bible, but the manner of their coming to them; which is a certain evidence of their delusion. There is no particular promise in the word of God that is the saint’s, or is any otherwise made to him, or spoken to him, than all the promises of the covenant of grace are his, and are made to him and spoken to him; though it be true that some of these promises may be more peculiarly adapted to his case than others, and God by his Spirit may enable him better to understand some than others, and to have a greater sense of the preciousness, and glory, and suitableness of the blessings contained in them. [(Dover, ed. 2013) pp. 151-152]

This is one of those juicy quotes that in embellished form floats around the internet without bibliographic citation. At the time of Edwards’ writing, the “inward” trend of emphasizing an intensely subjective, mystical “personal relationship” with God was gaining momentum, which found full expression in the American revivalist preaching of the 1800s. Tellingly (as J. P. Moreland has pointed out in Love Your God with All Your Mind, p. 23), three of the major American cults emerged at that time: Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science.

I once found a Christian tract in an airport “religious observance” room that had the phrases “personal relationship” and “know Jesus as your own personal Savior” almost every other sentence. The tract was so chalk full of these phrases that had I tried to write a tract satirizing this trend, I might have reproduced the same tract. I wish I still had it.

What do these phrases even mean? The idea that having a “personal relationship” with God means that God guides by whispering in your ear or “puts something on your heart” is unbiblical, lazy, self-centered, and immature. The modern notion of “listening to the voice of God in your heart” or “being spoken to by God” in some personal, subjective way as part of a normal and mature relationship with God is indelibly vague, confusing, and, I suspect–along with Edwards–delusional. The false expectations created by the inward trend has adversely affected the way we communicate to God and even the primary way He communicates to us; i.e., through his Word. The Bible is no longer a sober book of divine wisdom that means what it says. The Bible is latent with magical powers and Bible studies are séances.

Does this mean there’s nothing meaningful or true in the phrases? No. Does this mean God doesn’t communicate personally to individuals? No. But those are topics for another post.


Not Dying is Not Sufficient

Christianity is all about resurrection. It is crucial, therefore, to recognize and try to understand the importance of resurrection. One way to not do that is by playing fast and loose with the term “resurrection”. This is easily and often done, for example, by identifying Jesus’ raising Lazarus or Jairus’ daughterfrom the dead as Jesus’ resurrecting Lazarus or Jairus’ daughter.

Jesus raising Lazarus, et al. from the dead may have been a sign of what was to come (resurrection), but it was not the thing itself. It would be more accurate to speak of the revivification of Lazarus, or simply Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (although even “raised” in most contexts refers to resurrection proper). What, then, is the key difference between resurrection and these other cases of rising from the dead?

dali21Some, who although are careful to distinguish resurrection from these other cases, nonetheless miss the key difference. The difference is not, as is commonly thought, that those who are resurrected will not taste death again, whereas those who are merely raised from the dead will. It is true that the resurrected will not die again. That, however, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for resurrection. Consider: suppose after Jesus raised him from the dead, God assumed Lazarus into heaven like He did Enoch and Elijah. We’d have a case of rising from the dead without a “second death,” but still not resurrection.

The key difference is that the resurrected have the transformed, glorified body; the kind that allowed Jesus to (apparently) walk through walls and the kind Paul describes in 1 Cor 15. The resurrected won’t die again precisely because death can’t touch the transformed body. To repeat, it is not because Lazarus died again that his rising wasn’t a resurrection; it it because he wasn’t raised with a transformed body. CARM rightly sees the glorified body as salient, but confusedly distinguishes two kinds of resurrection rather than distinguishing resurrection from revivification or raisings from the dead. This, again, plays fast and loose. There is no resurrection without a glorified body.

This is one reason I love Dali’s Corpus Hypercubus, where Christ is hanging on an unfolded hypercube, which happens to take the shape of a cross. More popularly interpreted to mean Christ’s divine nature can’t be fully grasped by us, the wound-less body on the rising cross calls to my mind resurrection–there’s something ‘extra-dimensional’ about that restored, radiant body, the hypercube representing both that extra-dimensional reality as well as the gateway to it.

Accusing the Accuser

“Satan,” or more accurately with either an indefinite or definite article, “a/the Satan,” means “an/the accuser.” Our accuser is our adversary. But what does the accuser accuse us of, and are the accusations just?

Many approach these questions in reverse order, thinking that Satan, as the Father of Lies and the antithesis of justice, cannot accuse us justly. So whatever Satan accuses us of, they must be false accusations that oughtn’t be believed. I’m not so sure about this. Take the questions in order. Suppose Satan accuses us for our sin; i.e., for breaking God’s just law, thereby condemning us. If so, Satan’s accusations are perfectly just. “There is no one righteous, not even one.” The lie in Satan’s accusations is not their falsity; it’s their partial truth. Anything short of the whole truth is a lie.

God’s perfect justice, the foundation of right and wrong, gets expressed to us in the form of moral duties and obligations, which the law tokens. As such, the law itself is not bad or evil. Justice, and hence the law that reflects it, is one aspect of God’s goodness. It is called “the law of sin and death” only because, were it the final canon from which verdicts were read, none would stand uncondemned. No mere human can perfectly fulfill the law—i.e., meet all one’s moral duties and obligations—and thereby escape being blameworthy, and hence escape being justly accused. This is precisely why we are enslaved to it: our slavery to the law of sin and death results from its obligatory nature: we must behave accordingly, lest we be blameworthy and justly accused.

The sword Satan wields against God’s people is therefore the law of sin and death, justly demanding—by God’s own authority—a final verdict of “guilty,” cutting them off from God forever. But what Satan fails to see is that there is more to God’s goodness than his justice. God, being unable to flout his own moral nature by breaking the law, is not merely not blameworthy; God is praiseworthy. God’s goodness is effusive, overabundant, and reaches—like grace, mercy, and forgiveness—“above and beyond” duty and obligation. The freedom found in the law of the spirit of life results from its supererogatory nature: God is not obligated to show grace, mercy, and forgiveness; He shows it freely.

Perhaps like an overzealous police officer corrupted by power, Satan fails to see the law as instrumental to the purpose behind it (which is to promote shalom) and sees only its function (which is to condemn) as the end itself. Or, to put it somewhat differently, perhaps as self-appointed administer of God’s justice, like a true bureaucrat, Satan can see only the letter and not the spirit of the law. But the spirit of the law of sin and death was always meant to point to a different law, one that’s at once deeper and higher: the law of the spirit of life. “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Christ came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
the things God has prepared for those who love him—

these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for,

“Who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Cor 2:6-16)

The Accuser justly accused the first Adam. But he could not justly accuse the second. Rather, the second Adam justly accused the Accuser.

The Deeper Magic

Traditionally, the doctrine of the Trinity has carried the mystery card. But compared to the doctrine of the Atonement, I think the Trinity is basic arithmetic (hmm, maybe that’s the wrong analogy here).

The doctrine of the Trinity–its development, formalization, and classical and contemporary expressions–can be understood with little intellectual toil. It’s basically a matter of coming to grips with important theological terms, concepts, and basic metaphysical distinctions. And, importantly, the Biblical data seem consistent with a wide variety of models of the Trinity.

The doctrine of the Atonement, on the other hand, is much less straightforward. The theological terms at its heart (e.g., “ἱλαστήριον”) are puzzling, no one model seems to give due justice to the central theological concepts (e.g., victory, satisfaction, substitution, etc.), and how the ethical machinery works is far from obvious (e.g., transfer of moral guilt). Every model seems to capture something deep and profound about the atonement, but it is exceedingly hard to see how to piece them all together to form a coherent, unified picture.

StoneTableFurther, it’s much harder (at least for me) to approach the doctrine of the Atonement in an intellectually dispassionate manner. Most of the time I can puzzle over the  concepts, terms, and the logic of the Trinity as cooly as I can a math or science problem (most of the time). But when I try to parse out the Atonement, I get the overwhelming feeling that there’s something profoundly deep and mysterious here, and we’re grasping at straws. If there’s any area of  Christian doctrine that deserves to carry the mystery card, it’s the Atonement.

There’s Deep Magic in Narnia. But there’s the even Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time.

Ransoming the Holidays

Easter Bunny at Christmas cartoon 1Hark the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is as much an Easter carol as it is a Christmas carol. Indeed, there would be no Christmas without Easter. Jesus’ humble birth, however miraculous, would have been a forgotten historical anomaly had he not been raised in victory. Wesley’s famous hymn calls to mind Gregory of Nyssa’s infamous fishhook analogy:

[A]s has been said before, it was not in the nature of the opposing power to come in contact with the undiluted presence of God, and to undergo His unclouded manifestation, therefore, in order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him who required it, the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active. (Gregory of Nyssa, Dogmatic Treatises, Etc. XXIV)

This colorful imagery is echoed by Martin Luther:

[H]e suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all. Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell. (Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty)

In an ultimate act of poetic justice, God deceivers the Deceiver, devours the Devourer; the roaring Lion gets eaten by the bleating Lamb. The Resurrection therefore fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy that the Lord will “swallow up death forever” (Is 25:8), which serves as the basis of our own hope of resurrection—that “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:4) and that  “what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor 5:4).

Evangelicals tend not to observe continuity between Christian holidays. The very concept of a liturgical year is foreign to most nondenominational churches, probably due to excessive paranoia of revering lifeless religious traditions (only to replace them with lifeless traditions of their own). It may also be due to the fact that for a liturgical year to be meaningfully implemented, a decent amount of thought and reflection is required (which, coincidentally, have also been replaced by various forms of passive entertainment).