Monday, February 29, 2016

Alcohol and Silly Arguments

Out of every theological argument and discussion that I've ever been a part of, there's one that stands preeminent when it comes to exaggeration, non-sequiturs, and twisted Scripture: Whether alcohol is appropriate for a Christian to consume in moderation.

So...can a Christian drink alcohol?*

I will say this right at the beginning: There are legitimate cultural contexts and situations that impact when and where it is appropriate for a Christian to consume alcohol: As just one example, if one is literally incapable of drinking moderately, or around someone incapable of drinking moderately, Scripture and Christian charity demand that we abstain. One can think of other instances, where drinking alcohol would have a direct and immediate negative impact on ourselves or others, where it would be inappropriate - and indeed sinful - for a Christian to drink.

This is not a post about those situations, though...largely because it's very rare for a Christian NOT to be aware of those situations (and those that are not aware, or deliberately ignore them, are beyond help anyway). This is a post about Biblical arguments against all alcohol usage, used by certain teetotalers to say that consumption of alcohol is an inherent evil, apart from any cultural considerations. There are a few that pop up very frequently that are incredibly weak, and I'm going to go through the weakest and silliest here:

"The word for 'wine' used in the Bible can mean everything from unfermented grape juice, to the fermented stuff we generally refer to as wine. The wine that Jesus consumed was "new wine", or unfermented grape juice."

This argument pops up everywhere alcohol is mentioned on the internet. I'm not going to go into the word studies that disprove this theory - that has already been done by people better qualified than me. No, I'm going to take more of a "common sense" approach, just a few arguments that have occurred to me over the past year or so.

1: Jesus references fermentation as a common cultural practice, and explicitly contrasts old and new wine, with old wine elevated and preferred over new.

This is funny, because the passage in question is actually often used by teetotalers to demonstrate the difference between new (unfermented) wine and old wine. It appears in all 3 synoptics, but you'll only ever see teetotalers use the passage from Matthew or Mark (we'll see why in a moment). Jesus is discussing why his disciples don't fast like John's disciples do, and he tells them that nobody fasts when the bridegroom (Jesus himself) is with them, but that they'll fast when he is taken away. Then he says two things: "No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Teetotalers will point to this passage as proof that "new wine" is non-alcoholic: It is put into new wineskins, so that it can expand as it ferments. This is missing the point on two levels:

First, the "new wine" is put into new wineskins so that it will continue to ferment safely without being lost. This is not somehow meant to prevent fermentation or keep it as grape juice: This process (which Jesus refers to as a commonplace thing) is meant to ensure that more fermented wine is available to drink, instead of it being lost! In other words, this fermentation is a good, desirable thing, rather than it being lost due to the bursting of the wineskin.

And second, Jesus (and everyone else) prefers the old stuff!

Luke 5:37-39: "And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”"

So: After going to all that trouble to convince themselves that Jesus was a lover only of grape juice, you can imagine the consternation that would greet this verse. Here, Jesus explicitly sets the two side-by-side: New wine, which may very well be unfermented or just beginning to ferment, and old wine, which literally has to be fermented given the climate Jesus is in. Grape juice cannot get "old" and remain grape juice without modern pasteurization techniques. Jesus sets the two side by side, and essentially says, "New wine? Grape juice? No thanks...I'll stick with the old wine." Jesus explicitly says that no one prefers new wine after tasting old wine (which sinks another silly teetotaler argument, that wine is just super gross and that when the master of the feast declared Jesus wine "the best", he must be referring to good ol' grape juice.) Old wine - real, fermented wine - is much to be preferred over new wine, from the mouth of Jesus himself!

I think that this argument, by itself, is enough to convince any intellectually honest person of the silliness of this. But there's at least one more BIG one:

2: The Lord's Supper was understood from the very beginning of the NT church to involve alcoholic wine.

We don't even need to look to the gospels for these...instead, we just look to Paul's early letters, the first NT documents to be written! We just need to look to 1 Corinthians 11:17-22:

"But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not."

He is speaking to one of the very first NT churches as they attempt to celebrate the Lord's Supper. They aren't doing it very well, because when they come together, they do not share and eat communally, but each eats what he has: The rich get full and drunk, while the poor go hungry. They get drunk, meaning that they're bringing real, alcoholic wine to the Lord's Supper: Indeed, wine strong enough to get someone drunk during the course of a meal.

Paul rebukes them, not for drinking wine, but for getting drunk. He doesn't have anything negative to say about the wine itself, merely the fact that they are getting drunk while their poorer brethren go hungry. And where did they learn about the wine? From Paul himself, who says, "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you..." They are getting their information on the Lord's Supper from Paul; They are drinking wine at the Lord's Supper, which Paul does not rebuke; Paul mentions "the cup" several times, including warnings not to "eat and drink without discerning." It would be ludicrously irresponsible of Paul to not speak against the wine if that was even the slightest problem. When you put all of these together, it becomes inescapable that from the time of Paul himself, ever since there was a visible church, alcoholic wine was used to celebrate the Lord's Supper.

This is another knock-out punch. To avoid this hurdle, a teetotaler would have to say that Paul himself got it wrong, and that from the very beginning, churches were celebrating the Lord's Supper wrongfully, using wine when they should have used grape juice. In fact, they would have to say that nearly all Christians, in nearly all places and at nearly all times, have gotten it wrong, because...

3: Teetotalism is an extremely niche viewpoint, occupying a very small chronological, denominational, and geographical portion of the Church. 

I hesitate to include this last one, simply because in my experience, many outspoken teetotalers will have no hesitation in declaring every other Christian throughout history to be sinfully wrong on this one (or simply non-Christian in the case of Catholics). When you look at the worldwide Church, teetotalism has only ever been a thing for the past 200 years or so, only in the US and (briefly) England, and only in certain Protestant/Evangelical denominations. At no other time in history has alcohol consumption been regarded as a universal sin.

This is not the knock-out punch that the other two are: It's possible for people to be wrong on something, and it's possible for a great deal of people to be wrong for a very long time. But...if your viewpoint simply did not exist for the first 1700-1800 years of church history, and remains incredibly denominationally and geographically restricted today...you have to ask yourself if maybe, just maybe, your belief is more cultural than biblical. If nobody else, including the native Greek speakers who brought the Church together, had the thought that alcohol was evil and that Christians should only drink grape juice, then is it really a plausible explanation?

Anyway, it's good to get this all written down. I doubt it'll be seen by many people, and to my knowledge I don't know any people who believe that no Christian should consume alcohol - and if they do, it's for cultural and not Biblical reasons. But here is my point:

The Church is not served by falsehood, or legalism, or poor exegesis, and alcohol brings out all three. Given our fallen world, there are times where it is sinful to consume alcohol: indeed, there are some people who lack the self control to ever drink without sin. But given proper use and moderation, alcohol is a good thing, a gift from God that gladdens the hearts of men.

*Many teetotalers will shift the conversation from "can a Christian drink alcohol" to "should a Christian drink alcohol," and ask what good it is...whether it will edify the believer, bring them closer to Christ, etc. The meaninglessness of such a question is revealed when applied to literally any other common part of everyday life in the US. Surely eating food at a restaurant will not "bring you closer to Christ." For that matter, neither will adding seasoning to food instead of simply eating it plain. In fact, if that is the thing that drives your dining choices, you'd be better off just eating plain bread and drinking water, for surely eating more than that is not "edifying" in the sense this question demands. Alcohol (a light-weight rum and dr pepper, in my case) is simply one aspect of God's creation that believers are encouraged to enjoy in moderation, and in that enjoyment, we glorify and give thanks to God.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Death and Life and Nana

At 7:15 this morning, my grandmother Nana died. We knew it was coming: She had been deteriorating for some time, and after breaking her hip a week or so ago, we knew it couldn't be far off. And in the day or two leading up to it, as friends and family offered their support, prayers, and encouragement on Facebook, one comment in particular stood out to me:

"We will all miss her until we see her again."

I don't think I can say it any better than that. Of course I will miss her. I miss her now, and I am sure I will miss her more the next time we head into Shafter and realize that she is not there for us to visit. I will miss her breakfasts, and her amazing waffles and crisp bacon. I will miss her roast chicken dinners, and the days when the Mulligans would gather for family dinner with her and Papa (and I will miss the extra chicken legs and toast that she prepared for me without fail). Nana was the sweetest, kindest grandmother a boy could ask for: The world has not seen her equal, and we will miss her.

...

Until we see her again. Until we see her, shining like the sun, young and strong and full of life and laughter, in body as well as spirit. And so we are comforted even in our grief.

For we know she serves a Lord who came to destroy the one who held the power of death; We know she serves a Lord who was dead and is alive; We know she serves a Lord who holds the key to Death and Hades and sets the captives free. And we know that all those who believe in that Lord are saved.

And so we know that she is with Him today in Paradise. She does not live on "in our hearts"...such a great soul could hardly reside in such a cramped and fickle place. Nor does she live on merely in our memories: No, her dwelling is far grander than anything we could imagine. She really lives, and she really is there in Paradise.

We will all miss her until we see her again. But we will see her again, and every tear will be wiped away.

And I cannot think of anything more to say.

Friday, February 12, 2016

A Crisis in Calvinism

ADDED: I've gotten a handful of hits recently from "Contemporary Calvinist," who calls my post a "straw man." Welcome! To Calvinist readers, I just have one request: Please comment and let me know in what way I have straw-manned Calvinist doctrine. I understand that no Calvinist will actually speak like this, but please inform me what aspect of doctrine I have mis-represented. I would LOVE to know how my Calvinist brothers and sisters are able to avoid what I see as the logical and inescapable conclusions of Calvinism. Please enlighten me!



Brothers (and wives of brothers who are hearing this through your husbands), there is a crisis in Christianity. This crisis threatens all true believers - both five-point Calvinists and those who, in their devotion, hold to 6 or even 7 points! It is a crisis greater than "Christian" contemporary music, greater than "Christian" rap, greater even then "Christians" consuming a moderate amount of alcohol and enjoying it.

Yes, it is a crisis greater even than those, for there are many within our ranks who are defying the will of God himself!* You gasp, but it is true, brothers. Just the other day, in a good, God-honoring church, I heard the pastor speak of the unsaved souls perishing in poverty-stricken, unreached parts of the world. He drew attention to the people dying in inner-city slums, without ever hearing the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. And would you believe what he said? He lamented that fact! He dared to express sadness at the fate of these unsaved rebels, these totally depraved sinners, these reprobate!

This is absurd, my brethren! For we all know that as these sinners go down to the fiery hell which awaits them, God is glorified by their damnation! Indeed, we know that God planned their damnation - each and every one of them! - from before the foundations of the world! We know that through God's perfect plan, he brought them into existence for the sole purpose of having them starve, fight amongst one another, murder and be murdered in turn, before all die and are damned for eternity - all for his own glory!

God finds glory and pleasure in doing this, my brothers, so should we not find pleasure in witnessing it? Shall we not give glory to God as we witness these starving reprobate children, these ignorant reprobate adults, dying without hope? Shall we not rejoice with the death of each one, as their screams of everlasting agony brings a smile to our Savior's face, as our Lord's perfect will is accomplished?

And yet this man-idolizing, God-denying sadness has infected the true Church! I have even heard none other than John Piper and John MacArthur, as God-fearing Johns as I've ever known, imply that sometimes things happen which were not the perfect, inexorable, inescapable, unconditional will of God! These are undeniably true men of God (unless of course they leave the faith, in which case they were never saved to begin with), and yet they, too, are watering down the glorious truth of God's glorious plan! They talk of people dying "without the Gospel," fulfilling God's perfect plan for their lives, and then lead their followers astray by again lamenting that fact!

This is indeed a crisis, brothers. God does not desire all to be saved, and neither should we! I ask you:

Who are YOU, oh man, to desire the reprobate to be saved?

Who are YOU, oh man, to be saddened by their just and glorious fate in the fires of hell?

Who are YOU, oh man, to steal God's glory by loving those that the Lord hated since before the beginning of the world?

We are not to be like some in the world, my brethren, showing love and compassion to our enemies. Far from it! We are to be like God: Glorying in the demise of those we hate. And is not THAT the heart of the Gospel?


*Of course, not really defying, mind you, and technically they had no chance to do otherwise, but...look, it's too complicated to explain right, and who are you, oh man, to talk back to me - I mean, to God. Shut up and stop asking questions. What are you, an Arminian?

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Apostasy and Perseverance

Perseverance of the Saints: The P in TULIP, and something that Calvinists love to use as a bludgeon against Arminians and other non-calvinists. "My salvation is secure because it's rooted in God, not my fickle 'free will,'" they'll say. In fact, John Piper asks the question "How do you know you will still be a believer when you wake up in the morning?" And he answers, "God will see to it."

Of course, Piper is only able to arrive at such a simplistic answer by ignoring the vast number of people for whom God apparently did not "see to it." He is ignoring the vast number of people who, to themselves and those around them, certainly seem to be Christians...who nevertheless fall away from the faith. 

And that leads to two HUGE questions that I think Calvinism has absolutely terrible answers for:

"Whence the apostate?"

And...

"How do I know I'm not one?"

Let's tackle the first one: Whence the apostate? Where do apostates come from? How do they come to be? How do they first gather the wherewithall to approach the faith in the first place, and why do they leave it? How do they seem to display true love, true joy, true peace, etc, only to fall away?

This is a question asked and answered by none other than John Calvin himself, and here he is brutally honest. He asks why faith sometimes seems to be attributed to non-elect, and recognizes that even in daily life, "experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected by almost the same feeling as the elect, so that even in their own judgment they do not in any way differ from the elect." Calvin states that the reprobate are sometimes "affected" (affected by whom or what? Answers to come) in such a way that even in their own judgement, there is no difference between them and the elect. In other words, they are so affected that they believe themselves to be elect. Their experience is, to them and others, so similar to the experience of the truly elect that they cannot tell the difference.

This is important. More on this later. For now...affected by who? Who is doing the affecting? Why, the only Person who can ultimately affect anything!

"Therefore it is not at all absurd that the apostle should attribute to them a taste of the heavenly gifts – and Christ, faith for a time

So Calvin says that the Apostle (Paul) ascribes a "taste" of heavenly gifts to these non-elect apostates, and that Christ Himself ascribes to them "faith for a time." But what does this mean, and why does Christ do this? Calvin explains. 

"not because they firmly grasp the force of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith, but because the Lord, to render them more convicted and inexcusable, steals into their minds to the extent that his goodness may be tasted without the Spirit of adoption."

These non-elect individuals do not actually grasp the force of spiritual grace, nor do they possess the sure light of faith. How could they? It has been kept from them! However, in order to damn them further, Jesus "steals into their minds" to trick them into thinking they're elect.

This is horrifying. This goes well beyond the typical Calvinist portrayal of the long-suffering God who merely punishes the sin He happens to find. Here, God deliberately tricks the non-elect into believing that they are Elect. He gives them a "taste" of spiritual gifts, gives them a tiny bit of temporary faith. Indeed, He steals into their minds to make them think that they're really elect. And why does he do this? 

"To render them more convicted and inexcusable."

And there is NO hint that Calvin realizes the horrifying cognitive dissonance he is displaying here. "To render them more convicted and inexcusable"? What, God deliberately and intentionally stops short of giving them what they need, then punishes them for failing? He lies to them, and punishes them for believing him? He tricks them, and punishes them for falling for it?

This is Calvinism at it's darkest, and it reveals the deep dark truth that God enjoys tricking people into believing that they're his children, just to make their damnation and eternal, fiery punishment that much more satisfying.

Whence the apostate? God. God is the one who drew the apostate to Himself with the intention of damning them by causing them to fall away.

And here's the thing, the really important thing: Honest, consistent Calvinism cannot appeal to a different answer. They can't simply say, "Well, Calvin was just wrong here." Because if Calvinism is true, and there really aren't any "maverick molecules", and everything is going exactly according to God's decretive will...then there isn't any other explanation for the apostate. The apostate could not have come so near to God without God leading him on, and he could not have fallen without God letting him go. Again: If meticulous providence is true, then God is the one who drew the apostate to Himself with the intention of damning them anew by causing them to fall away

So. That's one shudder-inducing question-and-answer out of the way. Now, on to the follow-up question...one that Calvin anticipates and yet utterly fails to provide a satisfactory answer to.

How do I know I'm not an apostate?

"Suppose someone objects that then nothing more remains to believers to assure themselves of their adoption. "

Yes. Yes, I do object that. That is my objection exactly. What do you have to say for yourself?

"I reply: although there is a great likeness and affinity between God's elect and those who are given a transitory faith, yet only in the elect does that confidence flourish which Paul extols, that they loudly proclaim Abba, Father. Therefore, as God regenerates only the elect with incorruptible seed forever so that the seed of life sown in their hearts may never perish, thus he firmly seals the gift of his adoption in them that it may be steady and sure." 

Really? But...I mean, come on, dude. You just said that there are reprobate individuals who so closely resemble the elect, so closely feel what the elect feel, that "EVEN IN THEIR OWN JUDGEMENT" they cannot tell the difference! Indeed, you said it was because GOD HIMSELF desired for them to believe that they were elect! You said it was because Jesus wanted to render them more inexcusable! If God wants to trick me, then I will be tricked. If God wants to make me believe that I'm elect, then I'm pretty sure I'm going to believe it.

And your only response to this is basically "You'll know your faith is real because you'll know"? The "confidence" will "flourish"? The gift of adoption is "steady and sure"? I suppose the unspoken-but-necessary qualifier is "until it no longer flourishes, and is no longer steady and sure."

So how do I know I'm not an apostate, in the Calvinist scheme?

I don't. Because I could have all the confidence in the world that I'm a true believer. I could know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God is my Abba and Father. I could feel the gift of adoption in me as steady and sure. And then one day - or one morning, as John Piper posits - I could wake up to find it was nothing but an illusion. One day I could wake up to find that Jesus had merely stolen into my mind to make me think I was an elect, and that the whole thing - my whole "Christian" life - was nothing but a farce to render me even more damnable.

So the question begs to be asked: Does Calvinism really offer assurance of perseverance?

Of course not. One can never be truly sure they're elect, because God Himself apparently makes it his business to trick people into believing they're elect. And again, there is no other explanation for the Calvinist who affirms meticulous providence. Here, Calvin states what is simply and brutally true if Calvinism is to be at all coherent.*

So...if meticulous providence and Calvinism can't offer any real assurance, can Arminianism?

Of course it can.

God has promised throughout the Bible that he desires all men to come to him, and that whoever comes to him he will not cast out.

And he has called and enabled us to come

Therefore, all that remains is faith. All that remains is, every morning, to put faith in the one who has called us. God will never take our faith from us, as Calvin envisions. We have faith, and so long as we continue in that faith, our perseverance is absolutely assured. So long as we remain in Christ, he will remain in us.**

For those who aren't quite convinced, there is a simple thought experiment that demonstrates this whole thing pretty handily: 

Scenario A: My love for my wife is irresistibly caused by a 3rd party, who at any time could flip the switch to the "off" position and immediately irresistibly cause me to stop loving my wife.

Scenario B: My love for my wife is the result of my recognition of my wife's loveliness, and a commitment and dedication to love her, made and renewed every single day. 

In which scenario is the continuation of that love "assured"? In which scenario can I confidently assert that I will wake up tomorrow in love with my wife?

Calvinism offers no assurance: Indeed, it offers a God who actively deceives people into believing they are saved when they are not. Arminianism alone offers a way in which believers can "make their calling and election sure."

*It is at this point (or before) that a Calvinist may well object to my distaste of God's actions. "Who are you, o man," etc etc. The objection goes that if God desires to deceive people and make them believe that they are elect, that is his prerogative. This may well be the case (in the Calvinist scheme, at least). But in any case, it does nothing to address my concern here: You cannot simultaneously say "It is apparently God's good pleasure to cause people to falsely believe they are elect" and "But I know that my own election is secure." If any person falsely believes they are elect - and I believe any Calvinist will admit that - then it was God's decree for them to be deceived, and therefore no Calvinist can be secure.

**Any good Calvinist will object that our salvation is then works-centered, if we must "do" anything, like "have faith" or "remain in Christ." The objection is easily answered, of course, since this language is strictly biblical. Christ says that He will abide in those who abide in Him, and Paul repeatedly commands Christians to remain in Christ, and frequently recognizes that some Christians will not remain in Christ. Our faith in Christ is not a work which saves: In fact, it is an explicit recognition and statement that our works cannot save us. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Man of Blood

"That quietness of his is just a little deadly, like the quiet of a gutted building. It's the result of having laid his mind open to something that broadens the environment just a bit too much. Like polygamy. It wasn't wrong for Abraham, but one can't help feeling that even he lost something by it."
-CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength

I've been thinking a lot about weapons and self-defense, particularly in light of the bravado-filled, antagonistic speech given by Jerry Falwell Jr to the students of Liberty University, urging them to carry concealed guns. And I've arrived at a couple thoughts.

Killing, in and of itself, is not a sin. It can't be, because God actually commands killing in the Old Testament, and God cannot command a sin. The commandment is against murder in particular, and as Chesterton says, "Murder is a spiritual incident. Bloodshed is a physical incident. A surgeon commits bloodshed." All murder is killing, but all killing is not murder: There are instances, such as warfare and self-defense, where killing is just...indeed, there are instances where killing seems to be required of the people of God, at least in the Old Testament.

And yet...there is something about killing - not murder, but killing - that changes a person. Something that makes them...less. And we see this most clearly in the person of David, a man after God's own heart. David desired to build God a temple, a great House...but God told him no. David relates the event: "I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord and for the footstool of our God, and I made preparations for building. But God said to me, ‘You may not build a house for my name, for you are a man of war and have shed blood."

Note that God does not tie David's unworthiness to his adultery with Bathsheba. God does not say that David is unworthy because of his murder of Uriah. God specifically says that David is unworthy because he is a man of war and has shed blood. David won many great victories for Israel, fulfilling God's commandments in battle...but it did not come without a cost. David destroyed the image of God, again and again, shedding blood which is the Lord's, and as a result, he was unfit to build God a temple.

I have a few friends on Facebook who are VERY pro-gun. I know how gun-makers market their product...by creating a scenario where you get to be the hero, where you can gun down the bad guys invading your home or shooting up a mall. Indeed, I've seen many people who seem to wish for such an event to occur, so that they would have the excuse to pull their weapon and stop it! Sadly, I've even seen this attitude from professing Christians.

Is warfare wrong? No. Should Christians participate in the military? The Bible certainly does not prohibit it. But it seems inescapable that we are not meant to be people of war. We are not meant to shed the blood of the image of God. And when we do, it fundamentally changes who we are for the worse. The hands soaked in blood cannot build God's temple, cannot serve him in the way that clean hands can. Killing is sometimes a necessity: it is never something to be desired, or fantasized about, or sought after with aggressive posturing and vain bravado.

Monday, November 30, 2015

On the Incarnation, Chapter 2: The Divine Dilemma and its Solution

In my first post, I think I restricted myself too much to a simple "cliff notes" reading of the chapter. I'm going to be trying to weave more of my own reflections in, make more connections stuff like that. Black text is summary, red text is commentary. We'll see how it goes.

A-Cakes kicks off this chapter with possibly my favorite passage in the entire book.

"Man, who was created in God's image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death , which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape.

Note again ACM's way of relating this as an event, as a story with characters and rising action and conflict. There is drama in the way Athanasius relates our sorry plight. Man is not merely "suffering the effects of a sinful nature"...man is disappearing, and as a result, the work of God is being undone. His language of the law of death prevailing upon us conjures the image of an encroaching army...an army from which there is no escape. 

We have reached the point of catastrophe: Is mankind really to be lost? Is God's work truly going to be undone?

He continues. "The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil."

There's a LOT here. First off, note how he describes this state of affairs. There is the sense that God is in some way responsible for the natural law of death; or at least, that God could in some way mitigate that penalty. In this sense, mankind's death is understandable, and could even be understood as the "good" result of God's justice. And I've heard many, many times in church that God could have simply left mankind to die, and that wouldn't have have had any impact on His justice or goodness. 

However, that is certainly NOT how ACM primarily understands the Fall and the resulting death of mankind. A-Cakes has NO hesitation in declaring it simply "monstrous and unfitting". It is monstrous that mankind should be neglected and perish, and it is unfitting for God to allow it to happen. Indeed, Athanasius goes further in this than ANY modern evangelical would dare go. Athanasius insists that it would be "unworthy" of God to let mankind go without a fight. "Such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all."

Athanasius concludes: "It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself."

Modern evangelicalism often (either intentionally or unintentionally) draws a distinction between what God must do and what God chooses to do. God must punish sin; God chooses to show love and grace. A-Bro, however, admits no such distinction. God's goodness and love literally does not allow him to ignore mankind's plight. In essence, A-Cakes seems to be arguing that God could not ignore mankind and remain God.

Having established that God must do something, ACM turns his attention to the nature of that something. What, exactly, is God to do in the face of mankind's immanent destruction? He brings up repentance as a possible solution, but rejects it. Repentance would indeed do the trick as regards future sin...but would do nothing to fix the corruption that had taken root in mankind. Moreover, God must remain true, and He had told Adam that death would follow the transgression.

He asks: "What--or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as was required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing?" Nothing but God Himself, no one but the Creator, can re-create man and reconcile man with the Father.  "For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father."

First, quickly note that Athanasius takes the whole "new creation" thing seriously. Humanity does need merely need to be "fixed"...we must be recreated, and the only one fit to do that is the one who created us and stamped us with His image in the first place.

Second, it would be easy here to simply slot Athanasius into the standard "Penal Substitutionary Atonement" mold that we here in the West have grown accustomed to. However, I am not at all sure that is the correct move. First off, there is simply no sense in which God is angry with mankind, no sense in which he demands punishment. Second, Athanasius again and again pits God and His desire for rescue, against the powers of death and the devil. We are not being rescued from "God's wrath" or divine punishment...we are being rescued from a hostile foreign power, which has gained control over us through the deceptions of Satan.

The crucial point, in fact, is this: Athanasius is concerned NOT with punishment that needs to be dealt out, but with corruption that needs to be healed.

Having established the necessity that God Himself be our Savior, A-Cakes moves on: "For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are." The Word has never been "apart" from creation...He fills it moment by moment. But now...now it is time for something new, as the Word "entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us."

The Word sees our sad state. He sees our death, our corruption, our sin. He sees our wickedness mounting up against us. "All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery."

I can't recall ever hearing this kind of language in an evangelical church. We don't want to say that some outside event can have this kind of "control", so to speak, over God, But ACM again has no hesitation in saying that the Word is "unable to endure" the disappearance of His people. 

And so the Word comes down and takes "a human body even as our own." Here A-Cakes clarifies that He did not merely seem to take a body or "appear" as though he had done so..."No, He took our body."

Then there's a bit that I'm honestly not wild about, how "He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin...untainted by intercourse with man." This is one area where I believe Athanasius is simply wrong. I do not think that a virgin is in any way more "spotless" or "stainless" or "untainted" than any lawfully married woman who is faithful to her husband

So why does the Word come in "a body like our own"? "Because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death." Therefore "He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, when He had fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men."

Corruption cannot be gotten rid of except through death. The Word is immortal and therefore can't die. So the Word takes a body that CAN die, so that the body "might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection."

Initially, Athanasius seems to be going out of his way NOT to say that "God died" or "the Word died." Instead, it's "he surrendered his body to death" and "surrendering to death the body which he had taken." Honestly, this makes me uncomfortable...I think it may demonstrate an unease to fully embrace that which is indeed folly to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews. However, Athanasius does at least once affirm that it is "His death", demonstrating that at least on some level, he can assent that the Word did indeed experience death. 

Part of his argument seems to be that death "emptied its clip" into Christ, as it were...that death expended all it's death-ness in an attempt to kill the unkillable, and now "it was thereafter voided of its power for men."

A-Bro continues, stating that due to "the solidarity of mankind", the Incarnation effects the defeat of death and corruption for all mankind. The he gives a pretty epic illustration:

"You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honoured, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be."

A couple things: First, again note the way that Athanasius uses story to relate theology. Second, A-Cakes is not super concerned with how these things are happening. He does not see the need to explore why one body suffering death - even if that body belongs to the immortal Word - voids death for everyone. He does not question why the Word dwelling in one body amidst the many has foiled the designs of the enemy. That is just the way things are.

Thirdly, this is (I believe) the first explicit reference to "the designs of the enemy against mankind." He just casually brings it up. The Fall is not merely an unfortunate accident, nor is the result of the Fall..it is part of a plan, designed by something or someone hostile to both God and humanity. 

The rest of the chapter is largely recap and wrap-up. "For by the sacrifice of His own body He did two things: He put an end to the law of death which barred our way; and he made a new beginning of life for us, by giving us the hope of resurrection. By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made Man death has been destroyed and life raised up anew."

Overall, this chapter is a LOT more action-packed than the previous one. Although Athanasius uses a lot of repetition, he constantly comes up with new ways to say what he wants to say, covering just about every angle. Big picture thoughts:

-Athanasius never pads his assessment of the state of mankind with appeals to God's justice or righteousness. He never allows God the possibility of ignoring mankind and allowing us to fall to Death. In fact, he expressly denies that God could do that.

-God does not seem primarily concerned with justice and punishment. God is primarily concerned with curing the corruption of mankind, so that humanity can once again be immortal and imperishable with God, as God had originally intended. 

-Athanasius is only concerned with the "mechanics" of the Incarnation and its effects in broadest sense. Some might see this as hand-waving or simplistic, but I think it just reflects a different attitude towards theology: God says that some things work in a certain way, and that's enough. 

-Finally, Athanasius does not consider this issue forensically, as an abstract issue. Indeed, one gets the feeling that Athanasius would object to any attempt to so treat the issue. Because it is not abstract...the Fall, corruption, death, and the Incarnation are things which have to do not with ideas and theories, but with flesh and blood. 

He concludes with a teaser: "This then, is the first cause of the Saviour's becoming Man. There are, however, other things which show how wholly fitting is His blessed presence in our midst; and these we must now go on to consider." More on that next time, and be sure to comment and let me know what you think!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

On the Incarnation, Chapter 1: Creation and the Fall

Athanasius begins his work with an immediate reference to the ground laid in a prior work, Contra Gentes ("Against the Heathens"), and how he "briefly indicated that the Word of the Father is Himself divine," continuing to expound on the role of Christ in the creation and sustaining of all that is.

Athanasius (hereafter A-Cakes, A-Man, A-Bro, Contra Mundum, ACM, or other) spends a mere sentence on this. His main goal is to "take a step further in the faith of our holy religion, and consider also the Word's becoming Man and His divine Appearing in our midst." This is, of course, the topic of the work...both the reason for and the nature of this divine Appearance. What is entailed in the Incarnation, and why was it necessary?

And his first thought is the inversion of expectations and nature that the Incarnation entails. As unbelievers scorn Christ, "the more does He make His Godhead evident." He takes the impossible and surpasses it; He makes fit the unfit; He takes that which is human and declares it divine. And the result? "Thus by what seems his utter poverty and weakness on the cross He overturns the pomp and parade of idols, and quietly and hiddenly wins over the mockers and unbelievers to recognise Him as God."

That is the first of ACM's observations on the nature of the Incarnation, but it is far from the last. But before delving more into what the Incarnation is, A-Bro pauses, because before understanding what it is, we must understand WHY it is. "He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men." And then he explains that we will begin with creation and with the Creator, for before we understand anything else, we must understand one crucial fact: "The renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning."

This is HUGE for A-Cakes. If I remember rightly, he spends a very large chunk of his work building on this observation, because it's very important to him that "there is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation." ACM sees a logical and personal continuation through creation and renewal: it is the same Agent who accomplishes both. 

Following that, Athanasius proceeds to argue for creation as told in the Bible. Since his audience consisted entirely of theists, not atheists, his arguments are quite different from how we would go about introducing creationism today! But through those arguments, one central point emerges: That God is a creator, not merely a craftsman. He creates out of nothing, rather than shaping pre-existent matter. That creation is accomplished "through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ," and one of the focal points of that creation is mankind. And upon mankind, the Creator bestowed "especial mercy"..."namely, the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself."

The goal of this special mercy is that mankind might live in paradise forever. However, A-Man states that"the will of man could turn either way," and therefore that God made this grace conditional: "If they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, they would come under the natural law of death, and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption."

Two things immediately strike me here. The first is that A-Bro goes out of his way to establish libertarian free will in the Garden: "The will of man could turn either way." This emphasis on free will, and real choices, is extremely common in the Church Fathers, and is a thorn in the side of Calvinists who wonder why their doctrine has no adherents in the early Church. And the second is that God isn't sentencing mankind to death: By sinning, we place ourselves under "the natural law of death." It is no more a "punishment" then being burned when you touch the stove is a punishment. 

And with this, ACM brings us back to the main event: "The former subject is relevant to the latter for this reason: It was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us."

Note the story-telling here. Athanasius is not merely teaching theology...he is reciting a saga, an epic, a fantasy...a fantasy that, joy of joys, is actually true. Christ is not merely "made Incarnate," and the Incarnation is not broken down into sterile forensic terms. The Word comes down, as a result of our sin calling out to Him and causing Him to show forth his love for us. Indeed, He makes haste to come to our aid!

God created us to "remain in incorruption." Honestly, we screwed that up pretty quick. Mankind had come under the law of death...indeed, "they were in the process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them entirely under its dominion."

And how was this happening? "The transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good."

A-Cakes begins to wrap up this train of thought with a recap. We were created by the Word and given "His own life by the grace of the Word." Since we were created beings, we were naturally subject to death and decay; However, through our "union with the Word," "the presence of the Word with them shielded them even from natural corruption." But when we forsook that union and departed from the word, we became victims of corruption even greater than what was natural, "because it was the penalty of which God had forewarned them for transgressing the commandment." A-Bro ends the chapter by detailing the descent of man, his ever-increasing wickedness, and his thirst for sin.

With the word "penalty," Athanasius brings in the first hint of "punishment". However, again, there is the strong sense of natural consequences. God did not make Adam subject to death: Adam did that. God did not give Adam over to corruption: Adam did that, too. We are sustained by proximity to the Word our creator...to the extent that we depart from the Word, we become more corrupt and less...well, just less. Proximity to God equals existence...distance from God equals non-being and negation. 

Anyway, we're just getting started here, folks. Athanasius is just setting the stage here, but in chapter 2 he really begins picking up steam. I'll likely be collecting feedback regarding the format of these posts, so if you have thoughts on how this blog-through could be done better, just let me know in the comments!


See Part 2 here.