Psalm 27

"to behold the beauty of the Lord"

Everyone loves God.

Not everyone believes in God, but everyone loves God.

Sure, there may be a handful of souls on earth so dark and twisted that they recoil in the face of goodness and light. But for the vast majority of us, we imagine horizons of goodness, love, and beauty. And as our imaginations reach for the light our hearts ache at the beauty of that vision. 

True, we might convince ourselves that the light isn't real, that what our hearts long for is imaginary. We could be like those prisoners described by Plato in his Allegory of the Cave, chained up in a dark cavern of skepticism, unwilling to believe in the rumors of sunlight. (For isn't that what the gospel is, a rumor of sunlight?) We may choose to live with shadows. 

So, we might not believe in God. But everyone loves God. No one can behold that beautiful vision and not love and long for it. 

You might not believe in the sun. 

The sun shines nonetheless. 

And the rumor of sunlight stirs the darkened, shadowed heart.

Paul's Gospel: Part 5, Where the Spirit of the Lord Is

This will be our last post trying to unpack Paul's gospel. 

I don't want to claim that this series is exhaustive and comprehensive. But I do think it describes our central predicament, as seen by Paul, and the work of Christ in saving us from that predicament. Christ rescues us from the sarx/sin/death catastrophe, which Paul most fully describes in Romans 5-8, through the pouring out of the Spirit and removing the curse of the law. Salvation involves both these aspects, the ontological and the forensic. The gospel involves both power and atonement. 

And yet, that isn't all there is to the gospel. I want to end this series by making three additional observations.

First, the Spirit of Christ has been poured out upon both Jews and Gentiles. Both groups are rescued from the sarx/sin/death catastrophe. Consequently, not only did the Spirit emancipate us from our ontological predicament, it created a new humanity, where "there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female." For we are "all one in Christ Jesus." In short, beyond the ontological and forensic, the gospel also has social implications. And one of those implications is that the Gentiles, as Gentiles, have been given access to the covenantal promises made to Abraham. Much of Paul's writing about the gospel is making this point, the inclusion of the Gentiles. As Paul describes it in Romans, through the Spirit the Gentiles have been "grafted into" the olive tree of Israel. 

Much as been written and said about the social implications of the gospel, the dismantling of the "wall of hostility" that had existed between Jews and Gentiles, along with the possibility this creates for the pluralistic community of God. I simply want to draw your attention to those implications.

A second point I want to make concerns the status of righteous moral action in Paul's gospel. 

Again, it is wrong to think that the Jews were legalists who were trying to "earn their salvation." The problem was, rather, that the sarx/sin/death catastrophe had caused all people, Jew and Gentile, to come under condemnation. We are all mired in sin and death. And Christ pulls us out of that morass. Having been set free we are now called to be responsive to God's commands. As Paul says in Galatians 5, faith must work itself out in love. If the Spirit of Christ lives within us, we must "walk by the Spirit and put away the works of the flesh." We must display in our lives the fruit of the Spirit, "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." As Paul continues in Galatians 5: "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit."

Simply stated, because the Spirit gives us moral capacity the Christian life carries moral expectations. We are required and expected to bear fruit. 

The point, obviously, is that if you have a clear understanding of Paul's gospel the whole "works versus grace" debate evaporates. The grace of the Spirit, accepted by faith, gives you the capacity to follow God's commands. And because of Christ's death on the cross, the blood of Christ continually cleanses us should we falter and stumble. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Again, salvation is both power and atonement.

Now let me turn to a final observation.

There is a lot of scholarly debate about how Paul thought about the law in relation to Jews who come to faith in Jesus. Are messianic Jews still required to follow the law? Lots of ink has been spilled on this topic. There is an argument that, according to Paul's gospel, Jews remain Torah observant Jews after coming to Christ, that the Torah remans in force for them. Again, the law was never the problem. Thus, now empowered by the Spirit and liberated from the curse of the law, messianic Jews are now set free to follow the path of Torah, Jews coming to God as Jews. Gentiles, by contrast, do not need to become Jews, as Paul argues in Galatians. But Gentiles do need to display the fruit of the Spirit and are required to fulfill the law of love. Gentiles don't need to become circumcised or follow Jewish dietary laws. Basically, this is a "two paths" vision of the gospel, how the pouring out of the Spirit upon both Jews and Gentiles allows the Jews to be saved as Jews and the Gentiles to be saved as Gentiles. 

This "two paths" vision of Paul's gospel sits in contrast to the supersessionist views held by many (most?) Christians. In this view, Judaism comes to a dead end in Christ and is wholly replaced by the church. The Old Testament law is nullified and set aside. Jewish people, in this view, must "convert" to Christianity and leave their Jewish ways behind. 

The scholarship behind the two paths vision--Jews retain the law and have their own distinctive path to God in contrast to Gentiles--is very concerned with the anti-Semitism and Marcionism they see at work in supersessionism. This is good, but I think the debates here could use some clarification. 

In favor of the two paths view, I think it is clear that, for Paul, God does not set aside the law and is perfectly happy in seeing Jews seeking God as Jews and in a distinctly Jewish way. I don't think Paul was a supersessionist. 

And yet, I also don't think Paul was concerned about Jews who felt at liberty, in light of Christ, to step away from Jewish practice or observance. Paul himself is evidence of this. Paul felt at liberty to conform to or reject Jewish practices as he deemed best. You see this in statements of Paul's like, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (Gal. 5.6). In my estimation, what characterized Paul's vision here was freedom. As he says in 2 Corinthians, "Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom." This was a freedom to follow the law and a freedom to let some of those things go. The crucial issue for Paul was treating each other respectfully in light of how we make these different discernments. You see Paul discussing this in Romans 14.

All that to say, my views are a little bit different from the "two paths" view of Paul. I agree that Paul was no supersessionist, and that he wasn't calling for the Jewish people to abandon Torah. Jews come to Christ as Jews and remain Jews. However, I don't think Paul would have been bothered if a Jewish believer, having come to Christ, started to stop eating kosher. Or stopped observing certain Jewish holy days. I don't think that would have bothered Paul in the least. These observances were not set aside by Christ, but neither were they strict requirements. As I read Paul, the law was not nullified, but a certain wind of freedom had begun to blow. As Paul says in Galatians, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free."

Paul's Gospel: Part 4, Power and Atonement

What is revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus is that salvation through mere human effort--zeal for God's law--is impossible. Human nature, being mere sarx, is weakened by sin and death making us unable to obey God's commandments. Consequently, we break God's commandments and come under condemnation. 

Christ died and was raised to save us from this predicament. And this salvation has both ontological and forensic aspects.

When I say salvation has ontological aspects, I mean that our reality is changed. The furniture of our existence is rearranged. The cosmos is fundamentally altered. 

In Paul's gospel, the world changed because of Easter and Pentecost, Christ's defeat of death and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. These are intimately linked in Paul's gospel:

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Rom. 8.11)
Through the Spirit we are able to overcome death. Relatedly, the Spirit strengthens sarx, making us responsive to the will of God:
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Rom. 8.13)
In short, the empowerment given through the Spirit is central to Paul's gospel, for it is the Spirit that saves us from the sarx/sin/death catastrophe. We were stuck in ontological quicksand, and the Spirit pulls us out. Salvation comes by an infusion of God's very life. No longer merely sarx, our very nature and reality is changed. 

That salvation is ontological, that we are rescued via the Spirit from the powers of sin and death, goes to Christus Victor aspects of salvation. And yet, salvation also has forensic aspects. Again, our moral incapacity brings us under the condemnation of the law. We stand under a curse. Consequently, Christ not only rescues us from our ontological predicament, he also takes upon himself the curse that stood over us. As Paul describes in Galatians:
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them...” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree." (Gal. 3.11, 13) 
Relatedly, since the blessings of God come to those who obey God's law, and we were unable to do so, Christ came to satisfy the requirements of the law on our behalf:
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8.3-4)
Since we could not follow the law, weakened as we were by the flesh, Christ accomplished on our behalf "in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us." 

The point, again, is that salvation also has forensic aspects. The curse of the law needed to be dealt with, along with fulfilling the righteous requirements of the law. Christ deals with both of these, becoming a curse for us and fulfilling the law when we could not. We accept Christ's work on our behalf through faith. Christ accomplishes what we could not accomplish on our own.

I have one more post to say a few more things about Paul's gospel, but I want to suggest that this is the core of it. And what I think is important to note, in reflecting on Paul's gospel, is how both Christus Victor and forensic dynamics are at work. Typically, in the atonement debates Christus Victor and forensic visions of salvation are pitted against each other as an either/or. But for Paul's gospel, it's not an either/or, it is a both/and. 

Salvation is both ontological and forensic. Ontologically, the Spirit rescues us from the sarx/sin/death catastrophe. Forensically, Christ deals with the curse of the law and satisfies the requirements of the law. The gospel is both power and atonement

Paul's Gospel: Part 3, The Sarx/Sin/Death Catastrophe

Let me summarize the last two posts. On the road to Damascus, two things are revealed to Paul. First, a tragedy had befallen Israel. Israel had crucified her Messiah. And Paul's own path was continuing on this trajectory: he himself was persecuting the Messiah. Second, zeal for the law, as illustrated in Paul's own life, had brought about this cataclysm. 

In short, what is revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus is that righteousness won't and can't be obtained by diligently following the law. If anything, this path had been tried and it culminated in disaster. 

What, then, had happened? 

The answer Paul came up goes to the heart of his gospel.

The fullest explanation of what had befallen both Israel and Paul is found in Romans 5-8. 

To start, again, Paul is keen to point out that the problem with trying to obey the law isn't with the law itself. Wanting to obey God is, and has always been, good. As Paul says, following Psalm 119, the law is holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7.12). 

The trouble comes when the law intersects with human flesh (sarx). Sarx is a hugely important word for Paul. Sarx simply means "flesh," as in "meat." But why would the word "meat" hold such theological significance for Paul? Because flesh alone is impotent and powerless to fulfill the demands of the law. Paul is clear on this point: 

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Rom. 8.7-8)
In Chapter 7, Paul gives a vivid account of how the flesh interacts with the law:
For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness ... For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. (Rom. 7.7-8;14-17)
This situation is key to understanding Paul's gospel, how sarx lacks the ability to carry out the dictates of the law. The issue of guilt isn't the focus here, but moral incapacity. Sarx does not submit to God's law; indeed it cannot. 

Why does sarx lack this moral capacity? As Paul describes it, sarx (as mere meat) is weakened by the powers of sin and death. This weakening is crucial for Paul. In Chapter 5, Paul describes how death comes to reign over human life: "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men." Due to Adam's fall, "sin reigned in death" over humanity. And sarx is impotent in the face of these powers: 
Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom. 7.20-24)
Salvation, then, is being rescued from this predicament. This sits at the heart of the Paul's gospel. Notice, therefore, a couple of things. 

First, observe that the issue here isn't about guilt and forgiveness. The issue is about how sarx is weakened by sin and death, making us unable to follow God's law. To be sure, because of our weakness we come under condemnation and curse. We break the law and as law-breakers face forensic, penal consequences. But that guilt is a surface-level symptom of a deeper problem. The runny nose and not the underlying virus. Mere forgiveness for crimes, therefore, doesn't get deep enough. Consequently, overcoming the weakness of sarx in its desire to obey God is critical to what Paul means by salvation. Simply stated, forgiveness without empowerment would leave us mired in a body chronically weakened by sin and death. 

Second, the issue for Paul's gospel isn't a works-based righteousness, legalism, or "trying to earn your salvation." Again, the Jewish desire to follow God's law is spot on. Let's say it again: Paul is very clear that obeying the law is holy, righteous and good. Attempting to follow and obey the law--righteous works--is not the problem. Obeying God's law is never a problem. The problem is that we can't follow the law, and that failure brings us under condemnation. 

In short, the Jewish people were not prideful legalists in trying to obey God's law. That desire was on point. The trouble was, as Paul came to see the situation, is that human beings, being sarx and weakened by sin and death, could not carry out God's righteous commandments. And it is precisely this weakness that caused the catastrophe revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus. This predicament caused Israel to reject her Messiah and is the reason Christ came, died, and was raised. 

How Christ accomplished this work we'll turn to in the next post. For today, let's return to the issue in Galatians and Paul's concern about Christ dying for "nothing."

Simply stated, if Christ died to set us free from the sarx/sin/death catastrophe you can see why Paul would object in Galatians to any teaching that was asking Gentile and Jewish believers to simply obey the law. Not because this was legalistic or a works-based righteousness. Rather, this "false gospel" wholly ignored the sarx/sin/death catastrophe, how no one, not Jew and not Gentile, can simply "follow the law." You can't follow the law without Christ. Christ died to give us the capacity to follow the law, and you can't do an end run around this work. For if righteousness could be achieved merely through "works of the law" then Christ indeed "died for nothing." 

In short, the false gospel was failing to face the deeper disaster revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus, the disaster Christ saved us from. Ignore that disaster, and you ignore and nullify everything Christ did to save us. 

Paul's Gospel: Part 2, On the Road to Damascus

In Galatians, Paul describes how he received his gospel as "an apocalypse of Jesus Christ" (1.12). Something was revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus when he encountered the Risen Lord Jesus.

Imaginatively, I like to ponder how Paul saw the world when he set out that morning to arrest members of a heretical messianic sect. And then imagine what was going through his mind for those three days he sat blinded in the darkness. His entire world had come crashing down. Flipped upside down. Everything Paul believed at the start of his journey was suddenly revealed to be a catastrophic mistake. 

For my part, I think meditating on this catastrophe is the clearest path to understanding Paul's gospel. 

For a catastrophe it surely was. On the road to Damascus it was revealed to Paul that Israel had crucified her own Messiah. And Paul himself was persecuting the Messiah. As Jesus says to Paul, "Why are you persecuting me?" Paul must have wondered, how could this have happened? How could this disaster have befallen God's chosen people?

The answer, I'd suggest, goes back to Numbers 25.

In Numbers 25 the men of Israel have been drawn into pagan worship by Moabite women. This causes a plague. To stop the plague, God demands that those who committed idolatry be killed. Right as that command is given, in front of everyone, an Israelite man takes a Moabite woman into a tent to have sex with her. It's a pretty brazen act. Beholding this effrontery, Phinehas, priest and son of Aaron, grabs a spear, goes into the tent, and stabs the man and the woman. The plague stops. God then says to Moses:

"Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”
Phinehas is explicitly praised because he was zealous for God. And in the memory of Israel Phinehas' zeal is commemorated in Psalm 106:
They yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor
and ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods;
they aroused the Lord’s anger by their wicked deeds,
and a plague broke out among them.
But Phinehas stood up and intervened,
and the plague was checked.
This was credited to him as righteousness
for endless generations to come.
Alert readers of Paul's letters should recognize that phrase, "credited to him as righteousness." That notion about what, exactly, gets "credited to you as righteousness" plays an important part in the development of Paul's gospel. 

For Phinehas, we know exactly what gets credited to him as righteousness. Zeal for God, for God's honor and for God's law, is what makes Phinehas righteous before God.

I draw your attention to the story of Phinehas because, if you want to understand Paul's mindset and worldview the day he set out on the road to Damascus, this is the story that unlocks what was in his head. When Paul set out that morning to persecute Christians, he was setting out in the footsteps of Phinehas. On the road to Damascus, Paul was Phinehas. And his zeal would make him righteous in the eyes of God. As Paul would later describe in Philippians 3.6, looking back on that fateful morning on the road to Damascus, he was "in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless."

And yet, the zeal Paul thought would be "credited to him as righteousness," in the footsteps of Phinehas, had caused him to persecute the Messiah. And as Paul reflected for three days in blindness, the awful truth would have sunk in, that it was this same zeal for God's honor and law that had caused Israel to crucify Jesus. 

Recall the point from Part 1. For Paul and his fellow Jews, the Law of God is good. Again, read Psalm 119. There is no "works-based righteousness" in Psalm 119. No legalism. No trying to "earn your salvation." Those were Martin Luther's problems, not Israel's. 

Consequently, since the law was, as Paul says in Romans, holy, spiritual and good, then the only part missing of the equation was zeal. Zeal would make us righteous, just like Phinehas' zeal was credited to him as righteousness. Which is exactly what Paul was trying to do the morning he set out for Damascus. 

This is oversimplified, but here's a sketch of what Paul had in his head on the road to Damascus:
The Law + Zeal = Righteousness
This is the "Phinehas Formula." And yet, the "apocalypse of Jesus Christ" shown to Paul on the road revealed that this equation had gone catastrophically wrong. Zeal had caused Israel to reject, crucify, and, in the hands of Paul, persecute the Messiah. How had this happened? What blew up the "Phinehas Formula"? How had zeal led to disaster rather than to righteousness? 

These questions, in my estimation, were what Paul pondered during his three days of blindness. And the answers Paul came up with became the heart of his gospel. To see this, let's go back to that line from Galatians 2:
"For if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing."
With the story of Phinehas in hand, we can see a bit more clearly what Paul is driving at here. According to the "Phinehas Formula," all that is needed to attain righteousness is zeal, passion for obeying the law of God. That was what Paul was trying to do before the "apocalypse of Jesus Christ." And here's the critical point to hammer home. If zeal had been enough there was no need for Christ to die. If zeal is what made you righteous, just like Phinehas, then the path ahead was crystal clear: Just be more zealous. Just obey. Just do the thing. Zealousness for the law was the solution to our problems. The law is holy and perfect, so all that is needed from us is passionate adherence. 

And yet, this passion for obeying the law of God, this zeal, was revealed to Paul to have led to the greatest of catastrophes. Which means, and here we arrive at the point, zeal alone is not the solution to our problem. Obedience alone can't get you to righteousness. Because zealous obedience led to the crucifixion of Jesus. 

But even more importantly, if zeal alone were the solution our problems, then Christ died for nothing. If zeal had been enough, there was no need for Jesus to die. Because Paul and Israel had zeal in spades. What was revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus was the catastrophe wrought by zeal, and how Christ had died to rectify that disaster. 

Which bring us back to Galatians. If righteousness could be gained through the law, Paul is saying, then we're still playing by the Phinehas playbook. Here's the law, just obey it. Be zealous, like Phinehas, and it will be credited to you as righteousness. But if that's true, if the Phinehas playbook is still in effect, then the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is superfluous and unnecessary. If zeal is all we need--a passionate 100% commitment to God--then Jesus died for nothing. All you'd need is zeal. 

And yet, Christ did die, and he died for something. And that something has everything to do with why zeal and the Phinehas Formula created such a catastrophe. We'll turn to that catastrophe in the next post.

First Sunday of Advent


Waiting cracks
the glass,
spiderweb fractures,
spreading branches
of inevitable, prospective failure,
weakening promises
no longer able to carry
the heaviness of hope
and the impatience of generations.

Trust is a fragile thing,
hard to hold together
with stories aging into legend.

Too much time has passed.

Psalm 26

"men of bloodshed"  

The opening petition of Psalm 26 is: "Vindicate me!" 

The poet stands in the middle of a blood-soaked world, full of harm, violence, and deceit. In the midst of all this wickedness and evil, the poet cries out, asking God to see, to vindicate, their struggle to be a person of integrity and peace in a world overrun by men of bloodshed.

The lonely path of the righteous in a dark and evil world. 

It is a difficult thing to keep your heart pure, to move with kindness in a world filled with men of bloodshed. It is a difficult thing to cry out for peace in times of war. It is a difficult thing to speak the truth in the face of lies. 

The path of the righteous is a lonely path. It is a difficult thing.

Paul's Gospel: Part 1, Christ Died for Something

Back in August and September, our Bible class at church was going through the book of Galatians. My turn in the teaching rotation had me sharing reflections from Galatians 2. 

To recap, some Jewish Christians had come to the church in Galatia preaching that Paul's Gentile converts needed to become circumcised. We can also assume they wanted the Gentiles to observe other parts of Mosaic Law. In rebutting this teaching, Paul's rage is palpable in the letter he writes to the Galatians, and he says some very intemperate things about the false teachers. 

In making the contrast between his gospel and that of the false teachers, Paul says this in Chapter 2:

We know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we ourselves have believed in Christ Jesus. This was so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified.
And at the end of the chapter he sums up with this:
For if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. 
So much has been written about the theology of Paul. There's the Old Perspective. There's the New Perspective. To say nothing about the Catholic and Orthodox perspectives. Plus, to be honest, there's really a bunch of new perspectives. So there's a lot of hubris in my trying to share in a short series what I take to be "Paul's Gospel." But in this series I'd like to share what I think is at the heart of how Paul envisioned the Good News. Toward that goal, I think a critical clue comes here in Galatians 2, where Paul is concerned about Christ "dying for nothing." There was something in the false teaching being spread in the church of Galatia that was marginalizing or canceling the work of Christ. And getting clear about the nature of that marginalization, I think, helps clarify the content and vision of Paul's gospel.

Now, according to the "old perspective" on Paul, the Lutheran perspective, the teaching of the Jewish Christians in Galatia was marginalizing the work of Christ because they were attempting a "works-based righteousness." They were trying to "earn their salvation." In this older, Lutheran view, the issue here is a works-based righteousness versus a gospel of grace. Earning your salvation versus accepting it as the free gift of God, something that you could never earn. And yet, as the new perspectives on Paul have argued, this vision is only partly true, and because of this also prone to distortions.

One of the biggest distortions I pointed out to our Bible class concerns how the Jews thought about the Law. The Jewish people weren't trying to "earn their salvation." They weren't legalists beholden to a "works-based righteousness." For the Jewish people, the Torah was a gift of grace. The Law was shelter and rest. A safe harbor. Sanity in an insane world. Just read Psalm 119, the great ode to the Torah:
Oh, how I love your law!
I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me
and make me wiser than my enemies.
I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts.
I have kept my feet from every evil path
so that I might obey your word.
I have not departed from your laws,
for you yourself have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
I gain understanding from your precepts;
therefore I hate every wrong path.

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
a light on my path.
Now, it is true that in the book of Galatians Paul describes the Law as a power that brings us under a curse. We'll get to that issue in this series. But Paul is clear to say in Romans that the Law is holy, spiritual, and good. That description of the Law shows that Paul has not rejected the vision of Psalm 119. The Law of God is a lamp to our feet and a light for our path. So, as Paul is keen to point out in Romans, the problem here isn't with the Law.

Another distortion we also have to be alert to in thinking about Paul's gospel concerns the Greek phrase pistis Christou. Most translations translate pistis Christou as "faith in Christ." That is, we are saved by having faith in Jesus. But as many of the new perspectives on Paul have argued, pistis Christou might better be translated as "the faithfulness of Christ." That is, we are saved by something Jesus has accomplished.

Now, I'll admit that, for a lot of Christians, these debates about pistis Christou can seem like splitting hairs. Because both translations--"faith in Christ" and the "faithfulness of Christ"--seem both necessary and true. Christ saved us in his atoning work (the "faithfulness of Christ") and we need to accept that gift by faith (having "faith in Christ"). And yet, the two ideas are different. 

Let me give an illustration. Imagine you're in a burning building and you fall unconscious due to smoke inhalation. You later regain consciousness, waking up outside the building laying on the grass, firetrucks and firemen all around you. You've been saved. Someone entered the building, found your unconscious body, and carried you outside. But as you look around, no one is standing near you. You know you've been saved, but don't know how or by whom. You having "faith" in that person and in what they did for you is irrelevant. You might even wonder to yourself, "I don't believe it." Still, you've been saved. Your "belief" or "disbelief" doesn't change anything. You're alive.

In short, the translations "faith in Christ" versus the "faithfulness of Christ" highlight the subjective versus objective aspects of salvation. Since Martin Luther, we've highlighted the subjective aspects of salvation. We need to "believe." We need to "have faith." Salvation has to do with a change in my mind. It is a wholly subjective phenomenon. The translation "faithfulness of Christ," by contrast, highlights the objective aspects of salvation. Your mind, in this view, isn't involved. Christ is the firefighter who carries your unconscious body out of the burning building. Objectively and factually, you've been rescued. And you having "faith" had, and has, nothing to do with it. 

The point to be observed here is that we can distort Paul's gospel by thinking he's asking us to "accept Jesus into our heart" when he's really just pointing out facts about our changed reality. This circles back to Paul's point about Christ dying for "nothing." Believe it or not, Christ did something, something that the Law couldn't do, as good, holy and spiritual as it is. 

To understand Paul's gospel, therefore, we need to understand that Christ died for something. What I hope to do in this series is describe that something.

"Lord Willing"

Out at the prison, we were in the book of James and discussing this passage from Chapter 4:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like vapor that appears for a little while, then vanishes.

Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
I grew up in a world where we said "Lord willing" a lot. 

"We'll see you next week, Lord willing."

"Lord willing, when we get home."

Over the years, though, I've repeatedly encountered people who get theologically triggered by saying "Lord willing." 

The concerns go to issues of providence and theodicy. Specifically, if we claim that the "Lord wills" for us to travel safely, then does that mean the "Lord wills" the traffic accidents on the road today? Is God "picking and choosing" who lives and dies on the highways?

To be sure, there are problematic visions of providence out there, and I don't mind anyone leveling criticisms at those. But when I think about what's being said in James 4, and the "Lord willing" refrains from my youth, I don't think the issue on the table is predestination. The issue is, rather, humility. 

To say "Lord willing" isn't to say that God is a puppet master picking and choosing who has a safe trip home or an accident. To say "Lord willing" is, rather, an admission of our frailty, dependency, and mortality. As it says in James, we are but a vapor. Saying "Lord willing" brings my finitude into view, that my time in not in my hands. To say "Lord willing" is a memento mori

I think old timers said "Lord willing" a lot because they lived in agrarian cultures, where they had little control over the elements that affected their crops. Their fate was not in their hands. They had no power to make it rain. Saying "Lord willing" put them in a proper frame of mind. Farmers had to be humble. 

But as we move further and further away from those times and places, we grow more prideful, thinking that we can control our own fates. I don't think we bristle at "Lord willing" because of theological concerns about providence. I think we chaff at "Lord willing" because we don't like to admit our lives are not in our hands. I think we avoid "Lord willing" because we've lost the humility of our ancestors. Our technology has insulated us from our neediness and dependencies. They prayed for rain, we turn on our sprinkler system. They sat on front porches fanning themselves through hot summers, we turn on our air conditioner units. 

They said "Lord willing" their entire lives. We never say it at all. And between us, who sees life more truthfully?

The Sophiology of Sergius Bulgakov: Part 6, God Will Be All in All

This will be our last post surveying the theology of Sergius Bulgakov. There is a lot more that could be explored, but I don't want to exhaust you. I do hope, though, that you've found this series thought-provoking. While I don't expect many of us will start showing up at church speaking of "divine Sophia," I do think some of the insights of sophiological theology might stick with you. The panentheistic idea that we exist in God. That our existence is rooted and grounded in divinity. That God works with our agency and choices cooperatively and synergistically. That God is not the cause of the world but its Creator. These are profound ideas worth, I think, the price of admission to this series.

In this, our final post, we'll wrap up by looking at Bulgakov's eschatological vision. 

Given that our existence exists within God, that our being is rooted in divinity, Bulgakov contends that: There is "an ontological connection...between our world and the world to come. They are one and the same world in its different states." And yet, this transition is not a smooth evolutionary process. Between this world and the next there is a "chasm." Something beyond our world enters our world, precipitating a radical transformation. Regarding the apocalyptic, "end of the world" imagery in the Bible, Bulgakov writes:

The fire of the world and the convulsion of the elements are symbolic images of the unimaginable, since the end of the world lies beyond the world's present being, transcends it. The idea that the cosmos is transformed, not abolished but transfigured, is expressed in images of the destruction of the old heaven and old earth and the "creation of a new heaven and a new earth."

...[The "end of the world"] is a renewal of the created world. It is a creative action of God upon the world.

Which bring us to the question everyone is keen to ask: What is the fate of humanity in the new heaven and earth?

As we know, traditional eschatologies posit a bifurcation here. The saved go off to eternal blessedness, and the damned to eternal torment. But given what we've learned about Bulgakov's theology, you would be correct to expect that he believes something different here.

Specifically, created existence, even in the next world, continues to possess a grounding in the divine, continues to exist within God. There is no other way to exist except in God. Relatedly, salvation isn't a unilateral act of God (as believed in Calvinism), but is, rather, synergistic and cooperative. Consequently, a open connection with God is never abolished, not even after death. And the reality of this connection allows Bulgakov to describe a vision of universal reconciliation. 

The Incarnation and resurrection of Jesus creates this ontological possibility. In the Incarnation all humanity was united with God. And in Christ all humanity was resurrected. As Bulgakov writes:

In Christ's resurrection...the whole human race was pre-resurrected, receiving the power of resurrection: "Christ is risen from the dead; he destroyed death by death and given life to those in the grave," as the Easter hymn says...The God-man is the all-man, and his resurrection is ontologically the universal resurrection...

Because all of humanity is connected to God's divine life the resurrected life of Jesus, with its power over death, is universally available to all of humanity. More from Bulgakov:

The resurrection of the dead is universal...The universality of the resurrection corresponds to the universal power of the Incarnation, in which the Lord assumed the entire human nature without any restriction or exclusion; and in his glorious resurrection all humankind is raised.

After the universal resurrection, secured for all of humanity at Easter, there is Judgment Day. Standing under the scrutiny of heaven, our lies and sin will be exposed to the light. This exposure is symbolized as fire in Scripture, a fire that does not destroy but purifies and transforms. Bulgakov:

Human being [will be] clothed in Christ, who is the Truth and the Life, by the life-giving Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth. This means that every human being is inwardly confronted with the truth about himself. Every human being sees himself in truth, by a vision that is not abstract but living, like the consuming flame of a fire from whose light one cannot hide, for all will become visible...

No falsehood, no self-deception, no error will have a place in the kingdom of truth, and this "exposure" by the Spirit of truth is already the judgment. By virtue of the truth this judgment becomes for everyone a self-judgment, a shedding of the veils of falsehood and self-deception that cover emptiness...This illuminating and transfiguring power is expressed in the image of fire, not natural of course but "spiritual," which will penetrate the "spiritual" body and the spirit itself. The fire of the future age consumes, but it also transfigures, illuminates, gladdens...

[E]very human being will be placed before his own eternal image in Christ, that is, before Christ. And in the light of this image, he will see his own reality, and this comparison will be the judgment. It is this that is the Last Judgment of Christ upon every human being.

Most importantly, our confrontation with Christ will result in repentance, as Bulgakov continues:

It is impossible to appear before Christ and to see Him without loving Him. In the resurrection there is no longer any place for anti-Christianity, for enmity toward Christ, for satanic hatred of Him, just as there is no place for fear of Him as the Judge terrible in His omnipotence and the fury of His wrath. The Lord will come as He was on earth: meek and humble in heart, though now in glory. But his meekness and humility will burn hearts by their love and their judgment. God-Love judges with love the sins against love.

In light of this, it is the fate of every human person to come to Christ. For Bulgakov, this outcome is the moral logic of creation. If God created the world then God will rescue the world. Bulgakov writes, "While belonging to the creaturely world, all human beings are, so to speak, obligated by God's love to live in divine life, in glory and deification. This is God's inalienable gift to creation, the completion of His work on the world." In this sense, the beginning of the world and its final redemption should be considered together in a single creative act. What God begins in creation God brings to completion in the new heaven and new earth.

Of course, as we face the exposure of Judgment, human beings find themselves, in that moment, further or closer to Christ. Our moral resumes vary. Consequently, eternal life implies growth rather than stasis. The vision of the afterlife here is one of gradual purgation and developmental transfiguration as we move from glory to glory. Because of this, eternal life is eternally dynamic and creative. Bulgakov:

Creaturely eternity is becoming, growth, ascent from glory to glory...[This growth] excludes the immobility and unchangeability of creaturely eternity...Infinite stages of eternity, an unending ladder of ascent from earth to heaven, are introduced here...The life of the spirit is constant creative activity and spontaneous mobility. Both the stupor of immobility, which is taken for eternity, and inert thingness are alien to this life. The spirit is actual and perpetually dynamic...Eternal life is a path, not a way station, not a stagnation in some nirvana. It is creative ascent in the reception of divine life and its revelations...

Eternal life, or eternal bliss, is deification, the reception of divine life, actualized in sophianization: "God will be all in all." 

Given the openness envisioned here, the specific question can then be asked and answered. What is the fate of those in hell?

For Bulgakov, hell is a problem for all of humanity. If one soul is lost, that affects everyone. As Bulgakov says, "Salvation not only concerns everyone individually, but it is also the business of the love, prayer, and effort of all of humanity, both of its healthy members and of those who are sick and need healing. Hell is therefore an affliction of all humanity." Consequently, Bulgakov continues, "The existence of hell is surrounded not by the cold of an egotistical indifference but by the radiant cloud of the caring love of saved humankind...In the Church, the one humankind is not divided into two and is not reconciled with the severing of one of its parts -- hell -- but sorrows over this part... [For] heaven does not exist in its fullness as long as and insofar as hell exists."

There can be no final healing, then, if humanity remains eternally separated. Nor will the creative act of God come to its final completion. Thus, in the end, all will be saved. Bulgakov:

[H]ell's torments of love necessarily contain the regenerating power of the expiation of sin by the experiencing it to the end. However, this creative experiencing is not only a passive state, in chains imposed from the outside. It is also an inwardly, synergistically accepted spiritual state...This state is appropriately perceived not as a juridical punishment but as an effect of God's justice, which is revealed in its inner persuasiveness. And its acceptance as a just judgment corresponds to an inner movement of the spirit, to a creative determination of the life of the spirit. And in its duration ("in ages of ages"), this life contains the possibility of creative suffering that heals, of a movement of the spirit from within toward good in its triumphant force and persuasiveness. Therefore, it is necessary to stop thinking of hell in terms of static and inert immobility, but instead to associate it with the dynamics of life, always creative and growing. Even in hell, the nature of the spirit remains unchanging in its creative changeability. Therefore, the state of hell must be understood as unceasing creative activity, or more precisely, self-creative activity, of the soul, although this state bears within itself a disastrous split, an alienation from its prototype [the Image of Christ]. All the same, the apostle Paul defines this state as a salvation, yet by fire, after the man's work is burned.

And again, for Bulgakov, this salvation of the lost, through the fires of hell, goes to the very logic of creation itself. "Otherwise," says Bulgakov, "creation would appear to be an error or failure, since it would end with the eternity of hell, even if this were accompanied by the eternity of heaven. An eternal separation of humanity into the elect and reprobate is clearly not the final meaning of creation. One must therefore suppose that this separation has an inner proportionality of grace that assures a final positive sum of all the pluses and minuses of history, a universal harmony, total and beautiful."

As Bulgakov powerfully concludes: 

"Only deification is capable of justifying creation. It is the only theodicy."

The Sophiology of Sergius Bulgakov: Part 5, Human Nature and Grace

Given the damage of sin, how does Bulgakov's sophiological theology envision grace and salvation?

I think the first thing to note is that Bulgakov is an Orthodox theologian. Which means that, for Bulgakov, salvation is more ontological than forensic.

By forensic I mean the Protestant focus on human guilt and divine forgiveness. For many Protestants, these forensic ideas are captured by what is called penal substitutionary atonement. In this view, being "lost" means standing under the judgment of God as a sinner. Salvation is having this judgment removed by Christ who paid/atoned for our crimes by taking the penalty upon himself.

For the Orthodox, by contrast, being "lost" isn't a forensic issue but is, rather, an ontological predicament. Due to sin, human being is weakened and made vulnerable to the powers of sin and death. It is this weakness and vulnerability that demands attention. Consequently, where Protestants have exclusively focused upon the death of Jesus in their forensic discussions of salvation, the Orthodox have focused upon the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and Pentecost. For in these events God comes to strengthen human being, and through this connection triumph over the powers of sin and death. Thus, the Orthodox vision of salvation is less about "forgiveness," a forensic focus, than upon theosis, the divinization of human being. Salvation is an ontological transformation.

With that understanding in hand, you can anticipate how Bulgakov would place Sophia at the heart of salvation. Again, Bulgakov's issue is divine mediation, how God relates to creation. In a conversation about salvation, then, especially one with an ontological focus as with the Orthodox, the question of grace concerns how God works to rehabilitate human being that has been wounded by sin. How does the divinization of human being and creation happen? As Bulgakov says, what we need here is an "ontology of grace." He writes:

Two aspects are naturally distinguished in the doctrine of grace: the sending down of grace by God's power and its reception by creation. The relation between these two aspects and their effects, as well as the foundation and ultimate goal of this relation, must become the object of theological (or, more precisely, a sophiological) interpretation.

Crudely speaking, how do nature and grace "dock" when they "make contact," what is the nature of this relation? 

For Bulgakov, the "docking" between nature and grace is sophiological. Grace comes to us from the Divine Sophia (the divine life of God) which draws the creaturely Sophia (the created world) to herself. The path of salvation is sophiological. The creaturely world soul is slowly drawn into a participation with the life of God. Western theologians describe salvation in a similar way, as coming to participate in the life of the Trinity. The Orthodox sophiological tradition agrees, but digs deeper, trying to explain the "how" this could happen, an attempt to understand the "ontology of grace." For example, what do you mean by "the life" of the Trinity? What is this "life" you speak of? Well, for the Orthodox sophiological tradition the life, or ousia, of God, is Sophia. Thus, to be drawn into the life of God is to be drawn into the Divine Sophia. And how can this happen? Because, as we've seen already in this series, human being is already grounded in the divine life, already, as the creaturely Sophia, connected to the Divine Sophia. And because of this ontological connection, divine connected to divine, creaturely Sophia to Divine Sophia, there is, if I can but it this way, a natural path for theosis. The sophiological connection between God and humanity is that path. As Bulgakov says, "[The] ontological possibly of 'salvation' through deification is predetermined by the very creation of man in the image of God."

Simply stated, if salvation is an ontological predicament, a question of how human being is to be reconnected with and drawn into the life of God, the Orthodox sophiological tradition answers that question by positing a divine connection between God and humanity. That is to say, since human being is grounded in divinity it is predisposed to enjoy divine life with God. In the Incarnation, Resurrection and Pentecost, a sophiological pathway is established between God and humanity. The road is opened for theosis. 

There are three critical points at work in this vision. 

The first is that the wound of sin never wholly or completely severs our sophiological connection to God. Again, because we exist, we are rooted in divinity. And that divinity continues to maintain a bridge to God. As Bulgakov says, "This connection [between the Divine and creaturely Sophia] is never interrupted, never terminated, for otherwise the foundations of being, unshakably laid by God, the Creator and Almighty, would crumble away." Sin does not erase the image of God in humanity. As Bulgakov argues, the effect of sin is "only a certain darkening...of the image of God with the weakening of freedom, though man is seen as preserving the capacity for good in counteraction to evil. Therefore, man's creative power is, in general, preserved." Because our humanity is founded upon divinity, our fall cannot be a total catastrophe. Sin darkens the image of God within us, and weakens us, but the image is not eradicated. 

Secondly, sin does not destroy human freedom. Nor does God override human freedom unilaterally. God works with human freedom relationally. God cooperates with human freedom. Bulgakov's vision is synergistic, God's will and our will is a partnership. As Bulgakov argues, 

Divinity can act upon the person only by interacting with it on the basis of creaturely freedom...[God] acts without coercing; that is, He persuades, limiting his power to the measure of creaturely receptivity. This is precisely synergism, as the form of divine providence with regard to human beings...

Divine providence is therefore a dialogue of God's wisdom and omnipotence with free creaturely life...Providence shows absolute skill and inventiveness in correcting and fulfilling the actions of creaturely freedom [in] guiding the world to salvation; but it always respects the originality and freedom of creation...The relation of the Creator to creation in "synergism" always remains meek and restrained, the kenosis of God in creation...God waits for creaturely freedom...

Ontologically, man cannot get rid of freedom even if he so desires, for it is the mode of the very being of the creaturely spirit...Creaturely freedom is naturally afflicted by selfhood, from which it can free itself only by voluntary self-renunciation, in the death on the cross. Therefore, the supreme freedom is the one that is manifested in the obedience of the Handmaid of the Lord: "be it unto me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38)...Through this acceptance we discover this will that acts in the whole life of the world. This faith in divine providence does not paralyze our creative activity in freedom and does not condemn us to the quietistic passivity of fatalism. On the contrary, it reinforces our will to search for the right way to accomplish God's will in us and through us, in true "synergism."

An obvious point to make about all this is that Bulgakov is completely rejecting Calvinism, its view of "total depravity," the bondage of the will, and the monergistic doctrine of election, where God alone acts in effecting salvation. 

The final point to make concerns how grace relates to human nature. As noted above, given the sophiological connection between God (Divine Sophia) and the world (creaturely Sophia), human nature has an innate, natural capacity for God. As Bulgakov argues, 

Between "natural" or creaturely being and supernatural grace there must be an ontologically positive relation, without which grace would be deux ex machina, an ontological violence done to creation, and not the elevation of creation to its proto-image [in the Divine Sophia]...

The existence of "natural" grace is a necessary precondition for the reception of grace in the strict sense. This reception presupposes in creation a conformity with divinity that is actualized in deification by grace. "Natural grace" is precisely the humanity that contains the image and likeness of God. In virtue of the divine image and likeness, human beings are called to Divine-humanity, which is the union of the two natures in Christ. Divine-humanity extends to all humankind, which possesses "natural grace" or sophianicity by its creation...

All the aspects of grace and the modes of its bestowal have as their sole purpose and content the elevation of creatures to deification, the imprinting of the image of divinity in the creaturely likeness. Outside of this relation, in the absence of "natural grace," that is, in the absence of the conformity of creation with its Creator, such an imprinting would be an ontological coercion, just as impossible as the transformation of an ape into an angel or a stone into a human being...

The vision here is that God uses this innate and natural connection to grace to cooperate, synegistically and relationally, with the human person to draw us deeper and deeper into the divine life. Grounded in divinity, humans have a natural capacity for grace. Our nature is to seek and rest in God. Sin doesn't erase this capacity. Sin does, however, weaken us, which means that God must actively seek us. Otherwise, we'd be lost. But we, for our part, must also reach out and seek God. Salvation engages us in active participation. As Bulgakov summarizes:

Grace is not a divine coercion over the human nature; it is not something accidental, something alien to man, that does not have to be, that exists as a kind of happy caprice. On the contrary, grace is the actualization of the Divine-humanity of which the seed was implanted in man by virtue of his creation in the image of God and which was accomplished through his communion with God in the Incarnation and the Pentecost. Grace gains this power in the gradual and unceasing approach towards one another of the divine nature and the human nature. In grace, man knows and realizes the foundation of his proper being. "Not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20), by the Holy Spirit, who unites God with man. Life in Christ is given to man, and is also proposed to him as a goal; he is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 25

"I wait for you"

That declaration--"I wait for you"--is heard twice in Psalm 25. It's such a plaintive cry.

With the cry "I wait for you" I'm put in mind of Advent, which is right around the corner. It has long been observed that low-church Protestants who try to appropriate Advent just don't understand Advent. For many, Advent is just a way to extend the Christmas season. But Advent and Christmas are two different seasons, each with distinctive emotional tones. Advent is to Christmas as Lent is to Easter. 

A lot of the problem is hymnody. Low-church Protestants just don't know that many Advent hymns. They know "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and maybe "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus." And that's pretty much it. This makes it very hard to plan worship for the four Sundays of Advent when you only have two songs to sing over and over again! And so, worship pastors are forced to prematurely dip into the Christmas carols. Expectant groaning and waiting is displaced by joy and celebration. I remember a few years ago at my church when the very first hymn on the very first Sunday of Advent was "Joy to the World." That's like saying "He is Risen!" on Ash Wednesday. 

All this isn't just liturgical snobbery on my part. Waiting is at the heart of the religious life. 

At the start of the spiritual journey waiting on God is experienced as frustrating and alienating. God seems uncaring, passive, and delaying. There are severe temptations here. Waiting can sour into disillusionment and disillusionment can curdle into unbelief. 

But as you spiritually mature, waiting is transformed into deep soul work. You come to realize you've spent most of your time waiting on some good outcome to transpire. Waiting on God to "do something." You slowly come to see that you've never really been waiting for God. You've been waiting for some favor or blessing, but not for God himself. 

I've waited for this or that, but I haven't waited for you

The Sophiology of Sergius Bulgakov: Part 4, The Elemental and Damaged World

Given what we've discovered about the sophiology of Sergius Bulgakov, the everything is spiritual panenthism, one could rightly describe his theology as "optimistic." Humanity and all of creation is founded upon divinity. That's a really beautiful and captivating idea. 

Which raises the question: What about sin and suffering in this "everything is spiritual" world? 

Let's explore those aspects of Bulgakov's theology in this post.

In a sense, Bulgakov's sophiological treatment of sin, suffering, and evil flows out of his optimistic vision of the cosmos as founded upon divinity. Specifically, creaturely freedom plays a central role. As Bulgakov says, "Evil comes from creaturely freedom." A related issue here is creaturely becoming. Since the creaturely Sophia has a life that is marked by a degree of autonomy from God--the contrast between the creaturely and Divine Sophia--it is characterized by finitude. And finitude implies boundaries. As Bulgakov says, "Perfection is what is sought by, not given, to creatures." Given these limitations of creaturely life, there is a capacity for error and imperfection. Bulgakov: "The creative self-determination of creatures is subject to imperfection and error [which] allows for different paths and possibilities." Creation, then, is on a journey of becoming, actualizing, and seeking its final end, but these paths are not fixed or predetermined. Bulgakov:

Error and imperfection are, in a certain sense, the privilege of creatures, since their relation to the world is neither automatic nor instinctive. If the world were an would operate with the precision of a mechanism or with the infallibility of instinct, but then there would be no place for creaturely creativity, which is synonymous with life. 

Concerning creaturely freedom, as an Orthodox theologian, Bulgakov subscribes to the traditional view of a "double fall," an angelic rebellion followed by a human one. Much of the evil and chaos we observe in the world is a wound and sickness Satan has inflicted upon the "world soul" of the creaturely Sophia. As Bulgakov says, "The world soul becomes sick with demon possession." Human rebellion also contributes its share of damage. 

Beyond the choices made in creaturely freedom, angelic and human, creation itself is characterized by raw powers and vital forces that are, as yet, untamed. Bulgakov:

[T]he world receives an independence to follow its destinies. This independence is realized in the world soul as the universal connecetedness, the total unity of creaturely being. The world soul is the creaturely Sophia in her actualization in being...[T]he world soul actualized the instinctive and, in this sense, blind thirst for and power of being. Her diverse elements sprout to life not only in harmonious agreement but also crowding one another, in a kind of "struggle for existence," according to their elemental nature. And this elemental nature contains not only the principle of life but also "Chronos devouring his children." It is not only...divine abundance but also...its own imperfection.

Therefore, in its proper being, the world soul is divided into "heaven and earth," as it were, the world of the angels as bearers of the sophianic prototypes of creation and the world of earth's reality, which has beneath it the seething tobu vabohu ["without form and void" from Genesis 1.3], the primordial chaos. Creation arises through the elemental forces of the world soul that it contains.

Summarizing, due to creaturely freedom life is open to creative possibilities, and some of those possibilities are marred by error and imperfection. In addition, creation itself is infused with raw, vital, and elemental forces that can be both destructive and harnessed for creative ends. These elemental forces are a source of life, creativity, and abundance, but they can also bring about suffering. The raw force of nature, in the words of Bulgakov, possess a "blindness and elemental character."  

Looked at, then, as a whole, creation is in an unfinished state. Bulgakov: "It follows that the world in its actual state is by no means a perfect and finished mechanism, a mechanism that does not require active care or the guidance of God's providence...[Creation] can be subject to perversion and damage, being transformed from God's garden into an accursed earth. Through this perversion, the world, despite the sophianic roots of its being, can resist the ways of God."

Give this situation, the perversions and damage, along with the blind elemental forces, creation is set on a journey of becoming itself. In both its openness and raw potentialities, creation is unfinished. Thus, when God created the world, he didn't create a static, final perfection. Creation is not a glass menagerie or a fine china display. Humans are not robots or God's doll collection. Created life is, well, life. Open. Vital. Raw. Free. God created elemental forces and creaturely freedom as the raw materials for a creative endeavor. Creation is a task. Bulgakov:

Once it is summoned into being by God...[the world] faces the task of becoming itself, of actualizing its perfection in the creaturely Sophia on the basis of creaturely freedom. Therefore, in the life of nature, we have both the shining of the creaturely Sophia, the revelation of paradise, and the seething of the blind element, natural chaos...Nature is the symphony of the world that seeks the harmony of the spheres and to overcome its own dissonances. 

God and humanity work together in this, helping creation fulfill the task of becoming itself. And, obviously, humanity cannot do this task all on its own. God must act to help humanity tame creation and to overcome its damage, imperfections, perversions, and error. Grace is needed. We'll turn to that in the next post.

The Sophiology of Sergius Bulgakov: Part 3, God is Not the Cause of the World, but its Creator

After two posts, you might be asking, "What's the win here in exploring Bulgakov's sophiology? What's to be gained by thinking about this strange, new thing?" 

Well, I hope you saw one win in the last post. The panentheistic vision of Bulgakov's sophiology reveals to us that all of creation, because it exists, because it is real, is founded upon God's divinity. Everything is spiritual. And this, I would argue, is a critical and valuable insight. Sophiology rebuts the perverse materialism that haunts our increasingly post-Christian world. To borrow from Hunting Magic Eels, sophiology is a very enchanting theology. In the imagery of Stephen Freeman, instead of living in a two-story universe, with God upstairs in heaven and we downstairs on earth, we are, instead, living in a one-story universe where God is, in Freeman's words, "everywhere present and filling all things." 

For example, Bulgakov describes the creaturely Sophia, the divine foundation of creation, as "the world soul," God's life inhabiting, sustaining, holding, and catalyzing creation. As Bulgakov says, Sophia is "the life of the world," "she is the eternal foundation for the soul of the world, the soul of the soul." Humanity, thus, has a dual nature, what Bulgakov calls "divine-humanity." As he describes, "The roots of a person's being are submerged in the bottomless ocean of divine life and get their nourishment from this life." And all of creation has this dual character: "All of creation has in God a supratemporal foundation and through this foundation participates in eternity, for the creaturely Sophia is the image of the Divine Sophia."

The creaturely Sophia is also the "entelechy" of the world. Entelechy was a word coined by Aristotle, and it describes how being actualizes in moving toward its final goal, how the potentialities of being come to be fully realized. So, it's not just that creation has a divine foundation, the "world soul" is also dynamically and actively drawing creation toward its final end. Creation is "going somewhere." Since the creaturely Sophia abides in the divine Sophia it is through this "Sophia-connection," to put it awkwardly, that God is drawing all of creation into a sharing of his divine life. As Bulgakov says, "The creaturely Sophia is becoming the image and likeness of the Divine Sophia." This is the Orthodox idea of theosis and divinization.

Now, you might find all of this a bit too mystical or woo-woo. But that is precisely why we're doing this series. Whether or not you can follow or agree with all this Sophia stuff, exploring this unique area of Christian theology should, at the very least, push back on some bad habits of mind. Deistic habits like imagining God at a distance, living "upstairs" in heaven. Also materialistic habits of mind that fail to see that everything is spiritual, that because things are real they are resting on God. Some mystical Christian woo-woo just might be what the doctor ordered. 

Beyond sophiology interrupting the bad habits of our overly deistic and material imaginations, it also interrupts how our theological imaginations have been colonized by causality. Thinking of God as a "cause" has been a pernicious habit of mind which has resulted in a lot of consternation and confusion. As Bulgakov says, "this conception of God as the 'first' cause of the world represents an age-old misunderstanding, which must be eradicated from both philosophy and theology." A goal of sophiology is to help us see that God is not a cause. 

According to Bulgakov, one of the mistakes of the Western theological tradition has been to imagine that God relates to the world through causality. That is, when we say that God "creates" the world we imagine this as a cause/effect relationship. God is the "First Cause" or the "Uncaused Cause" setting off a chain of causation. This is a mistake, according to Bulgakov. God's relationship to the world is sophianic, not causal. What might this mean? Well, when we imagine the relationship between a cause and its effect, we imagine something mechanical or deterministic occurring. Also, the relationship between cause and effect becomes severed over time. If the cueball hits the eight-ball the eight-ball moves away. After being struck, there is no enduring "relationship" between the cue ball and the eight-ball. In short, imagining God's relation to the world as being causal creates the deistic, God-working-at-a-physical-and-temporal-distance imagination which sophiology is trying to overcome.

Describing Sophia as the "world soul," then, is simply an attempt to posit some living, vital, and animating connection between the world and God. A casual, mechanical "deadness" does not describe how God relates to the world. God is not the Big Domino that pushes around us little dominos. Rather, through the sophianic connection, God's life is filling and vitalizing creaturely existence. Instead of deterministic chains of cause and effect, creation is suffused with creative and vital potencies and energies that flow from the spiritual foundation of the world. 

In addition, sophiology restores Personhood to the connection between God and the world. God is not a cause, God is a Person. Consequently, God's connection to the world is not mechanical and causal but wholly personal and relational. Taking an image from the Psalms, in God's relationship to the world "deep calls to deep." Following Martin Buber, God's Thou addresses our Thou. Creation is not a machine. Creation is a relationship.

Now, if you're imagining here, in my descriptions of the vitality of the "world soul," something like the pagan conception of Gaia and the divine feminine principle of the world, a potency and power that catalyzes, vitalizes, animates, and energizes all of creation, a pervasive and dynamic spiritual power that makes the cosmos crackle and pop, well, you're close to the vision of creaturely Sophia. The key difference is that the pagan vision of Gaia is pantheistic, whereas the sophianic vision of Sophia is panentheistic. Here, then, is another win in investigating sophiology for those who are interested in exploring connections between Christian theology and pagan spiritualities. 

Okay, then, if God is not to be considered a cause, how does God relate to the world? According to Bulgakov, God is not cause but Creator. Bulgakov:

To determine the actual relation between God and the world, another category must be used, a category for which there is no place in the immanence of the world. This category must be used to [preserve] both the positive connection between God and the world and the ontological distance between them. This category is not cause, or motion, but creation and createdness. God is not the cause, or mover, of the world. He is the world's Creator (as well as the world's Preserver and Provider...), and the world is God's creation. Philosophical and theological usage often do not notice the entire essential distinction between these categories...Translating the language of creationism into the language of causality, people say and think that the createdness of the world signifies the world's causal dependence upon God, whereas what actually exists here is a difference that approaches oppositeness...God the Creator is above and outside the causality that exists in the the world itself. In this sense, God is not the cause of the world but its Creator, just as the world is not an effect of divine causality but God's creation. God and the world are not related as cause and effect by analogy to the mechanical causality of the world...They are linked in another way, by another connection...

Sophia, the Wisdom through which God creates and sustains the world, is this different connection. Recall, Bulgakov's big theme is divine mediation, how God relates to the world. According to Bulgakov, most of Western theology (wrongly) thinks about this relation as being mechanical and causal. In contrast, Bulgakov posits Sophia, which replaces a dead, mechanical, and impersonal connection between God and the world with a living, ongoing, vitalizing, and personal relationship. Sophia replaces the Domino Idea of God as "first cause" or "prime mover." Here's an overly simplified way of describing this:

Western Domino View of God's Relation to the World:

God --> Cause --> World

Sophiological Creational View of God's Relation to the World:

God --> Sophia --> World

God <-- Sophia <--World

Notice, in the sophiological view, that God relates to the world through God's own life, Divine Sophia giving life to the creaturely Sophia. Notice also how that divine life doesn't just create the world, but acts to draw the world into the life of God, which is theosis. Creation, then, isn't a one time event. Creation is an entire journey that starts with a birth but fully culminates in sharing the life of God. This entire span, from birth to final goal, is God's creative relationship with the world. God is both our origin and our end.

The theological wins here, in my estimation, come in how this vision of the world helps us escape the materialistic, reductionistic, and deterministic imaginations we find in the scientism of people like the New Atheists. But even among Christians this scientistic imagination reigns. Viewing the world as a machine, and God as a mechanic who tinkers with it, is, sadly, the default way Westerners--Christian and Non-Christian--tend to think about the world. In this sense, the pagan conceptions of Gaia and the divine feminine are more Christian than how most Christians in the West think about the world. Where most Western Christians think of God as the Big Cause in the Sky, pagans see the world as suffused with divine power, life, and potencies. And the pagans have the better imagination here. Consequently, exploring Orthodox sophiology can be good medicine for Western Christians whose imaginations have been bent by viewing God's relation to the world as being that of a cause to its effect.

So, write this down and put it in your pocket so that you won't forget:

God is not the cause of the world, but its Creator.