How Important is Love? (1) love as secondary to faith

This is a first of a wee series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.

Here’s a proposal: there is a curious ambivalence towards love within quite a bit of post-Reformational Protestantism / evangelicalism. (Love in Catholic theology has a distinctly different flavour – maybe that’s a topic for another day).

By ambivalence I mean that, while love is extolled and spoken of as a good thing, it is somehow not at the heart of doctrine or preaching.

Does this sound familiar to you? What is the place of love in your theology and in your experience?

Obviously this is a broad claim, but at a general level I think a good case can be made for it. For example, how do you read Romans and Galatians or had them explained and preached to you? Is it something like the following?

In Romans, chapters 1-8 form the great doctrinal core of the book (sin, justification by faith, gift of the Spirit), 9-11 the confusing bit about Israel and then the ‘applied theology’ bit on practical Christian living from chapters 12 on?

In Galatians, a bit of Pauline biography in chapters 1-2, the great doctrinal core of the book (justification, adoption) from 2-4 and then secondary practical instructions on ethical Christian living in chapters 5-6.

In both, the ‘practical’ tends to be seen as secondary to the ‘doctrinal’. They are ‘follow ons’ – advice and commands that should flow from the doctrinal … but what really matters is getting doctrine of justification by faith right.

Faith is primary. Chronologically this makes sense – the Christian life follows from conversion. But, I suggest (and this is a blog post – it would need proper research) historically the dominance of justification, the strong distinction made between it and subsequent sanctification and what I call the ‘anxious Protestant principle’ of works being smuggled into saving faith, has meant that place of love within Paul’s thought has either been downplayed or simply overlooked.

Some time ago the NT scholar John Barclay said this about the relative neglect of chapters 5 and 6 of Galatians in 20th century exegesis:  (Obeying the Truth: Paul’s Ethics in Galatians. 1988. Fortress.)

[I]t is a by-product of the “Lutheran” theological consensus. If one considers that the main thrust of Paul’s attacks on “works of the law” is against human works and achievement, one is apt to conclude that his specific ethical instructions are merely an appendix or, perhaps, an attempt to prevent himself from being misunderstood as antinomian. To give these instructions any more integral place would be to admit that Paul also is concerned to promote works.

So love (and the ‘works’ of the Christian life in general) are not integral to saving faith. Note that Barclay is NOT saying that Luther taught this (we’ll come back to what he did teach about faith and love in a later post), he is saying it is a symptom of later theological post-Reformational theological emphases.

On this tack, another scholar, Stephen Chester, gives the example of Lutheran scholar Gerhard Ebeling’s major work The Gospel of Truth (2001) on Galatians in which 230 pages are given to chapters 1-4 and a paltry 25 to chapters 5-6. For Ebeling, yes, love (and works associated with it) is important, but it is nevertheless subsidiary to core doctrinal priorities of the letter. As Chester comments, the impression is given that Paul’s argument is essentially complete at the end of chapter 4 (and a similar point could be made for Romans – effectively the really important doctrinal argument is finished by the end of chapter 8).  (Stephen Chester, ‘Faith Working Through Love (Galatians 5:6): The Role of Human Deeds in Salvation in Luther and Calvin’s Exegesis’).

There is something gone awry here because this relegation of love just does not ‘fit’ Paul – nor does it do justice to Jesus or to John or the tone of the New Testament in general.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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Jesus: the smile of God

[This is a copy of my column in the last edition of VOX.]

One of the best (and also challenging) things about Church is that it throws all sorts of people together who would otherwise probably never interact with each other. For example, it’s rare, I think, in our culture for deep friendships to be formed across generations. But, despite being ancient (in my 50s), it is a delight to have good friends who are a generation younger. Two such couples had their first baby last year. It’s been a joy to see their joy. And, since I have just finished a draft of a book on love, it got me thinking about the love of parents for their children.

Now I know that, sadly, this is not always the case, but there is nothing fiercer or more tender than parental love. The mother and father envelop their baby in love; they would do anything for the well-being of that little bundle of life. They bombard their baby with smiles (and various clucking and cooing noises along with weird facial expressions). Eventually this tiny new person smiles back.

baby smileThat first smile is a transcendent moment and is what these musings are about.

In reading about love I came across these comments by a Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.[1] He writes that

‘After a mother [I’d add father as well!] has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives her child’s response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child’.

The baby is loved into loving.

And von Balthasar then draws parallels between parental love and God’s love.

God interprets himself to man as love in the same way: he radiates love, which kindles the light of love in the heart of man, and it is precisely this light that allows man to perceive this, the absolute Love: “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has [shone] in our heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). In this face, the primal foundation of being smiles at us as a mother and as a father. Insofar as we are his creatures, the sea of love lies dormant within us as the image of God (imago). But just as no child can be awakened to love without being loved, so too no human heart can come to an understanding of God without the free gift of his grace – in the image of his Son.

This is a beautiful and moving picture.

It is also profoundly biblical. John writes that ‘love is from God’ because ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:7-8). ‘We love because he first loved us” (4:19). That love takes flesh-and-blood form in the self-giving love of Jesus: ‘This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him’ (4:9). And it is in our response of love that we come to a knowledge of who God is: ‘Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God’ (4:7).

Think about that for a moment: John tells us that we love in order to know. That’s a radical thought in a culture which thinks that knowledge equals information and facts and ‘know-how’ and has nothing to do with love.

Another theologian, James K. A. Smith, puts it this way,

The smile of the cherishing mother [again, what about dads?!] that evokes the smile of the infant is a microcosm of a cosmic truth: that God’s gracious initiative in the incarnation – “he first loved us” – is the provoking smile of a Creator who meets us in the flesh, granting even the grace that allows us to love him in return.

Jesus as the smile of God.

Now that’s an image to mull over the next time you hold a happy baby in your arms.

[1] All the following quotes are drawn from J. K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love (Brazos Press, 2016) pp. 111-12.

Vox 10th Anniversary

vox 10thCongratulations to the team at VOX magazine led by Ruth Garvey-Williams and Jonny Lindsay for their January 10th anniversary edition.

It is a remarkable achievement; the quality of production, done on a shoestring budget, is outstanding and the magazine has grown to be a unique place of news, discussion,  reviews and reflections concerning Christianity in Ireland.

But more than this, what strikes me reading it is the passion of Christians all over Ireland to serve their God by serving others. The Apostle John says that

whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20)

Yes the Church is imperfect, it is full of imperfect people – I’m one for sure. Yes it is often divided relationally and theologically. Yes, there is much to be concerned about and lament over. Yes, it can be especially hard going in a local church when there is disagreement and division.

But it was ever so – as a quick read of Corinthians and Galatians and James will remind us! The real challenge is to develop constructive criticism that builds up and does not just tear down.

So at times I get a bit weary of endless criticisms of the local church – and have to watch that critical spirit in myself. This is why VOX has been, I think, a blessing to the church in Ireland.

It has taken some risks to host debate – and the 10th Edition gives space to leaders talking honestly about challenges facing the Irish church.

But it has also given voice to how the heartbeat of the Christian faith is ‘faith expressing itself through love’ (Galatians 5:6). Faith in Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, leads to a life that looks outwards from the self to others. And that is what I see in story after story in VOX.

So thank you VOX for 10 years and best wishes for the ones ahead.

Paul’s non-violent Gospel is for all believers

Let me be upfront in this post – any believer who argues that Christians, in particular circumstances, are justified in engaging in war and violence is pushing against the overwhelming ethos of the New Testament and early Church History.

Rather than Christian non-violence being seen as a ‘minority report’ within much of later Western Church history, it should be the other way around – that there should be a default scepticism and ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ around Christian ‘just war’ theory because it is so manifestly out of step with Jesus, Paul and the rest of the NT.

This isn’t just an ‘ethical issue’ – non-violence is integral to the gospel, it should shape the lives, attitudes and words of all Christian disciples.

Below is a review of mine of a book making a convincing case along these lines for Paul. Jesus’ teaching to love enemies and of non-retaliation is not just some idealised unrealistic ethic that can be left safely with the ‘perfect man’ – it was embodied within Paul’s own experience and understanding of the gospel itself.

Have a read and see what you think – comments welcome

Jeremy Gabrielson: gabrielsonPaul’s Non-Violent Gospel: The Theological Politics of Peace in Paul’s Life and Letters (Pickwick Publications: Eugene OR, 2013. Pbk. pp.204. ISBN 978-1-62032-945-0)

This book represents the fruit of a PhD completed at the University of St Andrews under the supervision of Bruce Longenecker. Gabrielson’s theme is that non-violence for Paul was “not simply an ethical implication of the gospel, but is itself constitutive of the politics of the gospel.” (168)

By this he means that the gospel forms a counter-cultural political body that responds to evil and enmity not with violence or force but with good. The motive for such counter-intuitive enemy-love is not to avoid suffering. Rather, quoting Yoder, it “heralds to the cosmos that in God’s kingdom ‘the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history’.”(169)

A distinctive element of Gabrielson’s articulation of Christian non-violence is his focus on how Paul’s personal biography of violence informs his theology. In other words, Paul’s teaching of peace and non-retaliation are not merely generalised ethical principles drawn from his Jewish context (important though that is) but should be interpreted through the grid of the apostle’s dramatic experience of supporting and subsequently renouncing violence.

This thesis is unpacked in most detail in the longest chapter in the book, ‘Trajectories of Violence and Peace in Galatians’. The ‘pre-Christian’ Paul is a violent persecutor (1:13, 23) who tried to ‘destroy’ the fledgling messianic movement of Jesus-followers. Gabrielson is cautious about filling in the details of Paul’s account via the later writings of Luke; he argues that Paul’s own words (‘destroy’ and ‘persecute’) presuppose physical violence. Based on parallel examples in Philo, he suggests that Paul’s exceptional zeal could have been understood as a virtue whereby perceived transgression of the Torah would rightly have been violently punished. So, while there is no explicit mention in Paul of being involved in killing, his own language, the Jewish context and the documented experience of the first Christians of violent persecution all combine to support such a possibility.

This leads Gabrielson to propose that Paul’s experience of the risen Christ not only causes deep and profound shifts in his understanding of the law, faith and righteousness but also in his understanding of a peaceable life that pleases God. Gone is the notion of ‘righteous violence’. Instead, the humiliating and debasing horror of crucifixion is reimagined to a degree that the apostle can rejoice that he has been ‘crucified with Christ’ and his former self no longer lives (Gal. 2:19-20) now that he is a ‘slave’ (1:10) of Christ. Gabrielson concludes

“The violent Paul died when Christ was apocalypsed in him; now Christ-in-Paul shapes Paul’s life in the flesh in a cruciform existence.” (95)

This stance frames the author’s unpacking of Galatians’ rich understanding of the Christian life. New life in the Spirit will embrace and overcome suffering. It will be a life of love and giving; bearing burdens and enacting forgiveness. It leads to the paradox of Christian freedom, where freedom takes the form of voluntary ‘slavery’ of love and obedience to the risen Lord.

This new life leads to a new political order of ‘doing good’ to all, especially the household of God (6:9). Yet peaceableness does not mean that violence will not come one’s way. This is why Paul warns his communities that the violent world would probably do its violent worst – they should expect suffering and trouble.  But their response was to repay evil with good; to embody a politics of peace in the face of a politics of violence.

Gabrielson’s argument is well made and persuasive. A vast amount of scholarly attention has been, and continues to be, focused on Paul, righteousness and the law. This is perfectly understandable given the weight and breadth of the theological issues at stake. Those debates revolve around questions such as how exactly did the ‘new’ Paul differ from the ‘old’ Paul?; what was Paul ‘converted’ from?; what were the continuities and discontinuities in his understanding of the Torah? It is refreshing to see another, frequently overlooked, angle to these sorts of questions unpacked in this book – that of Paul’s shift from violence to non-violence.

Paul, Gabrielson argues, did not come to such a remarkable and counter-cultural position lightly. In an opening context-setting chapter on ‘The End of Violence in Matthew’, he argues that the Gospel makes plain, on multiple levels, that Jesus was remembered as the Messiah who, despite living in a culture steeped in violence, chose non-violent resistance – and that choice cost him his life.

Paul’s general commitment to non-violence is traced in a subsequent chapter on ‘The Memory of a Non-Violent Jesus in Paul’s Letters’. After careful analysis of Jesus Tradition in Paul, Gabrielson concludes that Paul, ‘like virtually every early Christian author’, included the most memorable and startling elements of Jesus’ teaching. Living peaceably in a violent world was one of the

“most salient features of the teaching and example of the historical Jesus … because it was this Jesus who was recognizable as staying true to the living voice of Apostolic testimony” (78).

A further chapter focuses on supporting evidence for this conclusion drawn from a study of 1 Thessalonians. The case made here is that as early as 50 CE Paul is exhorting Thessalonian Christians to imitate the peaceful response of non-violent perseverance to suffering earlier demonstrated by the Judean churches (1 Thes 2:14-16). If referring to the Judean church’s suffering under Paul’s own persecution in the early 30s CE, this locates Christian non-violence at the earliest possible stage of church history in a non-Pauline church. The implications are significant: the practice of Christian non-violence was demonstrably evident in every geopolitical context (Palestinian, Asian, Greek and Roman Christianity) and under different founding missionaries and leaders.

In other words, non-violence is intrinsic to the gospel of Jesus Christ – who pioneered the non-violent politics of the kingdom of God for his disciples to follow.

A significant hermeneutical question lurks in the background of Gabrielson’s analysis. Namely, is Paul’s biography of violence paradigmatic for all believers?

While not exploring contemporary implications in detail, Gabrielson believes it is. A life of non-violence is not just a personal ethical ‘choice’ for a Christian; it is an intrinsic part of belonging to the new age of the Spirit.

“The sway of the cosmos, the old-age modus operandi, led to Paul’s violence, but Paul’s new modus operandi, his new trajectory involves living into the new creation which has as its gravitational center the cross of Christ” (99-100).

At one point Gabrielson quotes approvingly from Michael Gorman’s excellent book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (158-9) that

“If the conversion of Paul, grounded in the resurrection of Christ, is paradigmatic, it is paradigmatic in multiple ways, not least of which is his conversion from violence to non-violence.”

Such a conclusion is, of course, highly contested. The biblical and theological case for Christian non-violence has been well mapped out, as have Christian counter arguments. While this book does not offer anything radically new to those discussions, it does add a fresh, coherent and strong strand to the case for Christian non-violence.

There are some weaker points and omissions. It is not clear that Galatians 2:10 is Paul speaking autobiographically of his ‘old’ violent self. The link from righteous violence in Philo to righteous violence in Paul is possible, but theoretical. The conclusions drawn from 1 Thessalonians are implicit rather than explicit. It is surprising that there is no discussion of Romans 13 given its significance in how Paul’s relationship with violence has been interpreted historically.

But overall, if Gabrielson is right, and I believe he is, this work has profound implications for all Christians globally.

It also highlights how, such is the coherence and unified witness of Paul and the other writers of the New Testament, that a Christian argument for a just use of violence is almost inevitably forced to go beyond the biblical texts to try to find other grounds on which to base its case.

Murder your Darlings : a footnote on justification

This is basically an out-of-control footnote in something I was writing – making the case for incorporated righteousness or union with Christ as the best way of thinking about justification by faith. It got edited out because it was too long and not central to what I was writing about.

As Stephen King the horror writer says, you have got to Murder Your Darlings when writing! I confess to finding that hard to do and so need a ruthless editor.

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Roman Catholic theology (The Council of Trent’s ‘Decree Concerning Justification’ is still the most authoritative pronouncement) teaches infused righteousness whereby justification is not participation in God’s or Jesus’ own righteousness but is an imparted gift of our own righteousness (through the sacrament of baptism). This righteousness grows with our cooperation with the Spirit in the form of good works. Justification is therefore an ongoing process that culminates in demonstrating sufficient righteousness for final salvation.

But this fails to take account of how in Paul, justification is based on God’s once-and-for-all declaration of Jesus as righteous and that believers share in that verdict by faith union in Christ. Trent does get right, however, Paul’s absolute expectation that initial justification will lead to a transformed life of holiness pleasing to God.

Within Reformed and Lutheran theology, imputation of Christ’s righteousness has been the dominant way of understanding justification. The idea is that believers are instantaneously ‘covered’ in righteousness that is not theirs but Christ’s. God ‘sees’ us through the ‘alien righteousness’ of Christ.

While right in affirming Christ’s righteousness and not our own, there are problems with this view. ‘Justification alone’ tends to be virtually equated with the gospel and salvation. Sanctification tends to be artificially defined as a subsequent distinct category from justification and a transformed life in the Spirit as merely a secondary consequence of prior justification. This fails to account for how justification has past, present and future elements and how the systematic distinction between justification and sanctification cannot be maintained through exegesis of Paul. The Bible does not distinguish in importance between our initial justification through faith-union in Christ and our subsequent life of righteousness through the empowering presence of the Spirit. Both are essential for salvation. Nor can the overly transactional and somewhat artificial notion of imputation as just described be found clearly in any text in the NT.

The idea of incorporated righteousness affirms that our righteousness is not our own, but Christ’s. It is by faith alone, and only due to God’s grace, that believers are declared righteous in Christ and are united in him through the Spirit. It also stresses union and relationship as the lens through which any sense of imputation needs to be viewed. His righteousness becomes ours as we have faith in Christ. Faith here is much more than mental assent, but a whole life lived in continuing union with the Lord that issues a transformed life.