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Christmas Thought


December is always a strange time of year for Christians at a college. With the end of the semester approaching, it’ a very busy time in the academic calendar when the work can begin to seem unendurable and our energy is almost spent. It’s also Advent, the time in the Church calendar when we’re supposed to celebrate the coming of Jesus.

I got a new idea about the relationship between hard work and celebrating Jesus as I was discussing of the Gospel of Luke with some sophomores in Torrey. The idea came from a strange passage often called the Parable of the Unworthy Servant.Jesus says, “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?  Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:7-10)

One student in the discussion said she really didn’t like this passage because it make it sound like no matter how hard we work, it’s never enough and we just need to work harder.

As we discussed it, we saw that although Jesus does indeed say that we can never work enough, the question is “Enough for what?” One answer from the passage is “enough to be worthy” though that raises the further question “worthy of what?” Possible answers from the passage are “worthy to be servants of the master” or “worthy to eat at the table with the master.”

If you imagine a servant saying, “I’ve done my work today so I’ve earned my dinner,” you can start to hear how it strikes the wrong note. Imagine a teenager telling his parents, “I’ve taken out the trash and cleaned my room, so now give me the dinner I’ve earned.” The parents would be right to say, “The reason you’ve had dinners (andbreakfasts and lunches—and a room!) for the last fifteen years has nothing to do with you taking out the trash.” (This is the same false note we hear when Milton’s Eve suggests to Adam that they need to get more work done in the garden lest “the hour of supper…come unearned.”)

Once you see what the servant would have to say to his master, it appears how many people in Luke say similar things to Jesus or God:

Martha: ““Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” (10:40)

Older son: “These many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends.” (15:29)

Pharisee praying: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ (18:12)

Rich ruler: “All these [commandments] I have kept from my youth.” (18:21)

All of these people are saying “I’ve been good, I’ve worked hard, surely that counts for something.” There’s a similar voice in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Greenleaf.”  Mrs. May, an old widow managing a farm with little help from her good-for-nothing sons and her lazy farmhands, takes pride in the thought that “before any kind of judgment seat she would be able to say: I’ve worked, I have not wallowed.”

It’s interesting to see how Luke pairs each of these people with someone who’s a better example: Mary, the younger son, the tax collector praying, and in the case of the rich ruler, those who receive the kingdom as children (in the passage before his story) and the blind beggar and Zacchaeus (in the passages just after his story).

The blind beggar calls out to Jesus for mercy, and the tax collector prays, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” What distinguishes these people from the first group is not primarily that they understand how worthless and unworthy they are—it’s that they get God. They understand that God is merciful (“merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” Exodus 34, Psalm 103).

Of those who are coming before God with their good work, Martha seems the most forgivable.  She really is serving Jesus, no doubt at least partly out of sincere love. But think about what she’s saying in light of her situation, the Son of God has come to her house and she’s complains, “It’s not fair; I have to do all the dishes!”

Here is the Christmas message: God, who is rich in mercy, has come to our house. He came into our world and he’s come into each of our lives. And not one of us had done anything to deserve it or make usthe least bit worthy.

But there’s more. Jesus has not only come to our house; he’s invited us to his house to sit at his table. Throughout Luke, we see Jesus sharing a table and breaking bread with the most unlikely table companions, and he presents the good news that he’s come to give as an invitation to a banquet he’s prepared (Luke 14).

And (unbelievably) that’s not all. On the night before he died, at a banquet he prepared for his disciples, Jesus turns the story of the unworthy servant on its head. He says, “Who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (22:27)

In the midst of all the hard work at the end of this semester (much of it commendable service and wearying well-doing that will be rewarded with a good harvest, Gal 6:9), the Christmas message reminds us that none of our work could make us the least bit more worthy of what God has already done for us—what God is doing for us right now. Jesus is among us as one who serves.


Readings in Luther and Calvin

refo500 luther calvin stamps congo

October 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation’s symbolic beginning: Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle church.

To celebrate, three Torrey theologians are co-teaching an upper-division elective seminar on the Reformation. Matt Jenson, Greg Peters and I have gathered a group of students and we will spend the semester reading Reformation theology.

Torrey Honors is a great books program, so our angle of approach will be through select masterworks of the movement. Cutting that down even further, we decided to limit ourselves to favorite texts from two standout Reformers who excelled above all in the area of writing: Luther and Calvin. But in order to keep their Protestant doctrine (yay!) from becoming merely a matter of brittle and abstract head knowledge (boo!), we wanted to make sure our readings made explicit connections to two other things: their biblical exegesis and their spirituality.

What are we reading? Hey, if that’s your question, you’re our kind of people. Here’s the reading list.

Week 1: Luther: The Freedom of the Christian (printed in Basic Theological Writings), the incisive 1520 tract that explains the difference forgiveness makes for everything. For background to the first half of the course, we also read Heiko Oberman’s wonderful biography Luther: Man Between God & the Devil.

Week 2 Luther: The Large Catechism. The catechism includes the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer, so here in short and teachable form is Reformation ethics, doctrine, and spirituality.

Week 3 Luther: Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Another tract from 1520, more programmatic in scope. We are excited to be trying out the new Fortress Press annotated edition.

Week 4: Calvin & Luther on Psalm 102. The classic way to do theology, badly neglected in our time, is to gather around Scripture with the theologians of the past. This session is about the 102nd Psalm, a lament (“Hear my prayer, Lord”), which we get to study with the Reformers.

Week 5: Luther: Lectures on the Song of Solomon. Greg Peters, who knows a lot about monastic interpretations of the Song, takes the lead on Luther’s rather peculiar reading of it. Clue: Luther reads it as a political treatise! And “he’s not wrong,” as the kids say.

Week 6: Calvin & Luther on Genesis 1. Matt Jenson leads a session on what the Reformers say about the opening words of the Old Testament. Jenson, by the way, reached out to several friends at other schools for advice in shaping this whole course. The Genesis and Psalms readings were recommended by Todd Billings.

Week 7 Luther: Last Words of David (2 Sam 23). Fred Sanders picked this reading because it’s Luther’s guidelines for Trinitarian interpretation of the Old Testament. Prosoponic exegesis: so hot right now. Luther’s all over it.

Week 8: Calvin and Sadoleto: A Reformation Debate. The devout and learned Roman Catholic Cardinal Sadoleto wrote to the people of Geneva, summoning them home to Rome and laying out his reasons. Calvin acknowledged the learning and piety of the Cardinal, and politely explained why the invitation could not be accepted. This is a wonderfully clarifying exchange, and a chance to hear both sides in primary text. Also, as background for the second half of the course, we read Bruce Gordon’s fine biography Calvin.

Week 9 falls on Reformation Day itself. So we’ve asked each student to write up 20 theses for disputation. We will nail them to a door and talk it out. We hope for a lively and informed session on church reform and the circumstances of division.

Weeks 10-13: It’s an Institutes of the Christian Religion course from here on in, folks (McNeill/Battles edition). But to get at the spirituality of the Reformation, we’re focusing on Book III, “the way in which we receive the grace of Christ.” Week 10 (pages 537-684) is on faith and repentance; week 11 (pages 684-849) is on the Christian life and justification; and week 12 (pages 850-920) is on prayer. Finally we conclude with the section of book IV that lays out Calvin’s positive viwe of sacraments(pp. 1276-1359).

That’s our class; at least the heart of it, the reading list. There are some writing assignments as well: each student will write a brief statement expounding on each of the five reformation solas (faith, Christ, scripture, grace, and the glory of God), and each student will write a 1,000-word closing statement on the questions, “What does it mean to be Protestant? and What is the future of Protestantism?”

There are other ways to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and more active ways to be faithful to the great Protestant heritage. But we’re bookish here. So here we sit, reading. We can do no other.


Thoughts on the “Benedict Option” – A Lament

For years Rod Dreher (senior editor at The American Conservative) has been writing about his “Benedict Option.” Now his book of the same title has finally appeared. To be honest, I have not been convinced by his articles addressing the Benedict Option and his book fails to convince me too. James K. A. Smith published a trenchant critique almost immediately and so did Alan Jacobs (there are, of course, a host of other critical reactions to Dreher) and I mostly agree with both of them from a theological point of view. Dreher paints with brush strokes that are too broad (too metaphysical and absolutist, says Jacobs), too alarmist (“fundamentalism without the rapture,” writes Smith) and in a spirit that seems to ignore or deny the catholicity of the Christian Church by a “repackaging of the historic disciplines and formative practices of the church retroactively [that] makes newcomers and outsiders mistake the Great Tradition with the narrowness of the Benedict Option” (Smith). Everything about Dreher’s proposal sounds too doomsday-ish, too idiosyncratic, too parachurch-y and, well, too cynical. But what I really lament is that another Christian author has managed to misrepresent monasticism, again.

Many Evangelical Christians, I imagine, will buy The Benedict Option, read it fervently, agree with it whole-heartedly and find ways to make it immediately programmatic, because Evangelicals are great at programs. (Like Dreher I too am quite cynical about much of what passes for good Christian practice these days.) It will not be long before a group of students at the Torrey Honors Institute (full disclosure: THI is mentioned by Dreher on p. 155) reveal that after graduation they are moving to Topeka to start a “Benedict Option” community. And in this way, the Benedict Option sounds suspiciously like another recent “trend” that co-opted monastic terminology – the so-called New Monasticism. However, the new monastics want to relocate “to the abandoned places of Empire” whereas Dreher wants to get the hell out of dodge altogether. Interestingly, for one group monastic history suggests flocking to the cities in order to help those who are hurting whereas for Dreher monasticism provides the recipe for running to the hills in order to rebuild for another day. I guess that’s the difference between a Franciscan-inspired version of religious history and a Carthusian vision of monasticism. Neither, though, is really Benedictine.

First off, I would suggest that Dreher is more inspired by Alasdair MacIntyre’s (in)famous quote (“We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict”) than he is by the actual Rule of Benedict. (If MacIntyre had had the foresight to trademark that quotation he would have never needed to work again!) In the case of both authors it is not Benedict per se whom they are thinking about directly (or it doesn’t appear to be) but rather Gregory the Great’s (d. 604) depiction of Benedict in his Life of St. Benedict, which is one book in his larger Dialogues. Basically, Gregory’s Dialogues are for one purpose: to promote the lives and miracles of a number of Italian saints. In the end, it is hagiography, and hagiography is notoriously difficult to trust because its very purpose is to exalt and “divinize,” if you will, its subjects. Facts are secondary to the greater end of promoting holiness. And this is just as true for Benedict as it is for the other holy men and women discussed by Gregory.

The moment of Benedict’s biography that Dreher latches onto (though he does not say so himself) comes from the Prologue:

[Benedict] was born in the province of Nursia, of honorable parentage, and brought up at Rome in the study of humanity. As much as he saw many by reason of such learning fall to dissolute and lewd life, he drew back his foot, which he had as it were now set forth into the world, lest, entering too far in acquaintance with it, he likewise might have fallen into that dangerous and godless gulf. Therefore, giving over his book, and forsaking his father’s house and wealth, with a resolute mind only to serve God, he sought for some place, where he might attain to the desire of his holy purpose. In this way he departed, instructed with learned ignorance, and furnished with unlearned wisdom.

Notice, nowhere in this passage is there any comment about the fall of the Roman Empire or, with it, an entire culture. Notice that Gregory did not say that Rome was bankrupt and pagan to the point of abandonment and that is why Benedict fled. Instead, Gregory says that Benedict saw that his course of studies may end in him adopting a “dissolute and lewd life”, falling into “that dangerous and godless gulf.” In today’s parlance we might say that Benedict, a promising honors student from a good, rural family, went to the big city to get an education and met a bunch of frat boys and sorority girls whose chose lewdness over the library and godlessness over grades. Benedict, already feeling a pull towards religious life it appears, decided to leave the big city and all its worldliness behind and move to a place “where he might attain to the desire of his holy purpose.” And what was that purpose? To save civilization? No. To preserve the Christian faith from paganism? No. To create an enclave of Christian families homeschooling and buying and selling goods to one another? No. His “holy purpose” was, with a resolute mind, “only to serve God.” The real Benedict Option is the Biblical Option: serve God only; or, in more monastic terms, serve God single-mindedly (for single-mindedness is the root meaning of the Greek word monos from which we derive our English word “monk”). Simply put: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37).

The real Benedict Option, if there is one, is simple and straightforward and has been around, well, since the time of Benedict – become a Benedictine monk (or nun, though the word “monk” is now used of both men and women) and live your life in a monastery under the Rule of Benedict. And in a perfect, unfallen world this would be an option for all Christians, because there would be no Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Protestant distinctions. Becoming a Benedictine monk, just like being a dentist or a dental hygienist, is not a job, but a vocation; one that has been open to all Christians since the mid-sixth century. (Actually, becoming a monk has been an option since the first century for Benedictinism is not the only form of monastic life nor is the Rule of Benedict the first or only monastic rule.) Yet, Dreher seems to miss the point that in the end he is really only advocating for a kind of faithful Christian living. Some of Dreher’s recommendations might be good for some Christians at some times in some places but they are certainly not prescriptive for all Christians even if “the West” is collapsing and becoming more and more hostile to the Christian faith. We are to be “in” the world but not “of” it.

What is most to be lamented about The Benedict Option (in the opinion of this monastic scholar and theologian) is that it actually doesn’t raise the tenor of faithful Christian living so much as trivialize the monastic vocation. Like the New Monasticism, the Benedict Option is a caricature of historic Christian monasticism, which still exists and is still an option for all Christians who are called to such a life. Some Christians are called to singleness outside the monastery, some are called to married life and some are called to be monks. If you are called to be a monk, then go live in a monastery, whether it is a Benedictine one or a Cistercian one or a Carthusian one, etc. For those called to live outside the monasteries it is probably time, given the radical changes in our culture noted by Dreher, to revisit (again) where our priorities lie and to discern anew, in the midst of our vocations and Christian commitments, what may need to stay or change in our life. For not only is the church always in need of reform (ecclesia semper reformanda est) but so are her members (“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed” [Rom. 12:2]). But isn’t this always the case? Shouldn’t we always be discerning (with help from family, friends, our church community and/or a spiritual director/confessor) what is good for us at any given time? In the words of the Apostle Paul we must “Consider [our] calling, brothers and sisters” (1 Cor. 1:26). For some that calling will be to marriage or singleness in the world but for others it will be to the monastery. And for those called to the monastery, that will be the true Benedict Option. Like the monks, the rest of us will need to be content with the Biblical Option: love of God (and neighbor) single-mindedly in the world.

NB: Dreher makes a number of factual errors about monasticism in The Benedict Option, which should be corrected:

1) “These people would find new ways to live in community, he said, just as Saint Benedict, the sixth-century father of Western monasticism, responded to the collapse of Roman civilization by founding a monastic order.” (p. 2) – Benedict did not found a monastic order. His rule was meant, originally, to govern his own community at Monte Cassino (and perhaps a few other communities that he founded). The concept of an “Order of St. Benedict” is, at best, a medieval invention but more clearly a modern invention. Benedict never once refers to what he is doing as an “order.”

2) “Saint Anthony of Egypt (ca. 251–356) is believed to have been the first hermit.” (p. 14) – This is a historiographical trope that is simply false. The Life of Anthony by Athanasius of Alexandria (d. 373) itself says that “all who wished to give heed to themselves practiced ‘the discipline’ [Athanasius’ term for monasticism] in solitude near their own village. Now there was then in the next village an old man who had lived the life of a hermit from his youth up. Antony, after he had seen this man, imitated him in piety.” That is, Anthony put himself under the tutelage of a hermit, therefore he cannot be the “first hermit.”

3) “And this is why contemplation takes priority.” (p. 58) – In monastic history and theology contemplation does not take priority over as much as it follows action. Contemplation and action go hand and hand in monastic history, including Benedictine history. Dreher seems to say as much later in the book when he talks about what work is for (pp. 176ff.).

4) “Benedictine monks have a lot of time with God. Seven times each day….” (p. 58) – The Rule of Benedict called for not seven but eight times of prayer a day but this is rarely practiced in most Benedictine abbeys today. Dreher, by focusing exclusively on the Benedictine life practiced in Norcia, Italy, misunderstands the Benedictine ethos in toto. Even my Benedictine friends talk about the uniqueness of Norcia, and not always in positive terms.

5) “The monks live mostly cloistered lives–that is, they stay behind their monastery’s walls and limit their contact with the outside world.” (p. 72) – Again, this not true of Benedictine monasticism today but neither was it true of historical Benedictinism in general. Even Benedict envisions that monks will leave the monastery (he gives instructions on how they are to behave outside the monastery precinct) and he knew that “the outside world” would come into the monastery (hence his rules about how to entertain guests). At best, this statement romanticizes monasticism because it does not reflect the reality of Benedictine history.

The Distinct God of the Book of Job

Blake Job God points to Behem and Leviath

Robert Sokolowski has said that

The Christian God is presented as being so transcendent to the world that he could be, in undiminished goodness and greatness, even if the world were not. The Christian God can be distinguished from the world in this radical way. … In contrast, the gods of pagan religion and the first principles of pagan philosophers are gods and principles for the world and they could not be without the world.¹

In emphasizing the radical character the distinction between God and the world, Sokolowski draws attention to a contrast that runs so deep it is hard to communicate. The biblical God is not just transcendent, but “so transcendent that….”

It’s easy enough to put God on one side of the ledger of being, over against the world on the other side of the ledger. But pagan thought also did and does that: Homer with his Olympians looking down on the field of battle, Plato with his realm of ideas, and Aristotle with his first principles of the cosmos. All of them get to God from this side, and no matter how much they  huff and puff about transcendence, they are still working with one pole of a God-world continuum. Even the people who insist there’s nothing but mystery at the other pole cannot escape this (in fact, they’re the worst offenders, but do be gentle when you break this news to them).

What Sokolowski calls the particularly Christian distinction goes further. It doesn’t just reason back from creation to a God who is necessary for the world, because in itself that chain of reasoning only shows a God who is this world’s necessary presupposition, which is to say, this-worldly in the sense of being the transcendentally necessary presupposition of the immanent. Something dyadic and mutual clings to causal arguments like this, unless they presuppose a deeper distinction between God and the world. God can exist without the world, but the world cannot exist without God.

Last week I read and re-read the book of Job a few times, and then got to spend 12 hours discussing it with students. The reading is foundational, but the extended discussion time with bright young people is always illuminating. One of the things that this wild, strange book does, it seems to me, is direct us to make the distinction Sokolowski is talking about.

Here’s how the book of Job presents God in a way that has unique power to disclose the distinction between God and creation. After a few verses introducing us to Job’s initial situation, the opening scene takes us straight into the presence of the LORD, where “the sons of God” are coming before him. We are not given any details of the setting; the furniture is not described. We are not quite told when this occurs; it is on a “day.”

This abrupt introduction to the divine presence is not the opened heaven of apocalyptic vision; the word “heaven” is not even used to give us something to hold on to. It is also not apocalyptic in the sense of revealing something eschatological. In the form of its presentation, it is instead protological (a teaching about how things begin)): it shows what happened before the events on earth which we are about to read. The opening scene is even etiological (a teaching about what invisible forces caused a set of observed events).

Famously, Satan “also” is among the sons of God, and the LORD engages him in a brief interview, which is repeated with new developments on another day. The result is the affliction that plunges Job into perplexity and lament, calling forth the speeches of his friends and the character Elihu, and Job’s own intermittent self-defense.

Thus far the opening. It is beyond strange; not quite like anything else in the Bible; not introduced with any establishing information that we would like to have, and then dropped altogether once the main business of the book of Job begins. Conventional storytelling would suggest that a story with such a striking opening should also close with a return to that initial scene. Parentheses opened in this manner ought to be closed in a like manner. But no such conclusion waits for the reader at the end of the the book of Job. We do not return to whatever that heavenly throne room was (note that none of these helpful terms –heaven, throne– are the ones the book of Job uses); we do not hear again those voices from the divine council (also not Job words). We do not return to the presence of the LORD to overhear him negotiating with Satan about what is going on on the earth where he has been walking to and fro, up and down.

We can call the opening scene of the book of Job mythological without any prejudice against its possible historicity (we know too little about it to dogmatically declare it unhistorical). It is mythological in its narrative structure, in presenting a story about what happened in the divine realm that caused events to go a certain way in the earthly realm. It has the shape of mythological narrative in that it switches back and forth from the realm of the gods to the realm of humans. Ancient Near Eastern parallels would be the most informative comparisons, but readers of Homer can immediately see that the editorial maneuver of cross-cutting from the world above to the world below provides the same powerful narrative effects.

The opening gambit of the book of Job is therefore daring and even risky. An incautious reader could easily take it to be the story of what happens in the part of the world that is way up high, in the heaven part of heaven-and-earth (not a prominent Job phrase, by the way). It’s possible, in other words, to enter into the story of the book of Job without making the radical distinction that Sokolowski talks about. You might read the first two chapters of Job and imagine the LORD to be just as transcendent as Zeus among the Olympians, or of Plato’s mirrored realm of being. But that’s not transcendent enough; it’s the sham transcendence of etiological myth or a philosophical account of the world’s depth dimension; it’s a just-so story that exists to answer the all-too-human question of suffering.

But instead of bringing the reader back to that opening situation to tie up loose ends and assure us that all is well in the double-decker universe with a top floor and a bottom floor, the book of Job does something different.

Crazy different.

Dump-a-bucket-of-what-the-heck different.

Giant slab of sheer alterity different.

In-your-face “where were you when I laid the foundations” different, with a shot of Behemoth and a chaser of Leviathan.

The LORD suddenly speaks from the whirlwind (what whirlwind? where? how am I supposed to picture this?). He enters into an unequal dialogue with Job and puts to him a series of questions that are simultaneously unanswerable and obviously rhetorical. He speaks of the cosmos. Instead of discoursing directly about himself, the LORD subjects Job to a series of questions about the natural world. Of course he indicates at numerous points that he is above the cosmos, but the bulk of his speech is devoted to an account of the complex, manifold mystery of the world itself with all its regions of unknowability and awesomeness.

It’s not even all uniformly awesome, though: it includes the mountains and the stars, but also ostriches who God made stupid on purpose, which is a peculiar point to bring up in a speech that frequently seems like the poetic version of an intelligent design argument. I fully expect that on judgment day, many mouths will be shut by the LORD’s pointed query, suitably inscrutable in the ESV’s rendering, “The wings of the ostrich wave proudly, but are they the pinions and plumage of love?”² And just when the speech has made its tour from the most fundamental, elemental realities down to the manic zoo of biodiversity, the LORD takes a deep breath, lets Job respond briefly, and then concludes his speech with a sprawling coda about land monsters and sea monsters. Any fake god with a mythological carriage and some sham transcendence could huff and puff about his exaltedness. The true God shows Job a nature documentary in which he is not even the Attenborough voice-over, but something even more radically distinct.

Thus speaks the LORD, from the whirlwind (whatever and wherever that is), with no sons of God around and no Satan to interview. Thus speaks the LORD in a way that serenely disregards the narrative frame, declines to even nod in the direction of mythological trappings, and can’t be mapped or filmed or contextualized or diagrammed. Where we would expect to close the parentheses on the opening vignette, we instead get the voice, the utterance, of the biblical God who is so transcendent that he transcends transcendence. Instead of the other bookend we have the end of the book, with the verbal self-presencing of God who makes himself, and the distinction between himself and all things, known by heaving all things into the crushing awareness, and the implicated self-awareness, of his beloved servant, the righteous, fuddled Job who says the true thing about God.

The leap from the God of the opening chapters to the God of the final speech is a vast leap. If the opening chapters could have been assimilated to the narrative structures of myth, the final chapters cannot. Though lot of other things are going on in the book of Job (I lay my hand over my blog post), the invitation to move from the story of chapter 1 to the speech of chapter 38 is the invitation to acknowledge the fundamental biblical distinction which has to be known and experienced if there is to be faith in God.


¹Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1995), p. x in the preface to the new edition.

²Job 39:13, ESV. I do not know. I just do not know if they are the pinions and plumage of love. Frankly, sir, and with all due respect, I am not even quite sure what you are asking me. It’s probably my fault.


When Bad Books do Good Things

ecce homo title pageIt was while he was a student at Yale that R.A. Torrey (1856-1928) became a Christian. He describes it as a time when he was “leading a very reckless life” which involved, among other things, drinking heavily as a seventeen-year-old college kid. By his own testimony, he was driven to the brink of suicide, and even made one impulsive attempt at it. His conversion story is a mess. He was confused and had the cart before the horse in several ways. Torrey apparently decided he had to be a preacher before he decided he needed to be a Christian. In his own words, he “did not know what it meant to accept Christ.”

Over the course of the next couple of years, things sorted themselves out as Torrey pondered and did some reading. But the reading he did during this crucial transition is interesting. In his autobiographical notes (archived at Moody and printed as an appendix in How God Used R.A. Torrey), he lists three books that made a deep impression on him and finally led him to make a public profession of faith in Christ. The first two are J.G. Holland’s Bay Path and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Taken together, these strike me as books so New Englandy that nothing could be more New Englandy. I confess I don’t quite understand what they meant to him at that time in that place (New Haven near the end of the 19th century) with tremendous spiritual pressure bearing down on him. But the third book is yet more odd: J. R. Seeley’s Ecce Homo.

Ecce Homo: A Survey of the Life and Work of Jesus Christ was published anonymously in 1865. Later it became known that the author was J.A. Seeley, who went on to have a prestigious career as professor of history at the University of Cambridge. The book caused quite a stir (see Daniel Pals, “The Reception of “Ecce Homo,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church 46:1 (March 1977, 63-84), being both widely praised and widely condemned. The reason it evoked such different responses is because it is a pervasively vague book. In it, Seeley commends the world-changing power of Jesus Christ’s ideas and social program. He draws from the gospels in a loosely historical-critical way, constantly indicating that he’s not appealing to them as reliable and exact documents, but gladly accepting that they give us some kind of insight into what Jesus was up to. Critics to Seeley’s left objected that the gospels only tell us what his disciples thought; critics to his right objected that the gospels are divinely inspired and inerrant records of exactly what Jesus said and did. But the reading public at large found Ecce Homo‘s middle position very stimulating, and the book not only sold briskly but was the topic of conversation among the upper and middle classes.

Let me point out three criticisms of Ecce Homo from a conservative perspective. First, its doctrine of Scripture is very low, and the lack of any idea of inspiration shows up over and over. Second, the book is not only doctrinally imprecise, but argues at length for the virtues of doctrinal looseness and latitudinarianism. Seeley thinks that we should allow each other exactly as much slack for theological lapses as we allow each other for lapses in practice: nobody’s perfect in conduct, so why should we expect perfection in creed? Third, the energy of the book all tends toward social reform, to such an extent that the Holy Spirit only shows up under strange titles like “Enthusiasm of Humanity.” The trading of supernatural for natural ends is one of Seeley’s favorite topics:

Christ commanded his first followers to heal the sick and give alms, but he commands the Christians of this age –if we may use the expression– to investigate the causes of all physical evil, to master the science of health, to consider the question of education with a view to health, the question of labor with a view to health, the question of trade with a view to health; and while all of these investigations are made, with free expense of energy and time and means, to work out the rearrangement of human life in accordance with the results they give. (Ecce Homo, 217)

From another point of view, of course, these features of Ecce Homo could be viewed as merits. Plenty of people then as now think the world would be a vastly better place if our cultural leaders were moved by the merely human witness of the Bible to be undogmatic in their theology but energized for sacrificial labor in the improvement of society.

The point I want to make is that R.A. Torrey is not one of those people. What I mean is, the R.A. Torrey who circumnavigated the globe in 1904 preaching revival, who edited The Fundamentals, and who preached extremely doctrinal sermons at the Church of the Open Door from 1912 to 1924 would not approve of Ecce Homo lax theology. It is exactly the kind of book the mature Torrey would have hated. If that book were published in 1915 and handed to R.A. Torrey, he would instantly recognize it as an unreliable book. He would sniff out its “fatherhood-of-God-brotherhood-of-man” FOGBOM liberalism from across the room, and warn people away from it.

But the book didn’t come out in 1915; it came out in 1865, and Torrey read it as a confused eighteen year old man at Yale College, somewhere between attempted suicide and enrolling in seminary. Torrey refers to Ecce Homo several times in later life, with a strange combination of gratitude for what it did to him, and clarity about what’s really in the book. In his autobiographical notes, he says

Ecce Homo especially made it clear to me (though it is not by any means an orthodox book) that I ought to come out and make a public confession of Christ. As I had been known in college as anything but a Christian, I felt that I ought to make my public confession of Christ then and there, and so did in the college chapel and united with the college church.

It’s easy enough to observe that Torrey changed, moving from the left to the right on a number of doctrinal issues, and in his sense of how clearly the basic supernaturalism of Christian life had to be recognized. It’s also true that the American theological landscape shifted considerably in the decades we’re talking about: the controversy over R.J. Campbell’s “New Theology” around 1907 shook things up, and the fundamentalist-modernist conflict was rattling most of the established denominations even before the 1920s. It’s also true that Seeley went on to a distinguished intellectual career that did not include any clarification of his book’s vagueness, so in retrospect readers could look back at Ecce Homo as an isolated performance rather than an early work that was given more substance by subsequent statements.

But none of that quite explains away the fascinating phenomenon of R.A. Torrey, fundamentalist patriarch, having been transformed by the message of a vague, liberal book.

There must be all sorts of similar testimonies, and they would probably all be instructive. It would be fun to gather Christians of a conservative temperament and confessional clarity, and ask them, “What’s the worst book that ever had a positive influence on your spiritual development?” And no cheating: the book can’t serve as a cautionary tale or a wake-up call. The result would be a set of books that the speakers couldn’t recommend in good conscience, but had to admit ministered spiritual life and health to them at a particular time and place. Even R.A. Torrey knew that there are some books you can’t recommend or endorse, but that you have to testify to.


Eusebius on Christ: “The Great Martyr”


Martyrdom is a matter of finding oneself caught between an absolute and unyielding monotheism on the one hand (15, 39, 100), and an absolute and demonic claim to the contrary on the other. It is where we find ourselves forced to confess God at pain of death, or reject God to embrace a life without him. While few people that we know bear such scars in the American church, there have been periods and regions in the history of the church where such scars were abundant and even common place. Eusebius, writing at the end of such a period, offers us a beautiful and compelling account of martyrdom, rooted in numerous stories of these Christian victors.

While martyrdom isn’t so good that its end is bad (1; book X), it is nonetheless a great good, a matter of winning a crown; of suffering the same fate as Christ, at the hands of the same murderers (35, 268). But in sharing the same fate, we share the same blessing, the same calling to a crown, a trophy of the resurrection (85), a divine gift and honor unparalleled in the life of the church (12). For to suffer martyrdom is to be purified (99), to win a prize of an end like that suffered by the Lord (95), to “to attain to Jesus Christ” (98).

To avoid confession and escape martyrdom is to know you are unworthy and incapable of it (126), thus throwing away your salvation (118). To stand firm is to be sealed in your salvation (148), a great and blessed fulfillment (117).

But a gruesome death is a beautiful fulfillment only because of the context in which it occurs – a war against Satan (149). Apart from this cosmic battle, martyrdom makes little or no sense. For martyrdom, after all, is the tool of Satan (108) by which he attempts to crush the Church. But as we well know, Satan has no proper tools of his own: what seems to be a horrible mace wielded by his strong arm proves instead to be the legitimate weapon of Christ the King. It is one of the great tools by which he defeats Satan (142-3), making his sentence against the Serpent irrevocable (145). This is partly a matter of judging and proving Satan impotent. But it is also a matter of the powerful witness and example of the martyrs leading Satan “into vomiting up those he thought he had swallowed,” changing the minds of the weak and wayward as they watch the faithful triumphing over fear, death and the devil (149).

But is there more to it than this? For this much is unlikely to be new or surprising to those who have heard stories of the great martyrs. I believe there is, and it lies in the connection between the martyrs and the Lord: Jesus Christ, the Great Martyr.

Jesus Christ, The Great Martyr

Eusebius tells us of certain Christians:

So eager were they to imitate Christ, who though He was in the form of God did not count it a prize to be on an equality with God, that though they had won such glory and had borne a martyr’s witness not once or twice, but again and again, and had been brought back from the wild beasts and were covered with burns, bruises, and wounds, they neither proclaimed themselves martyrs nor allowed us to address them by this name: if any one of us by letter or word ever addressed them as martyrs he was sternly rebuked. For they gladly conceded the title of martyr to Christ, the faithful and true Martyr-witness and Firstborn of the dead and Prince of the life of God, and they reminded us of the martyrs already departed. (148)

Jesus is the martyr. He is “the faithful and true Martyr-witness and Firstborn of the dead and Prince of the life of God.” When caught between the one God, maker of heaven and earth, and the opposition and temptation of Satan, Jesus stood forth as witness. He is also the Firstborn of the dead and the Prince of Life because his faithful choice as martyr-witness. Much could be done here to unpack the meaning of Christ as martyr, but Eusebius himself takes us in fascinating direction.

In the concluding book of his History of the Church, Eusebius tells of the work of Christ, and how he “alone… took hold of our most painful perishing nature; alone endured our sorrows; alone He took upon Him the retribution for our sins” (308). But the surprising thing is that “now, as a result of this wonderful grace and bounty, the envy that hates the good, the demon that loves evil, bursting with rage, lined up all his lethal forces against us” (309). In other words, the great work of Christ set in motion an escalating process of retaliation on the part of Satan, in which he “vomited forth his own deadly venom, and by his noxious, soul-destroying poisons he paralyzed the souls enslaved to him, almost annihilating them by his death-bringing sacrifices to dead idols, and letting loose against us every beast in human shape and every kind of savagery” (309). The atonement, while it is the defeat of Satan, is simultaneously that which goads Satan into heightened opposition to Christ and the church – an escalation in the conflict.

This is where martyrdom comes in, for the martyrs are suffering the brunt of this escalation. What are we to make of this? Why does God choose to defeat Satan that way? Why through martyrs, when Satan’s defeat happened through Christ the Martyr once and for all?

Union with The Martyr

The answer lies partly in the fact that we, as the image of God, image forth the death and resurrection of Jesus. We, as those who are made in the image of God, image him forth as the one he is, and therefore as the crucified and risen one. Eusebius tells us that the martyrs present to the outward eyes of others “the One who was crucified for them, that He might convince those who believe in Him that any man who has suffered for the glory of Christ has fellowship for ever with the living God” (145), and that “the ever-present power” of “our Saviour Jesus Christ Himself” is “visibly manifesting itself to the martyrs,” and they in turn to those watching (263).

Ephesians seems to be of great benefit here. Collating several verses to sum up the flow of the letter, we see the gist of Paul’s argument:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (1:3), in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the ruler and the authorities in the heavenly places (3:10). [Therefore] put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the spiritual forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:11-12).

Viewed in this light, the work of Christ is not a final and complete work in which we have nothing to do; rather, it is a final and complete work in the sense that it equips us for the work to which we were called, a work of opposing the schemes of the devil, one of which happens to be the devils attempt to crush the faith through martyrdom.

It is almost as though it is the place of the church to reveal Christ, by taking up his cross and triumphing over the powers of darkness in martyrdom. Why doesn’t the church just point back to Christ? Why embody him, repeating the cross? Or is Christ in that event, suffering and dying?

Eusebius tells us of a martyr whose body “was all one wound and bruise, bent up and robbed of outward human shape, but, suffering in that body, Christ accomplished most glorious things, utterly defeating the adversary and proving as an example to the rest that where the Father’s love is, nothing can frighten us, where Christ’s glory is nothing can hurt us” (142). In this story, the sufferings of the martyr and Christ’s sufferings become indistinguishable, and it is in and through the sufferings of the martyr that The Martyr accomplishes his work of defeating the adversary. In his grace, God gives us the opportunity to witness and testify to the work of Christ not from a distance, but from within, as we are united to him. It is in our work that Christ completes his work, of triumphing over Satan.

Colossians 1:24 reads: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” Of course this must be unpacked carefully, but Eusebius gives us an interesting implicit account of how this “lack” might be construed: our God and Father calls the church to participate in Christ, in The Martyr, that in him, as martyrs in him, Christ might complete the ministry of reconciliation, spreading the good news of the Gospel, spreading the triumph over Satan—a work which is not alongside, after, or for the work of Christ, but which is the work of Christ, as we are in him and he in us, a participatory account of martyrdom.

The key is the extent to which God wants to bring us into his divine life. God wants us to be one with Christ, sharing in the work of Christ, through the power of the Spirit, to the glory of the Father. If we are to be united with God, then ours is the work of God. God does not will to work alone. And because in his wisdom he brings about his work through The Martyr-witness, Jesus Christ, ours also is a work of martyrdom, for ours is not an alien work, but a work that happens in, through, by and for him.

Do I need a Job or Vocation?



Do I Need a Job or a Vocation?

Every year some untold numbers of students enter their senior year in colleges and universities across the nation. They’ve done it! They have successfully navigated the complexities of earning a bachelor’s degree in their chosen field of study. They have masteredthe art of reading, listening, note-taking, test-taking, and essay-writing and demonstrated some amount of competence to their professors. Diploma mills aside, they have earned an education, perhaps even a good one if they went to the right school. Proverbially the world is their oyster!


Yet the future is often uncertain and before long a general anxiety tends to set in among this population of university students. What will I do after I graduate, they ask? Should I go to graduate school? Should I get a job? Where should I live? Who should I live with? Moreover, these students have parents who are (at least) middle-aged and (likely) have been taught by a fair number of middle-aged professors. Recently a talk with a student brought up the reality that I have been a university professor long enough that she wondered why I wasn’t tired of it, perhaps especially since I too am middle-aged. She was concerned about the prospects of her own future and she expressed that she did not just want to have a job but invest her life in something more meaningful.


Now, many forms of employment can be meaningful to some people at some times but there are way too many people who appear to be only working for the weekend or working for their next vacation. They do not necessarily enjoy their jobs but they enjoy some of the side benefits: summers off for teachers, generous retirement contributions or good medical coverage, for example. Mostly they are unhappy with the day to day realities and rhythm of their life so they attempt to compensate by being materialistic (a “at least I make lots of money” mentality as they accumulate more and more stuff), by being negligent (“I’ll do my job but not too well because this place sucks”) or being discontent (jumping from one job to another, chasing an elusive dream perhaps). Let’s face it, it would stink to study accounting to find out that you hate being an accountant and it would be a miserable experience to find out that you studied to be a nurse but then realized you hated being at a hospital, clinic or doctor’s office day after day.


So what is it that might make someone happy over the long duration of a job? What may stave of the discontentment of yet another day at the office? Many folks who are happy in their jobs will tell you, “I do not have a job, I have a career.” Fair enough. Some people do find meaning in their jobs by realizing that this is a career, something that they have striven for and worked hard to achieve. But sometimes, perhaps often, even this sentiment will not redeem a rather harsh job situation. If you are a teacher and you hate the rhythm of your life due to the school year, realizing that your job is a career will likely bring no more happiness once August comes around again.


Theologically, however, there is something more: vocation. Now, “vocation” is not just another word for “career.” Rather, it has a divine connotation and weight to it. It has been said that the greatest contribution that the Protestant Reformation made to the Christian church was the re-affirmation of the Apostle Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith and that the second greatest contribution was a theology of vocation. And talking about vocation was something that the Protestant Reformers did with regularity and to great effect. For example, Martin Luther once preached that “Our foolishness consists in laying too much stress upon the show of works and when these do not glitter as something extraordinary we regard them as of no value; and poor fools that we are, we do not see that God has attached and bound this precious treasure, namely his Word, to such common works as filial obedience, external, domestic, or civil affairs, so as to include them in his order and command, which he wishes us to accept, the same as though he himself had appeared from heaven. What would you do if Christ himself with all the angels were visibly to descend, and command you in your home to sweep your house and wash the pans and kettles? How happy you would feel, and would not know how to act for joy, not for the work’s sake, but that you knew that thereby you were serving him, who is greater than heaven and earth.” (“Sermon for Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity,” preached on October 3, 1529). On another occasion he preached to Christian rulers, “The prince should think: Christ has served me and made everything to follow him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect him and everything that belongs to him. That is why God has given me this office, and I have it that I might serve him. That would be a good prince and ruler. When a prince sees his neighbor oppressed, he should think: That concerns me! I must protect and shield my neighbor… The same is true for shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader. If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor. When a Christian does not serve the other, God is not present; that is not Christian living” (“Sermon in the Castle Church at Weimar,” preached on October 25, 1522).


In the Scriptures there are two primary meanings of “calling” or vocation (vocare = to call): 1) the call to membership in the people of God (e.g., Is. 41:8-9); and 2) particular callings by God toa special work, office or position of responsibility within his covenant community. To illustrate, the word for “church” in the New Testament is ekklesia, which is derived from ek (from, out of) and klēsis (calling). Thus, the Greek word for church literally means “calling out of” or “called out ones.” This etymology demonstrates a general call to membership in the people of God. Yet, God calls some individuals out of the church (literally, out of the called out ones) to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). This illustrates God’s practice of calling out to a special work, office or position of responsibility. Some callings are to specialized roles in church and society and others are to particular duties within these spheres. Theologian Douglas Schuurman sums it up well when he writes that “the Bible has two basic meanings for vocation or calling. Each of these has two forms. The first is the one call all Christians have to become a Christian and live accordingly. Of this there is a general form, where the proclaimed word echoes the voice of creation calling all away from folly and into the wisdom that is Jesus Christ, and there is a specific form, where this call becomes existentially and personally felt. The second meaning is the diverse spheres of life in and through which Christians live out their faith in concrete ways. Of this there is a more general form, such as being a husband, wife, child, parent, citizen, preacher, etc., ‘in the Lord.’ And there is a specific form, where it refers to the actual duties each of us takes on in our concretely occupied places of responsibility ‘in the Lord’” (Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life, pp. 40-41).


Thus, for the Christian believer there is already the call to be a Christian. But there is also the call to be something else, to live into other callings that are just as divine as one’s call to be a Christian. And this is where one’s “job” fits into God’s economy. If X is my calling then I will hesitate (or, at least should hesitate) to see it only as a job to be regretted or a burden to carry until the weekend or my next vacation. Rather, it is God’s special calling on my life and therefore worthy of my best attitude and my best efforts. It is the task that God has given me to do. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer’s Post Communion prayer: “And now, Father, send us out into the world to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” First and foremost we are sent out to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul and mind to love our neighbor as ourselves. But we are also sent out, I think, to do that work that God has called us to do by way of our other divine vocation; that is, to our particular callings by God to a special work, office or position. In other words, we are called by God to love and to live into both of, all of our vocations. Thus, today’s university students do not need jobs, they need vocations and may God call them and may they hear this calling.

Authority in Mentoring


A concerned student recently asked me to use my authority over a friend of theirs (also a student and mentee of mine) to help get them on the right track, for this friend was involved in quite destructive behavior. As we were talking, I was growing increasingly uncomfortable, but when this request finally emerged, something crystalized for me—we had been operating at cross purposes throughout our conversation, and the disagreement hinged on the nature of authority within the mentoring relationship.

In one mode of thought, teaching and mentoring involves a great deal of authority—the power to shape and influence by command and threat. Someone in authority has some power over the life of the person they are teaching, power of grades, power of turning them in to higher authorities, power that comes vested with the status of teacher and mentor. And for the sake of the good of the mentee, this power must be wielded well and wisely. To wield it indiscriminately is to become a tyrant and run the risk of rebellion or subservience; but to not wield it at all is to cultivate sloth, apathy and independence.

My student was asking me to use the power vested in me as mentor to help curb their friend’s vices—a noble and thoughtful request, I suppose, but one that I found myself fundamentally disagreeing with.

In my understanding, I have no authority or power to wield as a mentor or professor. Or, to be more precise, I have very little good power and authority to wield; the power I have is of an altogether sort than the kind that can be wielded.

To be clear, there are things which my student can and should fear. I can lower their grades, whether fairly or unfairly, using these numbers, letters, and the meaning of a GPA for employers and graduate schools as a weapon. But of course, I would be damaging my student and compromising my integrity as a teacher in so doing. I can turn my student into Student Life services, causing them distress and potentially getting them expelled from the school. Even the mere mention of these things may be enough to bring my student somewhat into line.

But the “somewhat” matters a great deal—for the tactics of power and fear are fast-burning, likely to back-fire, and don’t reach down to the fundamental matters of the soul. They are short-term stop-gap measures aimed at surface behavior rather than the deep well-springs of character and heart.

But this is not to say that I am impotent—without power altogether to influence the lives of my students. As a professor and mentor I believe that I am vested with great power, or, rather, I have devoted my life to contemplating these most powerful of realities, and my calling, my privilege, is to teach and mentor my students by playing the role of witness, putting them in touch with those truly powerful and shaping realities of life. I do not have direct power to wield—and this is as should be. But there are powers and realities around which the lives and souls of my students can and should be shaped, and it is my calling to introduce them to these realities, to facilitate a relationship which is not about me, is far beyond me, and in which I have no more power than a match-maker.

What of this student? No threats, no power will avail here—others have tried all those methods. But in the context of an enduring and caring relationship, there is a chance that over the course of our relationship and conversations I may be of some service in helping my student come into contact with something truly powerful, truly life-changing, something which can and does have a real and enduring power which is both threatening, and far more important, life-giving. And to be present, to be a small part of this meeting, this encounter—that is the great joy of mentoring, as I understand it.

Friends with Aristotle and Each Other

Here’s an episode of The Common Room, the periodic vidcast of the Torrey Honors Institute, made possible by OpenBiola. What we try to capture and share in Common Room conversations is a little bit of the ongoing dialogue that makes up the daily life of Torrey. Usually we do that by gathering a few tutors who have recently taught the same text or thought about the same issues.

In this episode, Adam Johnson talk with Joshua Smith and Fred Sanders about friendship in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. This is the kind of thing you get when two theologians and an American Literature prof talk philosophy with students from all majors.


“We’re about two things. We’re about genuine friendship with each other in the program (as faculty and among the students); and we’re about a genuine friendship with these authors who we’re getting to know over the years.” -Adam Johnson

“That epiphany that we have over and over again with texts as persons is an incredible thing about the Torrey experience.” -Joshua Smith

“You need a friend in every century.” -Fred Sanders

Doctrine Leaping Out of Its Chains: Review of Young’s “Construing the Cross”

Young, Frances M. Construing the Cross: Type, Sign, Symbol, Word, Action. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2015.

Frances M. Young’s Construing the Cross is no mere exercise by a young scholar with an idea, research leave and a bibliography. Rather, this is the product of a mature and measured lifetime of study, a small window looking out at a long and patiently crafted garden. And at the heart of it all stands the work of the early theologians of the Church. In her hands that tri-color shelf of books known as the Nicene Fathers set is cast down to become a lively and supple serpent—but one which we can look upon, or better, look through, to see Christ’s atoning work in a range of new and life-giving ways.

9781498220026For this is Young’s emphasis: eschewing contemporary interest in “theories,” which “purport to control and explain” (124), Young favors theōria, a “Greek term… meaning something like a ‘seeing through’… a kind of insight or spiritual rather than literalizing exegesis” (xiii). The danger, as Young sees it (and I can only concur) is that in the last 200 years or more, theologians have largely devoted their energy to chronicling, explaining, reducing and arranging past insights into the work of Christ under the guise of “theories”—a term foreign to the works they are analyzing. The result is a narrowing and ossifying of work, which, in past generations of the church, was far more lively, creative and life giving.

And I can only say that Young succeeds: her work is absolutely full of joy, creativity and re-appropriation. She draws on a range of theologians often neglected in such studies, including Melito of Sardis, Ephraim of Syria, Origen, Tertullian, Basil, and Justin Martyr. Complementing this approach is Young’s delightful interaction with the art of the early Christians—a noteworthy source for further study. Crucifixes, mosaics, carvings… Young excels at pulling together the art, worship and theology of the early church to re-captivate our imaginations with the work of Christ.

Particularly helpful in this regard was her use of Robin Jensen’s Understanding Early Christian Art to undermine the common view that early Christians did not depict the cross (or atonement) in their art. Jensen, relying on the work of early theologians, demonstrates the extent to which early Christians saw the cross in a myriad of images—a move Young appropriates, to further her own reflections.

Fundamentally, to engage in doctrine is to engage in worship. We are not cutting, disassembling and analyzing—we are seeking to understand and rejoice in the being and work of the triune God, who made himself the means and goal of our salvation in Jesus Christ. In the hands of Frances M. Young, the doctrine leaps out of its chains, dancing in delight. From the first few pages, I knew that I was in the hands of a master of the doctrine, which is to say a true and humble servant of the doctrine, and I was not disappointed in the least, from cover to cover.

For those interested in a little more insight into the nature of the book, three brief points may be of help.

First, this book is explicitly presented as being a deeply Wesleyan work—it is dedicated to Young’s Wesleyan grandfathers (both pastors), and Young connects her approach to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in the introduction (xiii). While many works of atonement coming from a Wesleyan perspective look to depart from the tradition in favor of fundamentally non-violent approaches, I find in Young’s work a far more orthodox and historically indebted approach, which I can only commend as an example.

Second, the book explores the Passover and Passion (Chap. 1), Scapegoat and Sacrifice (Chap. 2), Tree of Life (Chap. 3), Signs, Symbols and Serpents (Chap. 4), and Language, Liturgy and Life (Chap. 5). The goal is to be suggestive rather than exhaustive, to open doors to further study, rather than to “sum up” or exhaustively present the early church’s view of Christ’s saving work.

Finally, while Young takes some pains to distinguish the approaches of the early church from later Medieval and Reformed explorations of the doctrine, her primary concern is the lively portrayal of her subject matter, rather than a polemic edge drawn between those areas of the church’s theology. In other words, she allows a creative appropriation to fill her canvas, leaving disputes for another day about the role of debt, penalty and judgment. My own impression is that the early church does more with these themes than Young acknowledges, but that she is nonetheless right in what they emphasize. It’s not just that I loved this book – it’s that I can’t wait to get my hands on Young’s other works. What a feast!

Love the Perpetrator as the Survivor? Correspondence with a Friend about Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself

A friend and I had a conversation about a situation of systemic and personal abuse she was suffering, which turned into correspondence between us. With permission, I have polished up my exchange with Lori (a pseudonym), as a reflection on what it means for a victim to properly love a perpetrator—a excruciatingly difficult challenge.

Lori: Last week during our conversation, you proposed a question along the lines of: “Should we feel bad for the perpetrator or the victim in an abusive situation?” Would you expand on that a little more? Maybe what your viewpoint is or where you are coming from on that question?

My response: Good question. Just to be clear—I wasn’t trying to make perpetrators innocent, or turn them into the victims. I was just asking you to think about how deeply distorted and perverted someone’s beliefs, desires, emotions and motives need to be for them to be in the kind of place where they could perpetrate such acts. They seem, from outside, like the ones who have the power, who chose to enter and create such horrific and abusive situations. But if we were to look at them more carefully, I think we will see that they are walking disasters. It wouldn’t be unfair, I think, to suggest that the hurt they give others is an outward sign of the disaster that their own lives already are. It takes a disastrous state of being and living to do such vile acts. Understanding this dynamic doesn’t solve everything, but it does seem to be one point from which we can get a bigger picture—a vantage point from which we can both hate and love, without weakening or dismissing either. Does that help at all? You don’t have to agree with me, of course!

Lori: How you explained it makes sense. Whether I agree or not is still up in the air. Before I started thinking through that part of the conversation I wanted to make sure I was clear on what you were presenting. It’s a hard topic.

My response: It’s certainly hard. You’re sure right about that—and I only face it from a distance at this point in my life. I’m aware that talking is cheap.

Lori: Ok. So I’ve thought through my response as best as I can. It’s such a jacked up subject. It’s so hard to even try to reconcile this part of life or even want to reconcile it. I agree with your explanation a few days ago. Perpetrators deserve to be treated humanly for the sole reason that they are human. They should have basic needs provided (according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and should have access to help just like victims. Many perpetrators are passing on their own hurt. Many have distorted beliefs and live in an alternate reality.

“Those who deny freedom to others don’t deserve it themselves.” Abraham Lincoln

I can’t bring myself to even come close to wanting to treat perpetrators like humans, especially mine. He knows exactly what he is doing. Perpetrators steal their victim’s freedom and suffocate their ability to feel like they belong. I’m left with the aftermath of daily talking myself out of suicide and feeling paranoid every turn I make. How do I even view someone like this as human and as an equal? In our conversation, you mentioned that perpetrators are not the monsters society makes them out to be. It feels like they are, though. And every interaction I have with the perpetrator confirms in my mind what kind of monster he really is. I’m seeking justice, but at this point I don’t even understand what form justice should take.

Perpetrators control with no remorse of their actions, unless they get caught.

I feel like I’m babbling and not making sense. It’s hard to explain what it’s like without you having been there. This dude is jacked up. He has been for years probably. He is a walking disaster. He’s a piece of shit.

Feel free to send your rebuttal and questions.

My response: Just to be clear, you absolutely make sense, and are both clear and eloquent.

“This dude is jacked up. He has been for years probably. He is a walking disaster. He’s a piece of shit.”


And he needs to be treated accordingly.

That doesn’t mean that he should be allowed to continue, be tolerated, or praised. It means us holding him accountable. It means society helping him get treatment. It means punishment that can enable and facilitate him seeing himself for who he really is, and perhaps becoming something quite different. (And what does that mean? Probably something between community service on the one hand, and the death penalty on the other, though I am open to both extremes, depending on the circumstances)

What does it mean to love a walking-disaster-piece-of-shit man, who has become a monster? It means to treat him exactly like he is: pathetic, pitiable, disastrous, willful, culpable, monstrous… It means containing the damage for others. It means him (hopefully) facing the damage in himself. It means a combination of both punishment and attempts at restoration and reparation.

And it means that the community as a whole needs to be part of that – not just one survivor of his disaster. The first step in loving someone would be acknowledging their whole condition, and treating them as such, in the hope that they might be able to do so as well. And that means confronting him and holding him accountable—something you need a whole group and society to do with you, because you can’t do it by yourself (not because you are weak, but because this is simply not an individual responsibility—it is something only the community can and should do, for its members).

So I think that we absolutely agree. If there’s a difference between us, it’s that I’m trying to give a bigger picture, but one that doesn’t deny anything you’ve said—or very little of it. I think you’re doing the right thing, from what I can tell, and I’m proud of you, for what it’s worth. And I also recognize that my use of “accountable” and other like terms is quite thin at certain points—this is little more than a sketch, a suggestion, made by someone who cares, but is dangerously far from the front lines.

Lori: I honestly don’t know how to respond. I’m not used to such an answer.

My response: Because it is so…. weird? Offensive? Wrong?

Lori: Because I’m not used to Christians who believe in a Jesus who flips tables and calls out injustice. Why do you choose this approach compared to the typical response that has been presented of showing grace (like Jesus did) and move on?

My response: The answer is pretty straightforward, really. A gospel of grace alone is not the true Gospel, because God is not a God of grace alone. He is gracious, but his is a grace that is one with his justice, patience, love and so on. Some Christians distort one of God’s attributes and make it carry too much weight, and then switch the tables on you when you aren’t looking—but that is just an abuse of doctrine (and it’s not just liberals or just conservatives that do this—everyone dabbles in this at times, unfortunately). Or to put it differently, yes, God is a God of grace—but the kind of grace that is so rich and deep that it wants nothing but the best for others, and therefore wants true justice for them.

I’m not asking you to treat the perpetrator with mercy alone. Or justice alone. Or to do this alone. I’m asking you, though I’m afraid to even say the words because of the magnitude of what I am asking, I’m asking you to take in the whole picture: to relate to him with the whole of God’s character fully in mind, and to relate to him with the whole of his miserable life and interior states in mind. Nothing less than that will allow you to remain fully human, while treating him with both the justice and mercy he needs and deserves.

Lori: I hope God is that way. I think I can believe in a God like you describe. But the current one I know isn’t a leader I would even want to subject myself to.

Concluding thoughts

My chief concern in this exchange is to help Lori and myself think about things with an appropriately wide frame of reference—one as big as the Gospel. And as I understand it, the Gospel includes the terrifying command that we love our neighbor as ourselves. That sounds easy enough, until we actually try to love ourselves, and get ourselves to do something that we know is good for ourselves, but nonetheless can’t seem to make ourselves do. And it is all the harder when we try to love a lovely person to whom we are deeply bound, like a spouse, friend or child. But to add to this impossible task, what does it mean to love a perpetrator? By definition, this seems impossible. But it isn’t. For while we were yet enemies, while we were yet perpetrators, God loved us and sent his Son for us.

But what does this love look like? To answer this question, we do best to explore the full shape of the Gospel, with all the resources of divine simplicity at our disposal. For the love we are to wield is no weak, spineless and sentimental love. It is a love bound up with and inseparable from the full character of God, in all his holiness, grace, righteousness, patience and mercy. Only such a love, only God’s own love, is a love strong and resourceful enough to equip us to love a perpetrator.