Friday, December 28, 2018

Descended Into Hell?

Should we include the “descended into hell” clause in our modern versions of the Apostles’ Creed?


As has often been pointed out, the article in question is a “late addition” to the Creed.*   It was not until AD 750 that the language became standardized in Western churches.  And its origins are, as Wayne Grudem puts it, murky One of the earliest appearances of the article is in the heretical “Dated Creed” of the synod held at Nice in Thrace AD 359 (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 2. 37) - in the wake of which Jerome wrote, “The whole world groaned in astonishment to find itself Arian.”  Rufinus, in the first known commentary of the venerated symbol (~ AD 400), wrote

But it should be known that the clause, He descended into Hell, is not added in the Creed of the Roman Church, neither is it in that of the Oriental Churches. It seems to be implied, however, when it is said that He was buried

We don't see another creedal version of the article until AD 650.  

On this point, I think Calvin is generally both charitable and correct: 

...it appears from the ancient writers that this phrase which we read in the Creed was once not so much used in the churches. …From this we may conjecture that it was inserted after a time, and did not become customary in the churches at once, but gradually. This much is certain: that it reflected the common belief of all the godly; for there is no one of the fathers who does not mention in his writings Christ’s descent into hell, though their interpretations vary.

For instance, though Rufinus reads the descent into Hades/Hell doctrine as implied by the previous line about Christ’s burial, he still appears to maintain a literal descent into Hades/Hell (ala Peter’s language in Acts 2:24, 31):

That He descended into hell is also evidently foretold in the Psalms, where it is said, You have brought Me also into the dust of the death. And again, What profit is there in my blood, when I shall have descended into corruption? And again, I descended into the deep mire, where there is no bottom. Moreover, John says, Are You He that shall come (into hell, without doubt), or do we look for another? Whence also Peter says that Christ being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the Spirit which dwells in Him, descended to the spirits who were shut up in prison, who in the days of Noah believed not, to preach unto them; where also what He did in hell is declared. Moreover, the Lord says by the Prophet, as though speaking of the future, You will not leave my soul in hell, neither will You suffer Your Holy One to see corruption. Which again, in prophetic language he speaks of as actually fulfilled, O Lord, You have brought my soul out of hell: You have saved me from them that go down into the pit.

Augustine is remarkably ambivalent on the matter.  He omits any exposition of the clause in his sermon to catechumens on the Creed (De symbolo ad catechumenos), and elsewhere critically questions the oft-cited 1Peter 3:18-19 as a “proof text” of Christ’s supposed postmortem descent.  Nevertheless, he does affirm the “plain sense” of descendit ad inferna:

It is established beyond question that the Lord, after He had been put to death in the flesh, descended into hell; for it is impossible to gainsay either that utterance of prophecy, You will not leave my soul in hell, — an utterance which Peter himself expounds in the Acts of the Apostles, lest any one should venture to put upon it another interpretation—or the words of the same apostle, in which he affirms that the Lord loosed the pains of hell, in which it was not possible for Him to be holden. Who, therefore, except an infidel, will deny that Christ was in hell? (Letter 164.2)

This basic understanding of Christ’s abysmal descent in death is reflected by nearly all the fathers before Augustine (e.g., Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus).  But, as Calvin noted, the precise meaning of Christ’s descent was variously understood.  Part of the confusion surrounded the ambiguity of the term “hell” or inferna in Latin, sometimes conflated with inferos, and hades or ta katotata in Greek.  Charles Hill speaks for most students of church history (Protestant and Catholic) when he writes:

The word “hell” in the Creed does not mean the place of eternal punishment, Gehenna of the New Testament, the lake of fire that burns forever. It is rather Hades, or the Old Testament Sheol. This word is used often as a synonym for death, or the grave, and is associated with the depths of the earth, or the depths of the sea. But usually it has the sense of the place of the dead, where there is some consciousness of the disembodied soul, and thus is not identical merely with “the grave”, the physical place where dead body is laid. 

Similarly, Catherine Ella Laufer’s Hell’s Destruction: An Exploration of Christ’s Descent to the Dead traces out the historical development of the phrase, and links the “hell” language more to the Old Testament concept of Sheol or Hades as the shadowy realm of the dead (both righteous and wicked).  She concludes: “The recent English translation ‘he descended to the dead’ is a more accurate rendering of the sense of the Latin text and its Greek precursor,” (p. 30).  If the text were to be maintained in modern versions of the Creed, this would be the preferred translation.  

Nevertheless, confusion has seemingly always surrounded this article.  Even where there was some agreement on the subterranean abode of Christ’s descent, the extent and scope of His “harrowing of hell” varied widely (from the early fathers’ conception of Christ’s comforting deceased saints to Origen’s universalistic “emptying of hell”).



Unsurprisingly, then, the import of the clause has been long debated.  This includes the question of its place in the Apostles’ Creed - at least since the eve of the Reformation (e.g., Bishop Reginald Pecock, the so-called “only great English theologian of the 15th century,” published a revision of the Creed in 1440 without the controversial article), much more so during (e.g., Calvin’s successor, Theodore of Beza deleted it also, as did other contemporaries) and continues unabated to this day (e.g., among American Evangelicals, John Piper is perhaps the most well-known proponent of removing the article, following Grudem’s argumentation).  By and large, however, it was retained by the Reformers for the sake of confessional uniformity.  Yet this came at the cost of re-defining the article’s historic sense - at least among the Reformed branches.  While Lutherans maintained a traditional interpretation of the article (i.e., a literal “harrowing of hell”), Calvin rejected this as “childish,” and offered the novel if not “entirely original” (cf. Nicolas of Cusa and Pico della Mirandola) metaphorical interpretation of the descensus as Christ's redemptive agonies in His state of humiliation, particularly at the cross.  This was followed by the Heidelberg Catechism (Q/A 44), and continues to be the predominant interpretation of the article among the continental Reformed churches.  

The Westminster Confession (and the Puritans in general) went in a slightly different direction, perhaps influenced by Olevianus’ exposition of the Creed (which is worth quoting: [Christ’s descent entails] “not only the pains of death but also his utter disgrace-- the seeming victory of those pains-- while he was held down in the grave until the third day, lying as it were, under the oppression of death”), interpreting the descent clause as referencing Christ’s remaining “under the power of death” for three days (Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 50). 

In both cases, it seems to me somewhat disingenuous to promulgate (metaphorical) interpretations that markedly differ from the original and historic (literal) sense of the Creed.  

Calvin’s explanation of the article is beautiful theology (as Tim Keller helpfully reflects), but not compelling as an exposition.  First, it appears to be a novelty as it stands (note: Aquinas does state of Christ’s descent into hell that, “by the power of his Passion he delivered the saints from this penalty whereby they were excluded from the life of glory...,” but also maintains a literal release of righteous souls from limbus patrum).  Secondly, it is an unnatural reading of the Creed - Calvin’s protests notwithstanding.  Understood as the agony of Christ in His earthly humiliation, culminating in the “cry of dereliction,” it makes little sense to place “he descended into hell” after “and was buried.” By the time of His burial, His redemptive agonies had ended (as texts like Luke 23:43, 46 and John 19:30 would indicate).  

We might do better to lean toward the Westminster Catechism here.  But then the article is confusing, to say the least, in its traditional rendering.  And if we opt instead for Laufer’s translation, “he descended to the dead” (minus its classical, mythological dimensions of course), then it appears redundant. I find Calvin persuasive here:

I grant that what they [Martin Bucer, et al.] put forward concerning the meaning of the word is true: "hell" is frequently to be understood as "grave." But two reasons militate against their opinion, and readily persuade me to disagree with them. How careless it would have been, when something not at all difficult in itself has been stated with clear and easy words, to indicate it again in words that obscure rather than clarify it! Whenever two expressions for the same thing are used in the same context, the latter ought to be an explanation of the former. But what sort of explanation will it be if one says that "Christ was buried" means that "he descended into hell"? Secondly, it is not likely that a useless repetition of this sort could have crept into this summary, which the chief points of our faith are aptly noted in the fewest possible words. I have no doubt that all who have weighed this matter with some care will readily agree with me.

Perhaps we might follow Charles Hill (and Joe Rigney) then, and argue for a literal “harrowing of hell/hades,” though understood in more biblically grounded terms.  As he writes about it:

...what brings them [the OT saints] to heaven is their union with the one who is now in heaven. He has “tasted death for everyone” (Heb.2.9) and then passed through the heavens (4.14), to the heavenly Mt. Zion, into the heavenly temple, and through the greater and more perfect tent, not made with hands (9.11), entering once for all into the holy of holies by means of his own blood. The saints of old have now received what was promised! They are in the heavenly city, and now surround the throne. … Yes, in Christ, they have inherited the promises – the presence of God in his heavenly city, with Christ! This is the victory Christ has achieved for us.

The idea is both beautiful and biblical (though of course these “saints of old” still await some promises, e.g., the resurrection body).  But is it the meaning of the article in question - assuming, as is most likely, that the patristic doctrine of Christ’s intermediate visit to the realm of the dead served as the primary rationale for its original inclusion?  Did the Lord actually descend into Sheol Hades after His death in order to comfort and even “liberate” the righteous souls of patriarchs and prophets?  It isn’t clear from the texts cited above (to say nothing of 1Pe.3:18ff.).  On the contrary, such “harrowing” is associated in these texts with Christ’s glorious exaltation and session, rather than His shrouded three days in the grave.  Scripture just isn’t explicit here ... unlike every other point of the Creed.  

All things considered, then, I would just assume follow Beza’s example here and excise the clause.   The much-debated article seems to create more trouble than it's worth.  We are children of the Reformation after all and are not absolutely beholden to the creeds as they’ve been handed down to us, but must continually and faithfully evaluate their truth and efficacy as tools for edifying the saints in light of God’s Word.  Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum dei.  But of course we don’t “move ancient boundary stones” lightly (or often).  In this case, we need to be shown the value of keeping this rather moot point.  

The article also appears in the Athanasian Creed, which was probably compiled in the late 5th or early 6th century (see J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds).  The oldest manuscripts of this creed that we posses date from the late 8th century.  

Monday, January 29, 2018

What Kind of Theologian Are You?

Martin Luther said there were two kinds of theologians - by which he meant two kinds of people.  One kind is a theologian of glory, and “does not deserve to be called a theologian.”  The other is a theologian of the cross, and “deserves to be called a theologian.”  That is, someone who knows God.  Though both look to the visible and perceptible “things which have actually happened,” only a theologian of the cross “calls a thing what it actually is.”  

In saying this, Luther was taking aim at the speculative theology that dominated the academy of his day, as well as the worldliness and avarice that so thoroughly corrupted his beloved Church. In looking at the perceptible world, whether by empirical observation or rational reflection, theologians of glory inevitably draw the wrong conclusions about God and themselves. This is why the Apostle Paul declares them fools in his epistle to the Romans (1:20-23; see also 1Corinthians 1:21-25).

Why?  Because in locating “the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man,” these theologians exchange the glory of the immortal God with the glory and vitality of creation, according to their own imaginations. 

One example of this kind of theology was the bold claim of a certain Eunomius in the 4th century, who through his philosophy claimed to know God as God knows Himself (namely, as Unbegotten substance). Gregory of Nyssa’s response is classic. Reflecting on Moses’ encounter with God on the mountain in Exodus 33:18-34:7, Gregory writes:

I was running to comprehend God, and so I went up into the mountain and came through the cloud and entered away from matter and material things, and as far as I could I withdrew within myself. Then when I looked up, I barely saw the back parts of God [Ex.33:23]; and in this I was sheltered by the rock, the Word that was made flesh for us. When I looked a little closer I saw, not the first and pure nature, which is known to itself … but only that part of it that is posterior and comes down to us.

In short, Gregory of Nyssa says the best we can hope for is God’s posterior, which, in divine condescension, “comes down to us.”  That means we do not rise up to it.  And what are God’s posterior parts?  Exodus 34:4-7 describes God’s hindquarters in these famous words: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…” (see also 33:19-22).  We must eventually tire of our philosophical speculations about the divine essence, and grasp the moral train of His robe in the Temple – that is, in the chosen place of His revelation.  This is the “fear of the Lord, the beginning of knowledge.” 

But even when theologians of glory discern rightly the invisible character of God – namely, “virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, etc.” – nevertheless, Luther writes, “the recognition of all these things does not make one worthy or wise.”  It only renders our bad behavior “without excuse” (Rom.1:20).  This leads such theologians not to repentance, but to pretense and false pride.  As Luther writes, “he who has not been brought low, reduced to nothing through the cross and suffering, takes credit for works and wisdom and does not give credit to God. He thus misuses and defiles the gifts of God.”  

According to his 95 Theses, “the true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.”  It is naturally odious to a theology of glory.  

In contrast to this approach, the theologian of the cross comprehends “the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”  The Latin reads, Sed qui visibilia et posteriora Dei  per passiones et crucem conspecta intellgit. Theologians of the cross see God’s visible and posterior self-revelation in the passion of Christ.  In other words, they perceive His “back parts” from the vantage of Gregory’s rock: “the Word that was made flesh for us,” and suffered for us.  

What do I mean? Luther argues that theologians of glory only become theologians of the cross through the cross – via crucis God in Christ suffered in the flesh, he explains, to this end: 

[that] those who did not honor God as manifested in his works should honor him as he is hidden in his suffering[1] … Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross.

Not only must a theologian of the cross see God in the suffering and crucified Christ, she must undergo the way of the cross with Him.  In other words, she has “been brought low, reduced to nothing through the cross and suffering.” Luther called this excruciating path to life, Anfechtungen He gives us this vivid description from his own experience: 

God works by contraries so that a man feels himself to be lost in the very moment when he is on the point of being saved.  When God is about to justify a man, he damns him.  Whom he would make alive he must first kill.  God’s favor is so communicated in the form of wrath that it seems farthest when it is at hand.  Man must cry out that there is no health in him.  He must be consumed with horror.  This is the pain of purgatory.  I do not know where it is located, but I do know that it can be experienced in this life.  I know a man who has gone through such pains that had they lasted for one tenth of an hour he would have been reduced to ashes.  In this disturbance salvation begins.  When a man believes himself to be utterly lost, light breaks.  Peace comes in the word of Christ through faith. … Christians should be encouraged to bear the cross.  He who is baptized into Christ must be as a sheep for the slaughter. 

Here is, if you like, Luther's Dark Night of the Soul.  Since “God works by contraries,” it is paradoxically through this suffering of the soul - a kind of Gethsemane[2] - that we escape the horrors of Calvary. Hence he concludes his 95 Theses:

92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace! (Jer 6:14) 
93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross! 
94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell.
95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).

So the theologian of the cross, in contrast to the one who “takes credit for works and wisdom and does not give credit to God, … has emptied himself (cf. Phil.2:7) through suffering [and] no longer does works but knows that God works and does all things in him. … He knows that it is sufficient if he suffers and is brought low by the cross in order to be annihilated all the more.” 

But of course she is not left there in the ashes and dust of death.  She is raised to new life through this death.  As Luther continues, “It is this that Christ says in John 3:7, ‘You must be born anew.’ To be born anew, one must consequently first die and then be raised up with the Son of Man.”  And in this new life we abound with “good works.” As we experience God’s good works toward us in Christ, we find ourselves inclined to respond in kind (see Titus 3:4-8).  Our hearts are changed.  Luther writes,

If we look at [the works of Christ for us] we are moved to imitate them. For this reason the Apostle says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,” (Eph. 5:1). Thus deeds of mercy are aroused by the works through which he has saved us, as St. Gregory says: “Every act of Christ is instruction for us, indeed, a stimulant.” If his action is in us it lives through faith, for it is exceedingly attractive…

Speaking of Gregory the Great, the pontiff made a profound comment in his Life of Benedict along these same lines:  
[Christ] promised His enemies that he would give them the sign of Jonah: He was willing to die in the presence of the proud and rise again in the presence of the humble with the result that the former saw in Him something to despise and the latter saw something they had to love and venerate.  As a result of this mystery it happened that while the proud see the contempt of death, the humble on the other hand receive the glory of power over death. 
To the theologian of glory, Christ’s cross is all doom and gloom.  She cannot receive it; it is the stench of death.   But to the theologian of the cross, it is glory and power over death.  To her it is the aroma of life.  

Which kind of theologian are you?  

Of course, if we’re honest, sometimes we can be both.

Gregory writes, of even the most venerable saints, “they are still oppressed by the weight of corruptible flesh [with the result that in this manner] they are not with God.”  Surprising?  Even the best among us can shrink back from “sharing in the sufferings of Christ.”     

And we shouldn’t think of Luther’s Anfechtungen as a solitary experience, as merely the crisis before conversion.  It is a repeated and not infrequent anguish of soul by which the saint is driven closer in her heart and mind to God.  Luther once remarked, “I didn't learn my theology all at once. I had to ponder over it ever more deeply, and my spiritual trials [Anfechtungen] were of help to me in this, for one doesn't learn anything without practice.”  Elsewhere, commenting on Psalm 119:66-72, he cites our suffering and trials (tentatio) as the touchstone of theology.  It is these painful experiences that make true theologians of us - theologians worthy of the title. For through this dark night we come to a deeper knowledge of God, so that we might run in the daylight.  And the deeper our experience, the faster we run (cf. Phil.3:12-16).

So, what kind of theologian will you be today?  

Where does the way of the cross lie before you now?  

You can have the courage to take the next step.  By faith, we have confidence that our dying will mean our life - the life that enlightens men.
                        Awake, O sleeper,
                 and arise from the dead,  
                       and Christ will shine on you.



[1] A good example of Luther’s understanding of God’s revelation “hidden” in the suffering Christ is in his comments on the mystery of divine sovereignty in salvation in his Bondage of the Will (1525), 4.12: “We say, as we have said before, that the secret will of the Divine Majesty is not a matter for debate, and the human temerity which with continual perversity is always neglecting necessary things in its eagerness to probe this one, must be called off and restrained from busying itself with the investigation of these secrets of God’s majesty, which it is impossible to penetrate because he dwells in light inaccessible, as Paul testifies [1 Tim. 6:16]. Let it occupy itself instead with God incarnate, or as Paul puts it, with Jesus crucified, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, though in a hidden manner [Col. 2:3]; for through him it is furnished abundantly with what it ought to know and ought not to know. It is God incarnate, moreover, who is speaking here: “I would . . . you would not”—God incarnate, I say, who has been sent into the world for the very purpose of willing, speaking, doing, suffering, and offering to all men everything necessary for salvation. . . . It is likewise the part of this incarnate God to weep, wail, and groan over the perdition of the ungodly, when the will of the Divine Majesty purposely abandons and reprobates some to perish. And it is not for us to ask why he does so, but to stand in awe of God who both can do and wills to do such things.”

[2] While studying Psalm 22 in preparation for his first set of lectures on the Book of Psalms, Luther marveled at Jesus’ taking upon his lips the cry of dereliction.  Biographer Roland Bainton writes, “What could be the meaning of this?  Christ evidently felt himself forsaken, abandoned by God, deserted.  Christ too had Anfechtungen.  The utter desolation which Luther said he could not endure for more than a tenth of an hour and live had been experienced by Christ himself as he died.  Rejected of men, he was rejected also of God.  How much worse this must have been than the scourging, the thorns, the nails!  In the garden he sweat blood as he did not upon the cross.  Christ’s descent into hell was nothing other than this sense of alienation from God.  Christ had suffered what Luther suffered, or rather Luther was finding himself in what Christ had suffered, even as Albrecht Dürer painted himself as the Man of Sorrows.” 

Friday, November 24, 2017

Paul's Use of Habakkuk 2:4 in Galatians



In the book of Galatians, Paul famously establishes an either/or binary of salvation "by works," ἐκ νόμου, and "by faith," ἐκ πίστεως.  In substantiating this mutually exclusive dichotomy (ὁ δὲ νόμος οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ πίστεως, 3:12), he quotes from Habakkuk 2:4 and Leviticus 18:5 respectively:
ὁ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται 
ποιήσας αὐτὰ ζήσεται ἐν αὐτοῖς 
The implied contrast is between the doing of the law (ὁ ποιήσας αὐτὰ…, Lev 18:5; cf. Eze 20:11, 13, 21; 18:5-9; Neh 9:29; etc.; and Gal 3:10b, ἐμμένει πᾶσιν τοῖς γεγραμμένοις ἐν τῷ βιβλίῳ τοῦ νόμου τοῦ ποιῆσαι αὐτά, citing Dt 27:26cf. Ro 10:5, where Lev 18:5 is referenced as τὴν δικαιοσύνην τὴν ἐκ νόμου) and the simple act of “hearing with faith,” as he argues explicitly in Gal 3:1-5 (cf. Ro.2:13).  According to the apostle, salvation is either ἐξ ἔργων νόμου ἢ ἐξ ἀκοῆς πίστεως (3:5b), and from our experience we know it is ἐξ ἀκοῆς πίστεως

But Paul reasons from the scriptures as well.  Was this not how our father Abraham was justified before God (Gal.3:6-7), by faith, by believing what he heard from God before he was circumcised (as he argues in Romans 4:1ff., and before the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, cf. Jas.2:21-23)? This is an important point in the context of first century Judaism. Abraham’s justification was traditionally seen as based on his obedience.  In 1Macc.2:52, for instance, we read: “Abraham was found faithful (εὑρέθη πιστός) in temptation, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” In fact, in some witnesses of ancient Judaism, there were 10 tests for Abraham culminating in the so-called Akedah (binding of Isaac).  In proving faithful during these tests, Abraham’s obedience was  understood as meritorious, compensating for future Israel’s (constant) breaking of the 10 commandments of Moses. Because the law was understood as the eternal instrument through which God blessed His people, even Abraham’s justification was interpreted as the result of his obedience to the law (in principle, as it was not yet delivered to Israel as it would be at the theophany in Sinai).  In so doing, the distinction between believing God’s promises and doing His commandments was typically lost, conflated under a single rubric: faithfulness (πιστός).  As Ridderbos notes, "How much Paul's appeal to Hab.2:4; Gen.15:6, et al., proceeds from an entirely different concept of faith from that of the Jewish religion of law, in which "faith" is simply subsumed under "works," has anew become clearly apparent from the interpretation of Hab.2 in the pesher on Hab. (IQpHab 7.18ff.) found at Qumran, where the words "but the just shall live by his faith" are applied to all the doers of the Torah in the house of Judah, whom God will save "out of the house of judgment" on the ground of their work and of their faith in (or faithfulness to) the teacher of righteousness."

However, Paul is at pains here to show that it was through faith, apart from any works (i.e., law observance), that the patriarch was blessed, and so we too are blessed through faith alone according to the promise (3:8-9).  As John Chrysostom writes, “they [the Judaizers] said that he who adhered to Faith alone was cursed, but he shows that he who adhered to Faith alone is blessed.”  In fact, Paul argues (3:10), rather than blessing, the law of Moses brings curse (Dt 27:26), since under the law we are exposed as guilty before God, as the Writings and Prophets also bear witness: ὅτι δὲ ἐν νόμῳ οὐδεὶς δικαιοῦται παρὰ τῷ θεῷ δῆλον (3:11a; cf. Rom.3:9-20).  Accordingly, Paul earlier writes: ἐξ ἔργων νόμου οὐ δικαιωθήσεται πᾶσα σάρξ, 2:16b (cf. ἐξ ἔργων νόμου οὐ δικαιωθήσεται πᾶσα σὰρξ ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ, Rom.3:19)Here he is echoing Psalm 143:2: ὅτι οὐ δικαιωθήσεται ἐνώπιόν σου πᾶς ζῶν.

This conclusion then is the unspoken premise in Paul’s argument regarding the curse of the law in Gal.3:10. All who are under the law transgress the law (cf. 3:18), and so, rather than being justified by it, are “imprisoned under sin” (3:22; cf. Ro 3:19).  However, Paul continues, it is clear elsewhere from Scripture - namely, Habakkuk 2:4 - that the blessing / righteousness / life promised to God’s people is not and never was given through or “by the law”:
Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 
It is noteworthy that, having quoted from the prophet that "the righteous shall live by faith,” he then stresses that the (way of the) law is not (the way) of faith. Paul is clarifying that the path to life spoken of in Habakkuk is fundamentally different than the conditional life offered in the law (and repeated throughout the Prophets). To substantiate this claim, Paul cites the law - namely, Lev 18:5 - in a manner that deliberately mimics the grammatical structure of Hab 2:4 in order to highlight the dramatic contrast between “the righteous by faith” and “the doer of the law,” (3:12b). This appears to be an important link in Paul's argument, begun with father Abraham in Gal 3:7.  As Longnecker writes, “The rabbis seem to have coupled Hab 2:4 with Gen 15:6 as important testimonia having to do with the nation’s inerhitance of Abraham's meritoroius faith (cf. Exod.Rab. 23.5), viewing Hab 2:4 in particular as the summation of the whole Mosaic law in one principle.”  Cf. 1QpHab 7.14-8.3, referenced above. Paul likewise connects these two texts, but with a radically different emphasis: faith (as hearing and believing) vs. faithfulness (as law observance).  

We should say here that Paul would not have decoupled faith from faithfulness absolutely.  The dichotomy he’s stressing isn’t faith as belief and faithfulness as obedience per se, but rather faith and law observance as the grounds of justification, and so of securing Abraham’s promise. As Moises Silva writes, “for Habakkuk there was no dichotomy between faith and faithfulness…That the apostle Paul did not view justifying faith as excluding obedience to God’s commandments is suggested in Galatians itself (see esp. 5:13-26…), but the organic link between these two concepts is extensively developed in Romans,” in which the apostle also cites Hab 2:4 as foundational to his gospel (Rom 1:17).  Rather, "we must not suppose that doing the commandments as the way of life has ceased to have any validity or application," John Murray contends, but "bear in mind that righteousness and life are never separable... In the realm of grace, therefore, obedience is the way of life... It is this principle that appears in Lev.18:5," (emphasis added).  Cf. Jas 1:22-25 (οὐκ ἀκροατὴς ἐπιλησμονῆς γενόμενος ἀλλὰ ποιητὴς ἔργου, οὗτος μακάριος ἐν τῇ ποιήσει αὐτοῦ ἔστα).  Having said that, Paul is very clearly citing this verse in antithesis with Hab 2:5 to distinguish faith as “hearing and believing” from the “doing" of the law as the means of receiving Abraham's blessing - a distinction, as noted above, that appears to have been entirely obscured or even foreign in first century Judaism.  

But should אֱמוּנָה be read as emphasizing one’s “faith,” as the apostle seems to presuppose here and in Romans 1:17 (and, I would argue, the author of Hebrews does in Heb 10:38, especially in light of his definition of πιστός in 11:1), or as an objective faithfulness, as it most often means in similar uses w/in the MT (e.g., 2Chr 19:9; Ps 37:3, Pro 12:22, Isa 11:5)?  The distinction is especially important in this context, since the objective sense of “faithfulness” seems far too ambiguous to be of much use in Paul’s debate with the Judaizers (or his unbelieving Jewish opponents) regarding the role of law observance in justification.  It is also noteworthy that Hab 2:4 (LXX) is the only occurance of the theologically loaded construction ἐκ πίστεως in the Septuagint.  So the question is whether Paul violates the typical meaning of אֱמוּנָה here by “forcing” it into an anachronoistic, Christian category - “by faith."  The related question of whether “life” here refers to survival of the coming Chaldean invasion or to an eschatological life that transcends the events of the 6th/7th century will not be here addressed except to say that the eschatological notion undoubtedly lurks in all the covenant promises of national life rehearsed in both Moses and the Prophets (a point that seems to not have escaped the rabbis: “And you shall keep My statutes, and the order of My judgments, which if a man do he shall live in them, in the life of eternity, and his portion shall be with the just.”  and live by them: in the World-To-Come. For if you say [that the verse refers to living] in this world, does he not eventually die? [Torath Kohanim 18:134]). At the very least, we may say that Paul (and other rabbis) read Hab 2:4 as indicating an enduring, general principle: the rigtheous will live by their faith/fulness.  

Paul’s citation (ὁ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεώς ζήσεται) is fairly close to the LXX(B)’s translation:

        ἐὰν ὑποστείληται, οὐκ εὐδοκεῖ ἡ ψυχή μου ἐν αὐτῷ, ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεώς μου ζήσεται

Now the differences of this rendering from that of the MT have often been noted.  Paul’s dropping of the pronominal suffix (whether yod, as the MT has it, or waw, as the LXX reflects) does not substantially change the sense of the text (if it does, it is hard to see how Paul isn’t manipulating the text rather than faithfully(!) reasoning from it, and it is even less clear how such a distortion would be convincing to his critics).  But it is also striking that the LXX translates the obscure Hebrew verb עֻפְּלָ֔ה as “draws back” (ὑποστείληται).  In the only other occurance of this root (עפּל) in the MT, Nu 14:44a, it is translated with a near antonym, διαβιάζομαι: an intensified form of βιάζομαι (cf. Lk 16:16; Mt 11:12).  It is perhaps noteworthy that the fundamental issue Moses draws out in Numbers 14 regarding this disasterous episode in Israel’s history is the people’s unbelief (see Nu 14:11 [לֹא־יַאֲמִ֣ינוּ], and Moses' subsequent commenatry on the same event in Dt 1:32 [אֵֽינְכֶם֙ מַאֲמִינִ֔ם]).  The entire re-narration of these events in Dt 1-3 appears to be a chastising of Israel’s unbelief regarding the promises of God in the conquest of Canaan (cf. Dt 9:23).  Even Moses and Aaron were forbidden entrance into the land because they apparently acted in unbelief (לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י, Nu 20:12). Of course, the author of Hebrews understands the entire debacle in the wilderness to have been due to the unbelief of the first generation (Heb 3:19-4:2).  Interestingly, the consturction in Nu 14:11 (לֹא־יַאֲמִ֣ינוּ) is the same form as found in Habakkuk 1:5 (לֹ֥א תַאֲמִ֖ינוּ). 

But going back to the strange verb in Hab.2:4a, the Septuagint rightly renders the sense in Num.14:44, especially in light of its parallel in Dt 1:43 (וַתָּזִ֖דוּ; cf. Neh 9:29).  Indeed, the picture of a “presumptious” action, rendered in Num.14:44 LXX as a violent penetration or thrust forward, is accurately characterized by a “puffing up” or arrogant condition.  So how do we explain the LXXs rendering in Habakkuk 2:4, "drawing back”?  Most scholars have explained it by supposing that the Greek translators transposed two characters of the verb עפּל to עלף, meaning “to faint” (though, as Carl Armerding well argues, עפּל is the preferred reading).  It is argued that this transposition was influenced by the preceding verse, 2:3, where the one who hears the message is told to “wait” patiently for it.  If so, the ancient translators apparently understood 2:4 as referencing not the Chaldeans per se (as the context and language of the MT might initially suggest), but the one who hears and does not trust or believe, and so “draws back”.  This sense certainly coheres with the author of Hebrews' use of Hab 2:3-4 in Heb 10:38 (though he reverses the order of the verses). But what if we don't speculate that עפּל was transposed, but suppose rather it was rendered ὑποστείληται as the result of a dynamic translation based on both the immediate literary context (2:3) and intertextual dependence upon the Pentateuch’s account of the first generation's failure to enter the land?  After all, διαβιάζομαι is itself hardly a straightfoward rendering of the root עפּל in Num 14:44. It is more an interpreted rendering.  But in both cases, the word defines the faithless response to God's Word, though in vastly different forms: here a fearful retreat rather than a foolhardy advance forward.  But whatever the case, the LXX's rendering of “draw back" in 2:4 (and perhaps the reversed order cited in Heb 10:38) was undoubtedly shaped by an understanding of the command “to wait” in 2:3 as implying an enduring faith or belief in God’s Word (Hab 2:2-3; cf. Ps 33:20-21; 27:13-14).    

Furthermore, the posited intertextuality can be demonstrated by the multiple, striking parallels found between Habakkuk and the Pentateuch (e.g., Ex 15; Dt 32-33 and Hab 3; Nu 14:11; Dt 1:32 and Hab 1:5; Nu 14:20 and Hab 2:14 [Isa 11:9]; etc.).  As scholars have often pointed out, Habakkuk seems to paint the picture of Israel’s coming salvation in the Mosaic colors of her foundational redemption from Egypt, drawing both his imagery and language directly from Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  And since, as already noted, the assessments recorded in Nu.14:11, 20:12 and Dt 1:32 indicate - together with the later reflections of inspired authors (e.g., Ps 78:22, 32; 106:24; 2Ki.17:14) - that the primary threat to Israel’s receiving the promised blessing of Abraham was their lack of faith in God’s promise and power, then it is very conceivable that Habakkuk is comprehending this when he writes: וְצַדִּ֖יק בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ֥ יִחְיֶֽה.

Even if 2:4a references the Chaldeans, and is more accurately rendered “swollen” or ‘prideful” contrary to the LXX and ala Nu 14:44 (LXX), it is also possible that the intertextual dependence of Habakkuk 2 on Nu 14 (and Dt 1-3) is intended to convey in 2:4a a response that lacks faith, such that the contrasted parallelism of 2:4b is designed to describe the blessed response of faith.  

If reading these connections between Habakkuk and the particular accounts of Israel’s failure to receive the promises, as recorded in the Pentateuch broadly, and the connections between Hab 2 and Nu 14 more specifically, is warranted, then it seems the phrase ἐκ πίστεώς in the LXX is accurately rendered, “by his faith”/“by faith in me" (of course with the implication that this belief/trust will persevere, that is, wait patiently, as well as render ongoing obedience to God’s word, through which this faith subsists), rather than merely “by his faithfulness."  If this is the case, Paul had good reason to cite ἐκ πίστεώς in Hab.2:4 as signifying “by faith” (certainly a persevering and obedient faith), rather than the more ambiguous “by faithfulness,” rendered moot by the prevailing Judaistic conception of law observance. 

Moreover, as has been argued elsewhere, this “by faith” rendering makes good sense within the MT of Habakkuk.  Doesn’t the prophet himself embody the righteous man who by faith waits for the Word of the Lord to come to fruition?  As Thomas Schreiner writes,
Habakkuk predicts a day of judgment when the Chaldeans will punish sinful Judah because the nation failed to keep God’s Torah (1:4-11). Such a judgment is a test of faith for the remnant (cf. 1:5).  Will they still believe God’s promises, which include a future judgment of Babylon (ch.2) and a future renewal of the work of the exodus for Israel (ch.3)?  The many allusions to the exodus in Hab 3 indicate the promise of a new exodus, a new deliverance for the people of God.  Hence, Habakkuk functions as a paradigm for the people of God.  He will continue to trust the Lord even if the fig tree does not blossom and vines are lacking fruit (Hab 3:17-18).  He will continue to trust in and rejoice in God’s promise of future salvation. … This is not to deny that faithfulness flows from faith, for the former always proceeds from the latter.  Faith is the foundation and faithfulness is the superstructure. It follows that Paul is a brilliant interpreter of Habakkuk and does not distort its message but capsulizes it.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Orthodoxy as Mere Creedalism?


I was surprised to read James K.A. Smith’s recent post at fors clavirga suggesting an apparently amoral criterion for determining Christian orthodoxy.  I was surprised in part because he has so compellingly advocated the necessity of a distinct - and distinctly counter-cultural - “Christian liturgy,” entailing specific spiritual, communal and moral practices for the church.  Smith is of course correct to note:

Historically, the measure of "orthodox" Christianity has been conciliar; that is, orthodoxy was rooted in, and measured by, the ecumenical councils and creeds of the church (Nicea, Chalcedon) which were understood to have distilled the grammar of "right belief" (ortho, doxa) in the Scriptures. 

But he seems to reduce “orthodoxy” to a “mere creedalism” narrowed on the properly theological dimensions of the ancient symbols, and apparently devoid of the common moral vision that pervaded the early church’s catechesis and discipline:

… when people are said to suffer for their "orthodox" beliefs, or when we are told that "orthodox" Christians will be hounded from public life and persecuted in their professions, a closer reading shows that it is not their beliefs in the Trinity, Incarnation, Virgin Birth, or Resurrection that occasion these problems, but rather their beliefs about morality, and sexual morality in particular.  There don't seem to be any bakers refusing to bake cakes for atheists, and I've yet to hear of Silicon Valley CEOs being fired because they affirm the Incarnation of the Son or the resurrection of the dead.

There are two problems with Smith’s argument here. The first is the unhelpful analogy of baking cakes for atheists or being fired for one’s eschatology. There is no scandal in atheists getting married.  It is a creation ordinance for all people. And one’s “private opinion” about the afterlife is hardly provocative in our relativistic and secular age. If Smith were to construe a more helpful analogy, he might compare the proverbial cake baker to a deacon board deciding not to rent their facilities to a local chapter of atheists to publicly celebrate their godlessness. 

The church has rarely been persecuted for their theology, strictly speaking, but for the moral, religious and socio-political implications of their theology (e.g., the politically loaded confession of the ancient church, “Jesus is Lord”).  The early Christians were called atheists by their Greco-Roman critics not primarily because they confessed “one God and one Lord” over against the vast pantheons of antiquity, but because they refused to participate - even as a show of good citizenship - in civic festivals honoring local deities (cf. 1Cor.8-10).  These orthodox Christians were not willing to contribute to or actively participate in any moral, social or religious practice that directly contradicted God’s self-revelation in Christ.  A revelation that is both theological and ethical in content. 

On that note, the second problem with Smith’s argument is that he appears to overlook entirely the moral context and content of the ecumenical councils.  He acknowledges that “such [traditional] views of sexual morality and marriage have been the historic teaching of the church,” and that the “weight of Scripture, tradition, and perhaps even ‘natural law’ have sustained these views and beliefs for millennia.” But, he continues,

…it is surely also worth pointing out that conciliar standards of orthodoxy do not articulate such standards. If the adjective "orthodox" is untethered from such ecumenical standards, it quickly becomes a cheap epithet we idiosyncratically attach to views and positions in order to write off those we disagree with as "heretics" and unbelievers.  If "orthodox" becomes an adjective that is unhooked from these conciliar canons, then it becomes a word we use to make sacrosanct the things that matter to "us" in order to exclude "them."  And then you can start folding all kinds of things into "orthodoxy" like mode of baptism or pre-tribulation rapture or opposition to the ordination of women--which then entails writing off swaths of Christians who affirm conciliar orthodoxy.
 
I’m not sure where Smith is going with all this. I am not aware of anyone in evangelicalism un-tethering “orthodoxy” from these ecumenical standards. But surely it is also worth pointing out that the ecumenical councils of the church contained canons promulgating liturgical and ecclesiastical law, on the one hand, and moral injunctions and decrees, on the other. Some of these moral canons addressed sexual and familial matters specifically (e.g., sexual immorality, divorce, remarriage, abortion).[1]  

Of course, as Protestants we do not necessarily embrace all of this varied canon law as binding today.  The liturgical and ritual prescriptions are generally subordinated to “weightier matters of the law,” so to speak. Moreover, all conciliar decrees, through (ministerially) authoritative, are nevertheless subject to the divinely inspired scriptures. Having said that, the councils’ ethical canons are revealing of the church’s moral vision – and its univocal witness concerning sexuality in particular.  Surely this too is an important part of our orthodox heritage. 

Moreover, as Smith himself acknowledges elsewhere, the creeds and confessions of historic Christianity cannot be comprehended in isolation from its liturgical and moral practices:

The orthodox Christian tradition was launched with the Incarnation of God in Christ, the apostolic witness, and the Scriptures. But we inherit that rule of faith in two ways: first, in the creeds and confessions of the church (the articulated, explicit aspects of the faith), and second, in the liturgical heritage that hands down the know-how of the faith—our practices, our disciplines, our liturgical forms. Ideally, there's a feedback loop between those two things. If you had just the creeds and confessions without the practices of Christian worship, you would never get the full inheritance of what the Spirit has passed on to us.

It is clear that moral instruction, together with study of the baptismal creeds and the disciplines of prayer and fasting, were part and parcel of the early church’s catechesis.[2] And it cannot be seriously doubted that this moral instruction concerned itself to no small degree with sexual ethics. 

Similarly, in his critique of Smith’s post, Alastair Roberts observes the necessary biblical context for properly comprehending the historic creeds:

Likewise, the creed doesn’t stand alone, nor do its statements interpret themselves. Terms such as ‘judgment’, ‘Scripture’, ‘holy’, and ‘sins’ aren’t empty terms, permitting us to fill them however we might please. Rather, their content is extensively unpacked in the Scriptures themselves, apart from which the creed cannot have its proper sense. The creed is never intended to function as a de-focusing of unwelcome scriptural teachings so that error can take refuge in vague terminology, nor is it a lowest common denominator.[3]

On this note, as Protestants we are most interested in what Scripture says on the matter.  Though the term “orthodox” isn’t found in any extant documents until the 6th century, its antonym, “heterodox” was in use as early as the first century.  It is a plain echo of the New Testament’s term, “strange teachings” (ἑτεροδιδασκαλεῖν).  Over against such foreign doctrine (διδαχαῖς ξέναις) was the “sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the doctrine that accords with godliness,” (1Tim.6:3).  “Sound doctrine” (ὑγιαινούσῃ διδασκαλίᾳ) isn’t merely creedal or confessional but moral (e.g, Titus 2:1ff.).  In a striking contrast and comparison of the law and the gospel, the apostle Paul writes:
… the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (1Tim.1:9-10)
Biblical orthodoxy, then, includes not only the evangelical doctrines of first importance (e.g., 1Cor.15:1-5), but also the moral shape of Christ’s redemption and the life in the Spirit of the age to come.  As Paul exhorted Titus to boldly and tirelessly proclaim:
 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)
I know James K.A. Smith understand these things – and no doubt better than I.  So I am left confused as to why he writes as though he does not. 




[1] Multiple councils throughout church history have also explicitly addressed (and condemned) homosexual behavior.  The earliest statement of a council regarding homosexual practices and behavior was issued by the Council of Elvira (305-306).  It excludes from communion the stupratores puerorum (corrupters of boys). Eight years later the Council of Ancyra spoke out against homosexual practices, condemning in Canon 17 all men who “commit [acts of] defilement with animals or males.” Later Councils likewise specifically condemn homosexual acts (e.g., the 16th Council of Toledo, the Council of Naplouse, the Third and the Fifth Lateran Councils).

[2] In fact, though its been overstated that the Ten Commandments didn’t play a central role in Christian catechesis until the 12th century, the evidence rather suggests that the Decalogue was consistently an ancient standard of Christian behavior and discipleship, as can be traced back from Augustine’s numerous sermons on the topic, to Irenaeus’ vigorous defense of their normative status for the church over against the Marcionites.  Christians are instructed in the Apostolic Constitutions (250 AD): “Have before thine eyes the fear of God, and always remember the ten commandments of God --to love the one and only Lord God with all thy strength; to give no heed to idols, or any other beings, as being lifeless gods, or irrational beings or daemons...,” (Didascalia Apostolorum Book II, Section IV).  This appears to have been consistent with the primitive church’s stance toward the Decalogue as well (cf., Matt.19:16-22; Romans 13:8-10; 1Timothy 1:9-10)

[3] Roberts conclusion strikes me as spot on: “When Smith complains about the danger of reducing Christianity to a morality, he is identifying a real problem. However, in denying the place of the creed in teaching us Christian morality, he is failing to practice his orthodoxy as he ought. The creed isn’t a self-contained document presenting the sum total of ‘orthodox’ Christian ethics. Rather, the creed gives us the grammar by which to articulate Christian ethics aright. …The creed is the touchstone of Christian ethics, the document disclosing its true grammar.”