Justification: What is it?

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Resurrection of Christ (source)

Justification, in the proper sense of the word, is a covenantal — or to put it in the Reformational sense, legal — declaration of divine acquittal. It is God’s declaration: “found not guilty”. It is God’s vindication of the one lost in sin and death.

This concept of divine acquittal is found all throughout the scriptures. It is most dramatically found in the imprecatory Psalms. The Psalmist, under the oppression of his enemies, cries out for vindication, for the divine acquittal.

For instance, David prays in Psalm 109:

But you, O God my Lord,
    deal on my behalf for your name’s sake;
    because your steadfast love is good, deliver me!

He also prays in Psalm 26:

Vindicate me, O Lord,
    for I have walked in my integrity,
    and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
    test my heart and my mind.

The context of these Psalms is oppression and guilt. David is asking to be judged not guilty. He is asking to be vindicated, justified before the evil oppressor.

What is more, Augustine rightly noted that these Psalms are ultimately about the Messiah, of whom David was a picture. David, although a man after God’s own heart, was not ultimately worthy of vindication. Thus, David spoke in the person of Christ. Christ is the ultimate oppressed one, under the guilt and shame of the world, crying out for vindication.

Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:16 of Christ:

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

What is this vindication in the Spirit? The word Paul uses dikiaou, justification. Christ himself was justified in the Spirit! Paul is saying that Christ himself was judged as righteous. But what does this mean?

It means that God saw him under the weight of condemnation, judged him as undeserving, and delivered him. Or, put another way, God acquitted him of the suffering he experienced on the cross, and “vindicated” him. What was this vindication? We get a hint from Romans 4 where Paul tells us that Christ died for our sins and raised for our justification. When Paul tells us that Christ was vindicated in the Spirit, he means that Christ was raised from the dead. Christ’s enemies judged him as guilty and killed him. God judged him as not guilty and raised him. He reversed the judgment of his enemies.

What this all means is that God’s vindication of Christ was not simply a bare acquittal, but a divine action. God’s judgment led to God’s deliverance. God’s judgement of “not guilty” led him to, as Peter says, “loose the pangs of death”, and free Christ from death. This means that God’s judgement and his action of resurrection is one divine action. God simultaneously judges and rescues.

This may seem irrelevant, but it is important to note the connection between God’s justification of Christ and his resurrection of Christ. The Reformation doctrine of justification has notoriously been labeled as a “legal fiction”. God acquits the guilty and leaves them as they are. Well, that’s not actually true! God’s judgement and impartation of new life are one and the same, one connected reality. And the reason for this is because God’s divine word is simultaneously his divine action.

Luther explains that God’s words are not bare declarations, but are “things very great and wonderful, which we see with our eyes and feel with our hands” (The Genius of Luther’s Theology, 42). The word is not intangible, but touchable, seeable, effective. And why? As Robert Kolb rightly says: God’s “word does what it says” (ibid, p43). Elsewhere Luther says that God’s Word “contains all the fullness of God” (Theology of Martin Luther, 353). When God communicates, he effects what he says. Robert Kolb cites Luther’s commentary on Genesis in which Luther rightly says that when God desires to create, he doesn’t do, but he speaks: “Whatever God wanted to create, he created when he spoke” (ibid, p 43). In other words, God’s Word is not like our words. Our words can merely describe reality, while God’s word creates reality!

This makes sense too when we think of the court room analogy. When a judge acquits someone of their crime, it doesn’t matter whether they are guilty or not: the person judged “not guilty” is thereby freed. The judge’s word is creative and effective. The prisoner is freed to go. Or, take for instance an umpire in a baseball game. If he says: “you’re out!”, it matters not whether you think he was correct or not, you’re out. His word creates reality.

Robert Kolb says this about justification:

Thus, there is no conflict between being declared righteous and being made righteous… The word [of God] does what it says. When God declares a person righteous, that person is actually righteous. The Word has brought about a new reality (ibid, p 43)

When God declares a sinner righteous “for the sake of Christ”, he is not speaking falsities: he is creating a new reality. As he created the world through his Word, he recreates the sinner through his Word.

Thus, God renders or judges us righteous and resurrects us, frees us from the domain of sin, makes us and constitutes us as new creatures. Properly, this divine judgement is a participation in Christ’s own vindication from the dead: God judges us in Christ and raises us above our oppressors and seats us in heavenly places with him.

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What is the meaning of the atonement? A proposal

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Harrowing of Hell by Duccio di Buoninsegna ca. 1255 – 1319 (source)

At basic, the atonement is the doctrine of what God did to unite man with himself. Assumed in this doctrine is of course a foundational doctrine of original sin: mankind is not one with God, and thus needs to be made one.

Among the differing opinions of just what God has done to reconcile with mankind are two options.

One option is what we might call the legal doctrine of atonement. This legal atonement is posited in one of two ways: the Anselmian type and the penal substitution type. Both of these versions posit that the principal thing that separates man from God is the legal offense of sin. And thus, the thing to be removed is this offense.

Anselm posited an atonement theory which essentially proposed that God is offended by our sin, and Christ offers himself up to the Father as a satisfaction for sin. It is his self-gift which “covers our offense” and thus God forgives us. A more modern theory is commonly called penal substitution: in order for God to unite with man, he in fact must punish sin. Christ is punished by the Father in our place, and thus our sins are removed.

Without wholesale rejecting truths in these construals, I have issues. The struggle I have with these theories is that the problem the atonement means to solve is found in God: God is offended, and that is the thing that keeps us from reconciliation. Of course, our sin is offensive. But I wonder: why would that offense demand the death of the Son? Why couldn’t something else be done to rid the offense of sin? Is God unable to forgive without some sort of satisfaction? To be sure, it is said in scripture that Christ is a sacrifice for sin. Like the sacrifices of the Old Testament, Christ becomes a holy offering, a gift given over to the Father. And yet, I have yet to find it stated as such that without it God could not forgive us. To be sure, as well, we are said to be received into fellowship “for the sake of Christ”, something that the Reformation rightly recognized: we are not the cause of our salvation. Christ himself is the cause. He is our advocate before the Father. But again, this does not follow that Christ had to bear God’s wrath for our forgiveness. God receives us rather for the sake of who Christ himself is: he is the righteous servant, the obedient Son.

Patrick Henry Reardon rightly mentions that in Jesus’ parables, there is an assumption that forgiveness is something that, if it is to be forgiveness (!!), must be given freely without payment. Reardon says this:

The image of man’s “debt” owed to God is, of course, perfectly biblical. Jesus spoke of God as “a certain creditor who had two debtors” (Luke 7: 41). He also described the judgment of God as the summoning of the master’s debtors (16: 1– 12). But with regard to this debitum of the Lord’s parables, we encounter an immense irony: It is the whole point in these parables that the debt is not paid; it is simply forgiven. As the Church Fathers understood these parables, they refer not specifically to the work of Christ, but to the mercy of God and to man’s obligation to imitate that mercy.  (Reclaiming the Atonement, Kindle 816-821)

By God’s mercy he releases us of our debt. Our justification is through Christ, “for the sake of Christ” yes, but that is not the same as saying that God forgives us because he punished Christ.

With all that said, I do accept some legal aspects of the cross. However I do not think that the primary purpose of the cross was to remove a legal barrier of God’s offense to our sin. He does hate our sin, to be sure. But in my estimation we must locate the reason for the cross elsewhere. The atonement makes us at one with God for yet another reason.

I would like to propose a second type of atonement which I would like to call participatory atonement:

Gerhard Forde once wrote that God is only “satisfied” when he recreates sinners who are no longer under wrath. “Christ’s work, therefore, ‘satisfies’ the wrath of God because it alone creates believers, new beings who are no longer ‘under’ wrath” (A More Radical Gospel, 97). In this sense God is doesn’t need payment so much as he desires to remove the barrier of sin from his people.

Of course, this still doesn’t help us understand the atonement, but it does help us to understand the real barrier: the problem isn’t God but rather us. We are the sinners who have been so corrupted and lost, that it will not suffice for God to simply forgive us. We must be radically recreated. But how does this recreation happen, and even more, how does this relate to the atonement? What I want to propose is that the atonement is nothing less than God’s radical solidarity with us in our sin, a traveling down into the depths of our fallenness in order to recreate us and raise us up.

Robert Jenson, in his Systematic Theology volume 2, says that the atonement is what it costs God to remain our loving Father; or, to remain in union with his people, to be in fellowship with humanity. What did it cost? How could he remain our Father even in the midst of our sin? Very simply, it cost him death. In order for him to remain what he wanted to be for us, he had to die.

But why death? Why the gruesome reality of the crucifixion?

Well, because that was our reality. We were in sin and death and corruption and fallenness. We were a broken mess. God could have in his sovereign legal power simply acquitted us of our wrongs, but that would not have been enough. It would not have changed our fundamentally fallen situation. And so, he had to do something about it. And what he did, was he stepped into our fallen situation. This is the fundamental point of the incarnation: God steps into our situation to redeem it.

Reardon explains it this way:

[T]he Incarnation was far more than a condition for our salvation. It served, rather, as the effective model and exemplar of salvation. The Church Fathers insisted that the “full humanity” of Jesus Christ was essential to man’s redemption, because “whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.” (Reclaiming the Atonement, kin loc, 93-94)…

[I]f the fact of the Incarnation means that the Word adopted the fullness of human experience— sin excepted, says the Epistle to the Hebrews— then nothing human can be excluded from the study of redemption. The Word, embracing our humanity, took possession of all of it in order to redeem all of it. (231-33)

Reardon goes on to say that Christology is soteriology. God became man. God took on the fullness of our experience; and why did he do that? To redeem it; to transform it; to renew it; to glorify it. The early fathers of the church were fond of reversing their Christology in order to explain salvation: God became man; why? So that man might become God. By that they meant that God came down to raise us up. Christology is soteriology.

David Fagerberg explains it this way: “Our deification (sanctification) is twinned to Christ’s Incarnation. Mankind enters into the life of God because of his hypostatic union” (Consecrating the World, p 60). Fagerberg quotes John Chrysostom who says this about the incarnation and resurrection: “Two things He has done, the greatest things. He has both Himself descended to the lowest depth of humiliation, and has raised up man to the height of exaltation.” (ibid, 61)

Thus God condescended into our midst, into the brokenness of our situation, to redeem and raise us up. We may call this a model of participation or solidarity. God becomes what we are — sinful, broken, fallen — in order to make us what he is.

Thus the incarnation, cross, resurrection, ascension, must be seen as a whole. The cross is very simply the deepest depth of our fallen condition. Christ travels into the realm of death and defeats that reality, what the Eastern fathers called the harrowing of hell (icon above). God the Father vindicates (justifies) Christ from the dead, and enthrones our human nature at his right hand.

Mark A. McIntosh says this of the cross:

What we see happening in Christ on the cross is the stretching out of God to us in our affliction and separation from hope. There, in Jesus’ cry of dereliction, we see the Word of God finding us, sharing our plight, crying out to the Father. Our lostness and distance from each other and from God has been embraced within the “distance” of God’s eternal life of love, embraced within the love of the Father for the Son and the love of the Son for the Father, that one love — the bond of supreme union… — whom we know as God the Holy Spirit… Our suffering is forever embraced and suffered within this eternal loving which is God’s life. (Mysteries of Faith, 38-39)

In love, in forgiveness, God comes into our death, enters into our darkness, and embraces us so as to transform us. Salvation then is the reception of this embrace. We are acquitted of our wrongs “for the sake of Christ” and raised up and seated with Christ on high, removed from our fallen situation.

His will is in the Law of the Lord

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Byzantine Icon, Moses Law Giver

Luther is commonly accused of disparaging the Law. This comes from his famous distinction between Law and Gospel. This was, of course, borrowed from Augustine, who distinguished between what he called Law and grace.

In any case, the Law for both Luther and Augustine was not in itself negative. Rather, for the unspiritual man, it is, as Augustine says, “an obstacle in many ways unless grace assists. This shows, moreover, the function of the law: it makes people guilty of transgression and forces them to take refuge in grace in order to be liberated and helped to overcome evil desires. It commands…[but does not] liberate” (On the Grace of Christ). For the fleshly man, the law is a burden, a commander that cannot empower, and because of this, is condemns.

But what about the Law for the Spiritual man? Luther has a wonderful commentary on the first Psalm that illuminates his understanding of the Law. On the one hand, it is obvious that for Luther that the Law is, as he say, “wearisome”, for the ungodly man (LW, V 10, p 13). However, for the godly man, is a delight.

Commenting on verse 2 — “but his will is in the Law of the Lord” — Luther says this:

That is, not only does the hand do the law of the Lord, either compelled by necessity of fear of punishment or attracted by the hope of earthly gain, without any desire, but he does it with a cheerful and free will (p 13)

Luther distinguishes the the Spiritual man from the fleshly by maintaining that the this man does the law cheerfully. It is a delight to him. It is not something imposed, something fearful, in competition with his own will. Rather, he does it freely. He clarifies, “this does not apply to those who are under the Law in a spirit of bondage in fear, but to those who are in grace…thence Christians are called free, spontaneous and free” (13). Luther goes on to say that the Jews obeyed the Law “only with the hand”, that is, only externally. But it was wearisome for them. It was against their own willing, and thus God was in competition with them, imposing his will from the outside.

On the contrary, the spiritual man obeys willingly, spontaneously, and most importantly, from within. Luther says:

Therefore Thy law is not in the outer edges and skin of my heart, but in the inside, in the innermost and complete dedication. But with the Jews it scarcely grazed their heart gently because of fear (p 14)

The spiritual man delights in the law because it has made its own way inside. This is a picture of what happens in the New Covenant: the externalized law that imposed itself makes its way to the inside such that it is no longer an imposition but a desire, a delight. Luther finishes by saying this:

Christ does not want His rule to rest on force and violence, because then it would not stand firm, but he wants to be served willingly and with the heart and the affections… It is for this reason that he gave his Spirit… These are the ones whose delight is in the law of the Lord, since this is something that comes out of us apart from the Spirit of God (pp 14-15)

 

 

 

The Reformation Insight

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I find myself reading once again Robert W. Jenson’s and Eric W. Gritsch’s excellent book Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings. The book is written from both a theological and an historical perspective. The third chapter, however, strikes so very well at the heart of the insight of the Reformation.

Jenson, who writes this chapter, begins by explaining “the single great dogma of the Reformation was ‘justification by faith alone, without works of the law'” (p 36). He laments, however, that this singular doctrine, “one fears, [is] not so well-known” any longer. In fact,

most of Protestantism worries about [justification] not at all, having long since returned to various — bowdlerized — versions of medieval religion, supposing these to be the latest thing… [When Protestants do worry about justification], a usual concept is that the church has a list of discrete opinion-items to be accepted, that ‘justification by faith’ is one such item, and that Protestantism has for some reason decreed it the most important…

When ‘justification by faith’ is this taken for one item on an ideological list, the doctrine itself is interpreted correspondingly. The idea is that there is a list of things which God really wishes we would do — be kind to animals, be generous to the poor, be against way and injustice, that on this list is  “believe in God”; and that, as a favor to Jesus, God has decided to let us off the rest of the list if we will do just this one (p 36)

And thus, “believe” or “have faith” is on this general list of things God wishes we would do.

But this is completely wrong, says Jenson: it is “the precise opposite of what the Reformation said. For the ‘believing’ that can be one of a list of desirable deeds or characteristics is just what the Reformers called a ‘work'” (p 36). And thus, the doctrine of justification by faith is turned into a work! “If you only believe”; “if you just raise your hand”; “if you just commit your life to God”. Jenson explains that this is the exact opposite of what justification by faith alone is meant to communicate. In fact, saying “‘God will be gracious…if only you believe’… proclaims a works-righteousness that makes medieval Catholicism seem a fount of grace” (37).

OK then: what is this Reformation doctrine of justification by faith all about? Jenson aptly explains: “‘faith’ did not specify a special condition of human fulfillment, it meant the possibility of a life freed from all conditionality of fulfillment” (37). The Reformers, in other words, understood justification by faith to mean: God has said “yes” to you in Christ. And this “yes” is given freely apart from any work you need to perform. “The Reformation insight and discovery [is that] the gospel is a wholly unconditional promise of human fulfillment…made by the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection” (42).

Jenson proposes that justification by faith, rather than being one important thing among other things, be a “meta-linguistic” communication; an “identifying characteristic of the [church’s] language-activity” (pp 42-43). He explains:

[Justification by faith] says: Whatever you talk about, do so in such a way that the justification your words open to your hearers is the justification that faith apprehends rather than the justification that works apprehend. Unpacking the words “justification” and “faith”, the proposed dogma says: Make the subject of your discourse those points in your and your hearers’ life where its value is challenged, and interpret the challenge by the story of Christ, remembering that when this is rightly done your words will be an unconditional promise of value (p 43)

Interpret all of your challenges by the narrative of Christ, Jenson says. To put it another way: justification by faith means that our lives are unconditionally “yes” in Christ. Every bit of our struggles are redeemed and renewed in Christ. We are unconditionally received in Christ, unconditionally made new in Christ, gifted with all of God’s life through this single narrative of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Jenson goes on to contextualize the doctrine of justification by faith by paying special attention to the situation of the medieval church:

The gospel in anyone’s version, is a promise that our life will be fulfilled by Christ. Whenever this promise is made, someone will rise and ask, But if he is to bring our meaning, what then is our role? What is the point of our works of culture and religion?

It was the great task of the patristic and medieval church to conquer and assimilate the cultural and religious heritage of the ancient world…However this might have been done, it was in fact done so: the availability of fulfillment was acknowledged as the sole work of Christ, temporally back there on the cross; our participation now in that fulfillment was made dependent on “cooperation” between God’s influence in our lives, “grace”, and our “natural” religious and ethical energies. (p 39)

The medieval church understood that Christ merited our salvation. However, that meriting was made “back there” in the past on the cross. Our present salvation — and more importantly, our future justification — now depends on our own cooperation; our own fulfilling certain conditions. It is by grace of course, but this grace depends on our present “yes” to God.

The problem is that no matter the wording, this is not good news: “all [the] practical difference [is] made by our present cooperating or not; and God [is] left without a role in actual life” (39). Yes yes, Christ did something “back there”, and yet the here and now is made dependent upon our work.

The medieval church recognized this issue, and in response, made a special qualification about this work we must do:

Medieval theology and pastoral practice sought to avoid [these problems] by what we may call the “anti-Pelagian codicil”: If, they said, our religious and ethical response to grace is in fact that we cooperate and so come to participate in the fruit of Christ’s work, this fact of our cooperation is itself a work of God’s goodwill and grace… [The] qualification [was], “of course, all this is by grace” (39)

Well, yes you must cooperate and work and do, but even that doing is God’s grace. His grace is all in the background. But of course this “anti-Pelagian codicil” made no difference on the practical level. Even if God is in the background the entire time, it is still a condition that I must meet. And thus, my justification is tantamount to my works. The result is, as Jenson says, that God himself becomes a threat; a fearful imposing Being who weighs my life. Will I cooperate with grace in the end? Will I justify my existence?

The Reformation insight is that any language about works, condition, cooperation, must be overthrown: the gospel means principally that we are unconditionally affirmed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. And this affirmation is not simply something that occurred in the past. As Jenson says: “the gospel is…present tense…: ‘The Crucified one lives for you'” (41). We are affirmed unconditionally right now, received unconditionally right now. And it is this affirmation made in and by Christ that makes us what we are: we are baptized into Christ, and thus our sins are drowned with him, and we are risen with him. All that is his is now ours freely and without condition.

Luther himself made a distinction between law and gospel. This distinction, for him, was what made a theologian a theologian. Jenson explains this distinction:

Law communication imposes an “if… then…” structure on life… [It] is the totality of all human communication, insofar as what we say to each other functions in our lives as demand, or, what is the same, poses the future conditionally

[Whereas] a promise grants the pattern “because… therefore…”. “Because I love you”, I say to my daughter, “I will further your ambitions”. (44)

Because Christ has died and risen, therefore you are freed from sin, Satan, and death. Because Christ has risen, therefore we no longer are enslaved to the power of sin. Because Christ became sin, therefore I am no longer condemned. All of salvation is promise and gift, even our good works! This is the Reformation insight.

The Scandal of the Incarnation

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Icon of the Crucifixion (source)

Tertullian once said that “the flesh is the hinge, the decisive criterion, of salvation”. What did he mean by this? What he meant was that the full assumption and renewal of the “flesh” by God the Son in the incarnation is of utmost importance for mankind’s redemption. If God the Son did not assume a fully human nature, if he did not renew it completely, then mankind is not fully saved.

Irenaeus, echoing Tertullian, says this about the incarnation:

There was no other way for us to receive incorruptibility and immortality than to be united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be united to incorruptibility and immortality without incorruptibility and immortality first becoming what we are, the perishable putting on imperishability, the mortal putting on immortality (cf. 1 Cor. 15:54), ‘so that we might receive adoption as sons’ (Gal 4:5)? Advurses Haereses, III 19, 1

In other words, salvation is not possible unless God takes on human flesh. This is where the early church come up with the formula of the great exchange: God becomes what man is, so that man might become what God is. Irenaeus says it this way: “The Son of God became the Son of Man, so that through him we might receive adoption. This takes place when man receives and bears and embraces the Son of God” (Ibid, III 18, 7). God the Son takes what is ours — the fallen flesh — and bestows upon it a participation in his divine sonship. Irenaeus continues by saying:

The Word of God became man, assimilating Himself to man and man to Himself, so that, by His resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father… When the Word of God was made flesh… He restored and made fast the likeness, making man like the invisible Father through the visible Word” (ibid, V 16, 2)

Crucial to the gospel is the flesh, the worldly. God has descended to earth not to get us out of the world, but to recreate and refashion the flesh according to the divine pattern of life. This is what the early fathers call theosis or divinization: it is to participate in God through the descension of God the Son into our fallen situation. The gospel is principally the glorification of the flesh through the humiliation of the Son. It is the ontological raising up of mortal humanity that lies in death, endowing man with God’s own eternal glory.

This of course sounds scandalous, and it is! The shock of the gospel is, as Balthasar says, that “God becomes nothing, so that nothings might become God” (The Scandal of the Incarnation, p 53). How can the ineffable God raise us up in this manner? Surely this is too good to be true! But it isn’t: God has united himself to man and has risen him up to such great heights in Christ.

One reason the doctrines of incarnation, theosis, divinization, are so scandalous, is because Gnosticism, though not explicit, is a common presumption within western Christianity. Gnosticism was the earliest of the church heresies. Gnosticism in its most elemental form was “the belief that the lower, material sphere, the ‘flesh’, the world of the ‘psychic’, was contemptible, something to be vanquished, while the higher, spiritual world was all that was excellent, the only thing worth cultivating” (ibid, 1). Therefore the goal of redemption was not for God to glorify the flesh, but for man to escape from the material world into the spiritual life of God.

There were numerous myths about how the material world came to be. In any case, the world was understood within Gnosticism to be a lower or fallen state of being. The fall within Gnostic myth was the imprisonment of the spiritual in the material. Even more, to think that God, the highest of all beings, would not only embrace the flesh, but become flesh, was unthinkable. Irenaeus explains:

[The gnostics] reject the commixture of the heavenly wine. They only want to be the water of this world and will not admit god into commixture with them. And so they remain in the Adam conquered and cast out of Paradise. They fail to see that, as at the beginning of our formation in Adam the breath of life which comes from God was united to what had been formed, animating man, and showed him to be a rational animal, so, at the end, the Word of the Father and the Spirit of God, united to the ancient substance of Adam’s formation, made man living and perfect, capable of knowing the perfect Father (Advurses Haereses, V 1, 3)

What results from this Gnostic mindset is a radical anti-materialism. The end goal of the spiritual life is not for the world to be fitted with God’s life, divinized, but rather for man to find the spiritual god outside of the world. For this reason, the Gnostics were anti-sacramental, anti-worldly, rather, in favor of a higher spiritual “knowing” which lifted them out of the world. Balthasar explains:

The Gnostic impulse secretly or openly animates all those modern world-views which see body and spirit, bios and ethos, nature and God, in antagonism or opposition… One of ancient Gnosticism’s favourite doctrines, vigorously satirized by Irenaeus, is the glorification of the ‘eternal quest’, the idea being that the supreme principle, the ‘Groundless One’, is unknowable. It is not difficult to see why this emotional attachment to seeking, which despises as bourgeois, should have revived in our own times. But the clearest proof of the continuing relevance of the second-century struggle against Gnosticism is the fashionable interest, within the Christian church, in Zen meditation. This is essentially anti-incarnational. All sensible images, all words and concepts must be removed, so that there is nothing left but the unfathomable void in which a supposedly superobjective insight (gnosis) can flourish. However mutually contradictory these currents of thought may at first sight appear to be, they are united in their ‘spiritualizing’ flight from matter and the ‘flesh’. Modern materialism seems to be an exception, and yet it too is opposed to the Christian principle of Incarnation. (The Scandal of the Incarnation, p 5-6)

Balthasar explains here the modern influence of Gnosticism: the quest to find God by emptying oneself, by ridding oneself of the objects and materials that “get in the way”. God is that unknowable spiritual principle to which we must escape. This, to Irenaeus, is anti-Christian, precisely because it is ant-Incarnational.

Balthasar concludes his thought:

In practice, [modern Gnostics] regard matter as something to be dominated, and in man himself as the way to power. Myth and Christianity are opposed on every point. Myth seeks the ascent of man to spirit; the Word of God seeks descent into flesh and blood. Myth wants power; revelation reveals the true power of God int he most extreme powerlessness (ibid, 6)

Gnosticism is ignorantly rampant in western Christianity. What we must return to is the scandalous gospel of God’s own descent into man’s fallen situation; his very gift of life to raise us up; his very desire to unite heaven and earth!

Prayer in the Spirit

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Coptic Icon of the Ascension

I am examining Balthasar’s insights from his book Prayer. In this post I want to walk through the paradox of flesh and spirit. Balthasar introduces the two opposing realities of flesh and spirit, saying,

the tension between flesh and spirit which characterizes man in particular brings out the starkest contrasts in the way contemplation is viewed. If God is pure spirit, and if contemplation is a matter of encountering God, it seems to follow that the contemplative’s task is to purify himself and lift himself into the purely spiritual sphere by slowly detaching himself from the external world of sense (p 259)

The logic is there: God is spirit, and man is called to contemplate God; but of course, this quote wreaks of Gnosticism. Christianity is a wholly this worldly. It is a physical religion; incarnational. How then can this be the call for the contemplative? Balthasar, aware of the possible objections, qualifies his call to purely spiritual prayer:

[We cannot not presume that] man’s soul belongs with God and thus seeks to return to him (whereas the body comes from below and must return thither to death), and that man’s bodily existence is alienated from God through sin and bondage to death, the conclusions of natural religion seem to be almost inevitable: man, at the core of his being, is a soul which comes from God; the body is involved in some kind of “displacement” or “fall”; and soul’s return and redemption must take place through a movement away from the body and toward the spirit (p 260)

On the contrary, says Balthasar, “God, who is pure spirit, condescends to become man in order thus to lead us up to him. For Christ is both God and man: in the flesh he not only manifests the reality and power of the soul, the spirit: he even manifests the divine in the medium of the flesh” (p 262).

In other words, it is not that God wants to break the chains of the flesh and free us from bodily existence. On the contrary, the reality of the God-man means that God has come into and through the medium of the flesh. This means that divine and fleshly existence are not in competition with one another. In Christ, God and man have entered into a cooperative relationship.

So then, how is the Christian to contemplate God in pure spirit if he is not called to escape the flesh? How can he be purely spiritual and yet in the flesh? Balthasar explains:

God did not descend to the level of flesh simply so that we should “ascend” from flesh to spirit; the revelation of agape, of his self-sacrificing and self-emptying love is not solely or primarily intended to assist our natural religious eros to reach its goal… In other words, God’s entering into flesh must not be seen as a mere means to our redemption, nor as a preliminary stage on the way to our “divinization”; it is not something that passes away, as it were, is extinguished, is canceled by the Risen Lord’s return to the Father. The Risen One returns to the Father with his whole humanity, including his body. This is what makes him the firstborn of many brethren. But what kind of body is his? Is it not a glorified body, adopted into the Spirit’s mode of existence? (p 263)

OK then, we come to the answer: Christ returned to the Father with his entire humanity. What this means is that mankind is not destined to break free of the flesh, but rather to entire into a new mode of spiritual-physical existence. Paul calls this existence glorification; a world, a body, enriched and animated by the power of the Spirit. This is what it means to be spiritual: to participate fully in God’s eternal life through the Son and the Spirit.

Let us dig a bit deeper. Balthasar expounds:

There is truth in the Platonic view (that body is bondage), and it is this: through sin we forfeited our native home and have taken lodging in a lower region; we have fallen from a world governed by the Spirit to a world governed by subspiritual laws (p 268)

Flesh is fallen not in the sense that it is bad and we must escape it, but in the sense that it has lost a life enlivened by the Spirit. Our bodies are given over to temporality; to non-eternity; to life outside of God’s own life, to be overtaken by corruption and death. Redemption therefore includes a participation in Christ’s full resurrected life in the Spirit. The Son became one of us to breathe the Spirit back into our flesh; to give us a participation in his own triune life. If this was not needed, then why the incarnation? Death had come as a result of the fall, and God entered into that situation to destroy death in the flesh, and to make our very flesh participants in his life.

Christ came, in other words, to give us a physical-pneumatic life, a fully embodied life governed, empowered, enhanced, transfigured by the life of the Spirit. Balthasar explains,

As believers privileged to share in the Lord’s resurrection, our senses acquire something of the pneumatic quality of the Lord’s glorified sense even prior to our own resurrection, so that, in him and together with him, we can grasp the Father and the Spirit and the entire world beyond (p 270)

What all of this means is that to pray in the Spirit, to be spiritual, is not to leave the flesh. It is not to be otherworldly. Rather, it is to be illumined and to participate in the life of Christ through the Spirit. This world was destined to participate in God, to be elevated, to be raised to a new and higher pitch through God’s own power. This is the logic of the incarnation: the Son took the fallen finite flesh of humanity and breathed life into it. And he gives us this very life in the Spirit!

 

Prayer as Heavenly Sight

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Heavenly worship from John’s Revelation

Hans Urs von Balthasar, toward the end of his magnificent work Prayer, introduces several theological tensions in the act of prayer. One of these tensions is the contrasting reality of heaven and earth. Balthasar explains

Creation evinces a mysterious tension which is identified in the very first words of scripture: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. As the subsequent course of salvation history shows, this opposition is not simply cosmological but also theological, contrasting God’s being and place with man’s being and place. What is absolutely clear is that earth is not heaven, even before man puts a spiritual distance between himself and heaven as a result of the fall.  Even before the fall there are times in paradise where God makes himself present, walking “in the cool of the day”. And afterward we often read of Yahweh’s “coming down” (Gen 11:5, 7, 18:21, etc), we read of Jacob’s ladder linking earth and heaven, of God’s “looking down” on the earth… (p 277)

So there is a contrasting reality of heaven and earth. Heaven, where God dwells is not earth where man dwells. “But”, as Balthasar says,

this is not the way God desires to reveal his heavenly mystery to earthly men. The Son “comes down”, and in him heaven becomes tangible on earth… Mankind’s yearning to look into God’s dwelling place is satisfied, beyond all imagining, through God’s arrival in the house of man “to come and eat with him” (Rev 3:20)… In Jesus, heaven is no longer an image but a Person. (p 278)

What did God do through the incarnation of the Son? Paul says in Ephesians 1 that he united heaven and earth. God and man were brought together in a vital union. This is why so many of the theological masters along with Balthasar explain the very person of Christ as the kingdom, or as heaven and earth united. Man and God are no longer in separation, but are in a cooperative synergistic union. This is the point of the hypostatic union: God and man are united in the person of the divine Son.

But it is not simply that in Christ, heaven and earth are united; because Christ died, rose, and ascended. He was not simply united to our human nature: human nature was resurrected and ascended in him! Balthasar explains:

To contemplate Holy Saturday is to contemplate the collapse of heaven into the horrors of the nether world. But the Son of heaven rises from the dead, and the forty days he spends with us establish the fundamental sense of Christian existence: our beloved God, who became man, who became “heaven on earth”, who thus wooed our love on earth, and whose love we only reciprocate when he had died for our sake — he is now “earth in heaven” (p 278)

By “earth in heaven”, not “heaven in earth”, Balthasar means to say that in the person of Christ, earth is raised with Christ. The cosmos which had fallen was raised up to participate in Christ’s resurrection. Put another way, in his resurrection, Christ accomplished not simply the defeat of death, he accomplished the final union of heaven and earth in his person. But it is not simply that Christ rose; he ascended into heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand. Balthasar explains further that “by the ascension to heaven the Man Christ… has taken our humanity to heaven with him, authentically, although hidden” (p 284).

What all of this means is that Christ’s descent and ascent — theologically divided into four parts: incarnation, descent into hades, resurrection and ascension — is the movement of heaven to earth and earth into heaven. Or to put it more relationally: the Father sends the Son so that fallen man might be brought back to the Father. This is a movement of heaven down and earth up.

Paul explains this movement in Philippians 2:5-11 as Christ’s humiliation and exaltation. But it is not simply that Christ was humiliated and exalted. Heaven and earth were brought into a union that, as Balthasar says, is hidden but real. And believers are, as Paul aptly says, “raised with Christ” and “seated with him in the heavenly places” in Ephesians 3. This is again a hidden reality that cannot be seen with the eyes. And yet it is true: humanity (indeed the entire cosmos!) has been joined in a union with the Father in Christ.

It cannot be seen with eyes. However, there is a way to see it — and finally we get to the title of this article: prayer is the means of locating, finding ourselves in Christ before the Father. Christ has been raised and has ascended to the Father; and so have baptized believers! We have been raised and seated with Christ in heavenly places. The principle means of seeing this reality is in prayer.

Balthasar explains:

This irreducible tension, [that Christ has united heaven and earth], is part of our whole Christian life, and thus it belongs particularly to Christian contemplation.

The view of the Fathers, and of Augustine in particular, follows from this. Contemplation makes present the heavenly dimension and truth of the Christian life; action is the working-out of this truth in the transient conditions of this world (p 284)

Prayer is the sight of the reality that “we already have a share, concretely and authentically, in this union” of heaven and earth (p 287).

I have for about a year now understood prayer in terms of finding my place in the Son before the Father. This the tension: we do not see it, but we are in Christ seated in heavenly places. The world in fact has been risen in him. The universe itself is raised and included in God’s triune life. This reality is located by contemplative prayer. It is seen, as Paul says, with the “eyes of the heart” and not by physical sight!