Two Kinds of Righteousness

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

It is made clear in every epistle that God’s Spirit works real transformation within a believer. The Apostle Paul generally ties that process directly to the sacraments. I don’t know of a protestant that disputes the point. Since, however, protestant theology is continually expressed through its historical conflicts, it often seeks to emphasize that the transformation is to be understood entirely in the optic of gift–Mary is the perfect example–and not human effort.

On the other hand, the epistles are also full of exhortation to live out the transformation that is effected upon us. This indeed does take human effort, and lots of it, like beating one’s body to make it one’s slave. Lutheranism as I have been taught it would explain these exhortations within the rubric of “two kinds of righteousness”. Its tagline goes “God doesn’t need my good works but my neighbor does.” The effort one puts into the Christian life contributes to one’s horizontal righteousness. This action flows from the vertical righteousness that is pure gift apart from any effort of my own. The horizontal needs to reflect the vertical but the two must not be confused.

The bone that could be picked with pietists (that is, much of popular evangelicalism) is that that latter encourages an examination of horizontal righteousness as proof and validation of the vertical. This is a confusion, indeed, the very definition of legalism, since horizontal righteousness is a always a one-way street, pure gift, Christ’s merit alone, etc.

It is true that grace changes our very being, filling us in Christ. Nowhere is this expressed more clearly than Colossians. But even in Colossians there is that phrase “you have died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God”. It is this hiddeness that I think needs to be understood. The ontological transformation that is the work of grace is a hidden one. It is not relegated to the eschaton, but perhaps its revelation is. Not that its revelation is entirely delayed until the echaton, but that we certainly will not reveal it by our efforts. We can only seek to live (and indeed are called to live) ever more in accordance to it as the Spirit reveals its truth when, where and how he sees fit in his inscrutable plan.

I think this view is very consistent with Paul’s presentation in the epistles. He sets up the spiritual reality of our transformation in Christ by grace in stark contrast to our current sinful behavior so as to motivate us to live more consistently with the hidden reality. The horizontal righteousness is motivated by the vertical. The transformation of our being happens in the former and flows out to effect the latter. We have faith that the Spirit works through all things, including and especially the efforts of God’s people to live out their salvation. But he does so in his inscrutable timing and way. What we really want to avoid is the navel-gazing, that interminable search for evidence, proof, validation of vertical righteousness in any place other than the sacraments. Because any such search will lead, and historically always has led, to legalism and guilt. And I think that is the answer to why so much of pietism eventually became liberalism. The grandchildren of legalist are anything but.

Scripture’s Two Senses and my Granddaughter

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A contribution by Paul Szobody

The other day I encountered a striking, living illustration of the Church’s ancient conviction that the Scriptures possess essentially two senses—literal and spiritual—and that both are real and indivisible, both divinely intended.

In God’s book, more than one sense in a text is not non-sense. To say that it is (as one recent evangelical scholar did) reveals that our hermeneutic is too influenced by human rationalism rather than the mystery of divine superintendence over Scripture’s composition and intended meaning. A mere cursory reading of the Gospels and Epistles confirms that the traditional hermeneutic of two senses in one and the same text was already operative in the apostolic mentality.

My four-year-old granddaughter Selma was playing in the sandbox with water. She made some mud balls and was carrying them over to a concrete ledge which, presumably in her mind, was her oven. As she passed me by, I asked her: “So you’re making mud balls?” “No, grandpa, these are cookies!” she retorted with all seriousness, and then added, “Would you like some?” Certainly this was not the place or time for rational disputations. “Yes” I said, and then I leaned over and pretended to eat and enjoy scrumptious cookies. She was pleased.

Then later, after I privately related to my daughter-in-law (Selma’s mother) the story, she asked Selma: “what were you doing in the sandbox?” “Making mud balls” Selma replied to her mother, still in the same sincere tone.

Yes, on one level, a very conscious level, Selma knew all along she had literally, historically and substantially made mud balls. This was the essential meaning of her act as reported to her mother. That information (evidently, in Selma’s mind) was the essential information to communicate to her mother. But her assertion to me: “No grandpa, they’re cookies!” was no less real in her mind, no less intended. In fact, it was the teleological fullness of her act: to figure, to convey to the imagination, cookies. Two modes of consciousness, two intentions, in one act, an act interpreted in two different fashions to two different people in two different situations and relations to her.

This is exactly the Church’s traditional understanding of the two senses of Scripture, the literal (historical-grammatical) and the spiritual (figural and Christic). In the first, one encounters raw empirical literary and historical data. In the second, the God who hides himself in Scripture unveils himself to the reader in contours figuring the Person and work of Christ (we will leave off, for this brief reflection, the discussion of the expansion of the spiritual meaning into the medieval three senses). The situation of the reader, his/her spiritual condition and intentions, determine how things are read and perceived. It’s the letter and spirit dichotomy. Likewise on the author’s side: In the same creative act, Selma wanted to say one thing to Grandpa, and another later to her mother. But alas: both senses are intended, both true, both legitimate interpretations; yet, how the intention and interpretation gets worked out in each situation remains under the sovereignty of the creator, whether that person creates mud balls, cookies or canonical texts.

Bread and Wine, Because Faith Comes by Seeing

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Why does God choose to put his Gospel into the physical form of the sacraments? Because it is in the very nature of faith to attach to what is not only heard but also seen. Pope Francis explains this dynamic in his recent encyclical Lumen Fidei:

30. The bond between seeing and hearing in faith-knowledge is most clearly evident in John’s Gospel. For the Fourth Gospel, to believe is both to hear and to see. Faith’s hearing emerges as a form of knowing proper to love: it is a personal hearing, one which recognizes the voice of the Good Shepherd (cf. Jn 10:3-5); it is a hearing which calls for discipleship, as was the case with the first disciples: “Hearing him say these things, they followed Jesus” (Jn 1:37). But faith is also tied to sight. Seeing the signs which Jesus worked leads at times to faith, as in the case of the Jews who, following the raising of Lazarus, “having seen what he did, believed in him” (Jn 11:45). At other times, faith itself leads to deeper vision: “If you believe, you will see the glory of God” (Jn 11:40). In the end, belief and sight intersect: “Whoever believes in me believes in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me” (Jn 12:44-45). Joined to hearing, seeing then becomes a form of following Christ, and faith appears as a process of gazing, in which our eyes grow accustomed to peering into the depths. Easter morning thus passes from John who, standing in the early morning darkness before the empty tomb, “saw and believed” (Jn 20:8), to Mary Magdalene who, after seeing Jesus (cf. Jn 20:14) and wanting to cling to him, is asked to contemplate him as he ascends to the Father, and finally to her full confession before the disciples: “I have seen the Lord!” (Jn 20:18).

How does one attain this synthesis between hearing and seeing? It becomes possible through the person of Christ himself, who can be seen and heard. He is the Word made flesh, whose glory we have seen (cf. Jn 1:14). The light of faith is the light of a countenance in which the Father is seen. In the Fourth Gospel, the truth which faith attains is the revelation of the Father in the Son, in his flesh and in his earthly deeds, a truth which can be defined as the “light-filled life” of Jesus.[24] This means that faith-knowledge does not direct our gaze to a purely inward truth. The truth which faith discloses to us is a truth centred on an encounter with Christ, on the contemplation of his life and on the awareness of his presence. Saint Thomas Aquinas speaks of the Apostles’ oculata fides — a faith which sees! — in the presence of the body of the Risen Lord.[25] With their own eyes they saw the risen Jesus and they believed; in a word, they were able to peer into the depths of what they were seeing and to confess their faith in the Son of God, seated at the right hand of the Father.

31. It was only in this way, by taking flesh, by sharing our humanity, that the knowledge proper to love could come to full fruition. For the light of love is born when our hearts are touched and we open ourselves to the interior presence of the beloved, who enables us to recognize his mystery. Thus we can understand why, together with hearing and seeing, Saint John can speak of faith as touch, as he says in his First Letter: “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 Jn 1:1). By his taking flesh and coming among us, Jesus has touched us, and through the sacraments he continues to touch us even today; transforming our hearts, he unceasingly enables us to acknowledge and acclaim him as the Son of God. In faith, we can touch him and receive the power of his grace. Saint Augustine, commenting on the account of the woman suffering from haemorrhages who touched Jesus and was cured (cf. Lk 8:45-46), says: “To touch him with our hearts: that is what it means to believe”.[26] The crowd presses in on Jesus, but they do not reach him with the personal touch of faith, which apprehends the mystery that he is the Son who reveals the Father. Only when we are configured to Jesus do we receive the eyes needed to see him.

The Torah and the Sermon on the Mount

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Sometimes there is a theological issue on my mind that is more a matter of perspective than proposition. Often such an issue is particularly paradoxical–perhaps to the point of contradiction. But I don’t think so. That makes it hard to express and defend succinctly. So I’ll try this.

Was he a Jew so I would be one too,
A Torah-loving man for human good
As spoke he on the Mount in Sermon true?
His life was also sermon, good as would
Bestow a God of love who bore his law–
Which was no law but kind command!
He drew us all from where in fear and awe
We’d froze afraid to love, afraid to stand
Before a God who’s good; afraid to hope
That we, not Jews, but “gentile sinners” might
Be known by God like Abraham and Job,
Like Aaron in the temple day and night.
Messiah on the Mountain opened once
His mouth and Torah gave the rest of us.

On the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

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I was reading the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy today. Couple of quotes I thought I would reflect upon:

[…]history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth.

Yes, the sticking point, though, is in which parts of the Bible are considered to be history, metaphor, etc.

Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: since, for instance, non-chronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it.

Indeed, it is helpful to point out how ancient writers’ understanding of the role and nature of their work differs from modern literary assumptions. The one area this document does not address is how the ancient writers’ culture viewed the nature and composition of history itself.

Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed.

In this statement the entire doctument becomes relative to future insights concerning what might be “measured focus of truth” at which a particular author of a particular passage aimed. I am thinking particularly of stories such as the Creation, the Flood, and Jonah.

In short, it would be helpful to Christian unity to realize that the principles on which the conservative Evangelical camp bases its position on inerrency, does not necessarily exclude opposing positions. As the Rabbi says: “As long as the Book is open, all questions are permitted.”

Jesus and the Law

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Following is a somewhat lengthy quote from David Bosch’s book “Transforming Mission”. I appreciate his treatment of Jesus’ mission, his approach, and how that might relate to how the church might go about her mission to the world.

It is important to first understand how Jesus related to the culture and religion of his day. It is not enough to simply say “Jesus said” or “Jesus did”, and make an immediate inference for our approach to ministry. Rather, we need to understand how Jesus related to the particular set of practices and attitudes of first century Judaism and their history. Only when we have isolated such principles can we make an eventual comparison to the unique set of practices and attitudes of our society. Only then can we begin to understand what Jesus means by “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”.

This approach is both demanding and liberating. It requires a lot of work; it requires us to make good use of the best exegetical insights of all the ages, including modern scholarship. It means we cannot be content with a shoot-from-the-hip approach to missions that simply applies Bible verses to modern questions.

Yet it is liberating–and I mean that in a gospel way; it is life-giving to learn to understand how Jesus gave life to the people he met, each in a unique way, each according to a transcendent set of principles that he referred to as “the Kingdom of Heaven.” The first of these principles is, of course, love for one’s neighbor, inseparable from love for God.

Towards such an approach, here is what Bosch observes concerning Jesus’ relationship to the Law:

According to the gospels, particularly Matthew, Jesus seems to view the Torah in a way that is not essentially different from that of his contemporaries, including the Pharisees. At closer look, however, there are some fundamental dissimilarities. For on thing, Jesus attacks the hypocrisy of allowing a discrepancy between accepting the Law as authoritative and yet not acting according to it. For another, he radicalizes the Law in an unparalleled manner (cf. Mt 5:17-48). Third, in supreme self-confidence he takes it upon himself simply to abrogate the law, or at least certain elements in it.

Why does he do that? This, of course, is the question his contemporaries also ask, either in utter amazement or in bitter anger. The answer lies in several mutually related elements, all of which involve Jesus’ understanding of his mission.

First, the reign of God and not the Torah is for Jesus the decisive principle of action. This does not imply the annulment of the Law or antinomianism, as though there could be a basic discrepancy between God’s reign and God’s Law. What happens, rather, is that the Law is pushed back in relation to God’s reign. And this reign of God manifests itself as love to all. The Old Testament knows of God’s unfathomable and tender love to Israel–dramatized inter alia, in the enacted parable of the prophet Hosea’s marriage to a prostitute. Now, however, God’s love begins to reach out beyond the boundaries of Israel. This, says William Manson, was an absolutely new thing in the religious history of humankind.

Particularly enlightening in this quote is the fact that Jesus reversed the rapport between Torah and Kingdom. Where the people of his day understood the Kingdom as an institution governed by the Torah, Jesus understood the Torah as a particular application of his Father’s Kingdom principles. This explains why he both radicalizes and abrogates the law, each in their respectively appropriate context to the respectively appropriate audience.

Applying the Torah in this way gives rise to the seemingly paradoxical situation where Jesus assumes, epitomizes and radicalizes the values of his day, all while subverting them in favor of the novelty that is his advent–a reality that, incredibly, supersedes the Torah and religion itself.

Jesus’ Contextual Ministry Approach

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Reading “The Shape of the Liturgy” by Dom Gregory Dix, I have been astounded by the following realization: liturgically speaking, Jesus did not institute any new rite for his followers. He left them with his teachings, with a new paradigm for understanding the kingdom of God, but he really did not create any new religious practice.

He told his disciples to baptize, which is what John the Baptist and others were already doing. But he told them to do it in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. He invested a fuller theology into a repentance ritual already in use and presumably well understood in his day. Essentially, by attaching God’s Name to it, he made it finally efficacious in what it had always been designed to do: bring people back to God.

In the Last Supper he was eating a meal with his disciples as many Jewish religious “associations” did on a weekly basis. The blessing over the bread at the beginning of the meal is one he would have pronounced hundreds of times over during his life according to Jewish custom. The cup at the end of the meal that he took and blessed was the normal conclusion to any weekly meal of a Jewish religious association. What he did differently that night was to give them a new way of looking at these customary practices: the cup of blessing he referred to as a new covenant in his blood. The bread that he blessed according to Jewish custom he now referred to as his body. Just as they had been having this sort of meal all throughout his ministry (presumably), he assumed they would continue to do so even after he had gone. So he told them that they should henceforth do it in memory of him, making him forever present among them by their partaking in faith.

What may be seem even more surprising is that neither of these rituals—baptism or the Lord’s Supper—are customs prescribed in the Law of Moses or anywhere else in Jewish scripture. They were just pious traditions. They were rituals that Second Temple Judaism had developed in order to live out their lives in the presence of God. They took Temple activities, like ritual washing and ritual eating, and made it part of everyday life, extending, as it were, the presence of God in the temple into everyday life. In a sense, Jesus assumed the logic of those “extra-biblical” practices and realized them fully: he invested those customs with his promises, with himself, and through them made God truly present among his disciples.

The implications for contextual ministry are overwhelming. Where are those practices in our world that express a yearning for God’s presence? We can’t fight them, ignore them, or replace them. We can let Jesus fulfill them.

An Overview of Theological Method

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1. Hebrews’ Method:
Tell a story about great stuff God has done in the past. Conclude he can do it again—if we behave.

2. Pharisees’ Method:
If you’re not obsessive compulsive about cleanliness, learn to be, then you’ll understand the law.

3. Jesus’ Method:
Agree with the majority position on most issues. Apply it to all the “wrong” people at precisely the “wrong” moment.

4. Apostles’ Method:
Use some obscure rabbinical method to make unrelated passages, read allegorically, speak to the issue at hand. Plus, “God told me”.

5. Agnostic Method:
Well, I’d tell you, but if you were one of the elect you would already know.

6. Early Fathers’ Method:
Systematically read the OT allegorically as referring to Christ and the church. Don’t quote your sources so it sounds like you speak scripture itself. Add an argument from nature. If your reader is not yet completely sick of the topic at hand, add some philosophical principles for good measure.

7. Medieval Method:
Take allegory to a whole new level: make any passage speak about anything. Sound devotional. Mary is always appropriate.

8. Orthodox Method:
Quote the Early Fathers. If it’s not there, you shouldn’t be asking.

9. Reformers’ Method:
Make all of your theology revolve around a couple novel insights into a few passages. Say that they are actually not novel but obvious. Insult the Papists and the Enthusiasts as often as possible for thinking they are novel. No holds barred.

10. Historical Critical Method:
Point out that no two Bible authors say exactly the same thing. Relativize the ones you don’t like. Use the others.

11. Fundamentalist Method:
Pick a contentious issue. Find a bunch of passages that make your point. String them together in scripture reference short hand and declare yourself the winner.

12. Modern Lutheran Method:
Quote the Lutheran Confessions. If it’s not there find a Church Father who agrees with you.

13. Modern Calvinist Method:
Fundamentalist Method + Aristotelian Logic = “unassailable” conclusion.

14. Post-Modern Method:
Use the Historical Critical Method to outline the historical development of a doctrine. Conclude that the popular Post-Modern intuition is the naturally evolved—ahem, divinely guided—outworking of that development.

Principles for Christ’s Mission

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A few principles drawn from Lesslie Newbigin’s article “Mission in Christ’s Way”.

– The mission is God’s and it has been the same from the beginning of creation.

– The mission is to draw all people into God’s kingdom

– God’s kingdom = Jesus Christ, his words and his actions, past, present and future.

– The mission is grown and sustained by the Holy Spirit alone.

– Our participation in God’s mission is a gift of his grace.

– The mission is an announcement in power, through word and deed, of the facts of God’s kingdom.

– Words without deeds are empty; deeds without words are dumb.

– The method for participating in the mission is best illustrated by Jesus’ hands and side: John 20:20-23 “…he showed them his hands and his side. […] Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.””

Baptism in Colossians

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Colossians is a gem of Pauline theology. It contains a distilled version of the central doctrines expounded upon more largely in other Pauline epistles. The theology of this epistle is built upon a hymn quoted in Colossians 1:15-20. It is a hymn that proclaims Jesus as the reconciler of all things “in heaven and on earth” through the blood of his cross. It is a theology of cosmic reconciliation in the cross.

This sort of language is distinct from all previous Pauline epistles and has prompted many scholars to conclude that the epistle was not written by Paul at all but by one of his disciples shortly after his death, who “channeled” and distilled the theology of Paul to meet the needs of the Colossian church (see the International Critical Commentary). Whether it was written by Paul or by one of his disciples this epistle benefits from a synthesis of previous Pauline writings and an extension of the work of the cross to cosmic proportions—a reconciliation of “all things”, a disarming of “rulers and authorities” (Colossians 2:15).

However, thoroughly Pauline is the centrality of the cross. This epistle in no way contradicts earlier Pauline writings, but rather builds upon them, following their very logic and theological priorities. In my opinion this makes Colossians all the more precious from a theological perspective: it is thoroughly Pauline, but also more developed and succinct.

It is also on this epistle that I find the doctrine of baptism most lucidly explained, in relation to the cross, to faith, to justification and to sanctification.

As in all Pauline epistles, there two levels of exposition: the first is the doctrine of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The second is the manner in which this great doctrine affects and is applied to our life. In Colossians (as in Romans) baptism is the link between these two levels of teaching, allowing us to pass from one to the other.

The hymn in Colossians 1:15-20 has established that Christ is the source of all created power, and that through his death he has once again united all things in himself. There remains therefore nothing outside of his power. The verses that immediately precede and follow this hymn give an immediate application: Jesus has, therefore, the power to forgive our sins and present us blameless before him. But the question remains: how and when does that occur for the individual? It was accomplished at the cross, but when does that cosmic story touch the reality of each individual? The question is answered with precision in Colossians 2:10-13.

Here is my translation of this passage, preserving the Greek sentence structure. While it makes for clunkier English, it helps establish the connection of ideas. For this purpose I have also indented subordinate clauses:

Colossians 2:10-13
10. And you have been filled in him,
            who is the head of all rule and authority.
11.       In whom [him] also you have been circumcised
                 by the circumcision not made with hands,
                 in the removal of the body of flesh,
                 in the circumcision of Christ,
12.            having been buried with him in baptism,
            in whom you have also been raised
                 through faith in the working of God
                          who raised him from the dead.
13. And you,
            though you were dead in sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh
       he has made you alive together with him,
            having forgiven us all sins.

As you can see, he makes a rather complicated statement in 10-12 about how we are circumcised in Christ, and then in 13 he restates it in a more digest form in terms of forgiveness of sins.

The precise role of baptism in 10-12 is clearly a “burial” with Christ. In verse 11: “In him also you have been circumcised […] having been buried with him in baptism”. This is where the work of Jesus on the cross of chapter one, is applied to us. In baptism, Jesus’ death becomes our death. This is described as a circumcision that is not done with hands. How is it a circumcision? By the “removal of the body of flesh”, i.e. death. The parallel is clear. But where circumcision is only a sign, baptism is the real thing; in it we actually died with Christ. The entire body of flesh was put off. What he accomplished on the cross is now ours through that baptism.

While we died to sin and the flesh with Christ in baptism, our new life in his resurrection is not attributed to baptism. Colossians 2:12b continues: “in whom you have also been raised through faith in the working of God who raised him from the dead.” Just as the death of Christ would only be the end of a sad story without his resurrection, so baptism without faith is an empty ritual. But through faith it is the very door to life, accomplished in our resurrection with Christ.

This is another point on which we might detect a very different sort of discourse than in the rest of the Pauline epistles. In Romans 6:1-5, for example, Paul says that we are united with Christ’s death in baptism so that we might be raised with him in the future. But here in Colossians 2:12 resurrection has already occurred: you have been raised with him by faith. Since this epistle sees already in Christ’s death the victory over all things, so in our unification with his death is forgiveness of and complete freedom from our sins (Colossians 1:13-14 and 2:14)—which necessarily and immediately opens to us the doors of life in the resurrection. What is hoped for is so sure because it is already accomplished. If Christ has already risen, and we died with him, have we not also been raised with him? That is the logic of this passage.

The rest of the epistle is built on this logic: Christ conquered on the cross; his death is yours in baptism; so his life must also be yours in the way that you live, free from all other earthly powers, if you continue in faith. Colossians 2:20 says “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of this world..” referring back to baptism. And Colossians 3:1 says “If then you have been raised with Christ…” referring back to the immediate implication of baptism for those who have faith. While baptism is not explicitly the gift of life, it is the personal deliverance from sin in Jesus’ death and thus the necessary path to personally participating in Jesus’ resurrection, just as Jesus’ own death was necessary for his resurrection. Death with Christ in baptism gives us freedom from sin, but that freedom must be embraced by faith for it to be life in Christ.