Monday, October 28, 2013

Being A Means of Grace...

We must be submissive vessels of grace before we can be effective vessels for change or correction. In the public sphere, we often see Christians arguing for what they believe to be right. In the political arena, many Christians call for legislation that would either keep the status quo—hindering others from some transgression, real or perceived, that they are wanting to be free to engage in—or would engineer outward social righteousness—which would, in many cases, produce nothing more than white washed tombs. The debates rise in temperature quickly, and anger ensues rapidly when each side does not get its respective way. Like many objects exposed to extreme heat, those not insulated by grace harden, and rigidity sets in. Their causes becomes cold causes, causes fought out of spite and not love. At all cost, these people will have their way, or they will burn out trying. In this, many have lost all effectiveness. Have we forgotten that without grace, no change is possible? This is not simply to suggest that we remain humble, forever recognizing that God is sovereign and in control of the situation, but it is also a call to action, a call for us to remember that we have a duty to show grace as our Lord has shown us grace. We are in some sense and by some degree His means of grace in the world. We are His salt and light in a dark, tasteless, and decaying word. If we want others to be transformed, not simply because we want to control the world and have an engineered, pseudo-peace, but because we actually care for the lost ones, then we will first need to demonstrate grace before we act to see change happen. Grace always goes before. If it does not, any change will not be lasting. Moreover, this does not simply happen in public, but also happens in the heart first and foremost. Check your heart the next time you see the representative “opponents” of whatever issue or issues it is you are concerned about. Take stock of your feelings as you hear these "others" lobbying for their side on the news channel or social media. What feelings fill your heart? What words come to mind? What is it that you wish for them? Are you filled with compassion or malice? Do you say of them that they are precious souls in need of help, or do you call them fools, or worse? Do you want them to know peace or would you rather see some sort of vendetta visited upon them? If your heart overflows with negativity, perhaps it is you whom you need to work on. If it is love that you feel, remember how to love them. We, the representatives of Christ in the midst of this present evil age, influence, not by power struggles, but by service. When was the last time you served those who you wish to see transformed?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Mercy of The Fall and Felix Culpa...

Note: This is something that has been placed immediately on my heart, and this article as a first attempt (a poor one at that) to express something difficult to process that is more in my heart than in my head. But, I wanted to share, nonetheless. You might not agree with every theological point I make here, but I hope my final point is what can be taken home, that point being God’s mercy in light of “The Fall” of humanity. I also apologize for any errors. This is a first draft…

A question that often used to plague me about “The Fall” of humanity, God’s revelation that our first parents led us into sin, is “why?” Not, “Why did they do it?” which is puzzling enough, but, “Why do I (we) have to suffer the affects of someone else’s mistake?” At least within my own mind, it is without question that I suffer under sin, that we all do. I accept this reality as a theological reality, but I have had, in past years, difficulty squaring it as theologically sensible, especially in light of so many other theological truths, not least being the nature of God. I have never been one to join the many theologians who have felt free to proclaim, “Felix Culpa,” “Oh, happy Fall,” as if “The Fall” is something to be celebrated, if only because it allows us to see the extent of God’s grace. I do not know about you, but I would much rather not have rebelled and suffered at all, but instead have always lived at peace and oneness with God.

Speaking from a Judeo-Christian standpoint, God is a God of righteousness; therefore, it is settled a priori that, if He is in control, which His sovereign nature suggests He is, and He has allowed “The Fall” to affect us all, to which reality and Scripture both attest, then, however this came to be, it came to be under the allowance of a equitable and loving God. Standing between these truths (the goodness of the Creator and the wickedness of the created) is a confusing place to stand, but that is where we find ourselves, at least within the Christian worldview. I am not alone in my quandary. It seems so paradoxical to many people. How can a loving and almighty God allow this to happen? Answers abound, ranging from the bizarre to the absurd. Some answers hold to a logic, but that logic is often cold and unhelpful to someone who wants to understand God’s mercy in light of this event, not merely in spite of it. Is there an answer that will satisfy this criterion?

It is interesting to note that the doctrine of “The Fall” of Adam and the subsequent result of Original Sin (the doctrine that states that the whole human race is now under the rule and has the nature of sin) is never theologically explained in the Old Testament (OT), at least not in abstract propositional statements (cold logic), which seem to suit most Westerners (so we often think) when we look for an explanation of how realities work. Instead, the idea is only alluded to in brief narrative form with no immediate moral or theological commentary to assure us we are hearing the story properly; we just get more story. The term, “Original Sin,” itself is not to be found in the whole of Scripture, let alone in the segment we have come to call, “The Fall,” which is a biblical term (see Romans 3:23). Even with all this seeming lack of information in the foundational document known as the OT, Christian theology has a robust understanding of anthropology and the origin of inherit human nature, especially our depravity, and this seems based in our understanding of the OT, especially Genesis 3, the story of “The Fall.”

Today, Christian understanding of our natural state of sin is inextricably tied to the event of Adam’s disobedience, as it should be, but for the OT, Adam, at least in terms of content, is a minor character (certainly not in terms of scope). In fact, after his death in Genesis 5, Adam, the one who is understood as responsible in the NT for Original Sin (see Romans 5), does not appear again in the whole of the OT, save one genealogical mention in 1 Chronicles 1:1, and his name is just one amongst chapters upon chapters of names. We might think that this means that, for the ancient Hebrew, the story of Adam’s disobedience was not as significant as it is to Christians today, but this would be to ignore Hebrew culture and impose our own cultural lens upon their actions, namely, how they read and wrote Scripture (more on this in a moment). First, it is worth noting that the Hebrew Scripture (the OT) does in fact assume Original Sin, or what has alternatively been called “sin nature,” as a given for the human race (see Genesis 8:21; Psalm 14:2,3; 51:5; 58:3; Proverbs 22:15; Isaiah 53:6). Second, it is worth noting that there is plenty of extra-biblical evidence that the ancient Jewish community, and not just Christians following Paul, often understood this sin nature as coming from Adam, although, just like now, just how this is the case was not always agreed upon (see 4 Ezra 3:7-22; Jubilees 3:17-32), Paul of course not pulling the idea from thin air in Romans 5, but coming from his already well-developed Jewish theology.

In the story of “The Fall” itself, we do not really see an explicit mentioning of how sin will spread to Adam’s progeny, nor to what degree. It is only in the horrifying accounts following “The Fall” culminating at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) that we see sin’s increase amongst the whole race before salvation history begins. It is in this time that sin is at its worst, and the reader is simply left in horror chapter after chapter, until God breaks into Abram’s life in Genesis 12. Again, after this point, sin as our (humanity’s) natural state is simply assumed throughout the OT, but it is most certainly assumed. In fact, if humanity were not seen as sinful as a whole, there would be no reason at all in Israel’s mind for their own existence as the chosen people of God, which is for the purpose of redemption, as they are called out to be a kingdom of priest (Exodus 19:6), which suggests a nation that mediates between a sinful world and a just God. If Original Sin were not a part of their understanding, they would have asked, “Chosen for what, a priestly Kingdom to whom?” That they understood this about the world and themselves is evident, but flatly stated upfront, as we might explain such an important idea if we were to record it (in Genesis 3) is not how the Hebrew Scriptures work. Instead, they unfold, sometimes very slowly and often without clear, concise commentary to explicate what is being said.

This reality of “The Fall” account is an example of one of the most frustrating aspects of the OT for modern readers, and the reason, at first read, we might misunderstand this story’s importance for the whole of the OT. The OT is overwhelmingly written in historical narrative form. It is certainly not just a history, but a historical theology. In other words, the history it records is designed to teach us something about our God and our place before God, but how this is done is not how we moderns would handle such a task of teaching theology. The OT writers simply record the events, often wanting to say something deeply theological, but never saying so in any explicit manner. “The Fall” is merely one amongst many historical narratives that define Israel’s sense of identity, but seem so short and unexplained from a modern’s point of view. Surely some characters have long accounts (like Moses and David), but so many of the other significant figures only get a few chapters (like Noah, Joseph, and Samson. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, Abraham’s story is fairly short, although He does get much mentioning beyond His own story, unlike Adam).

The reader is left with the task of hearing the implicit consequences of each story told, and the story of “The Fall” is no different. This is a brilliant approach to get readers involved in actually thinking through theology itself, since they have to actually apply an interpretive mind to each story. They have to actually discuss it and flesh it out together, in community, but it is frustrating when we just want to get straight down to the point. Genesis 3 is horrifyingly silent about the scope and extent as to how this sin will affect the human race. Instead, we have to wait in agony to see what will happen now that God’s will has been transgressed. We do get a sense of the concentric spread of sin when God declares the curse of Adam (see Genesis 3:17-19), as he will live a life defined by toil, fear, and entropy, but it will not be until we see Cain kill Abel that we begin to understand that Adam’s curse is not simply His alone, but ours. Shortly we arrive to Noah’s story in Genesis 6 and we see the whole world has filled with wickedness. Original Sin is as clear as the noses on our face, without ever having to be explicated in step-by-step logical statements.

If we are going to get to any sort of satisfactory root to our place in the lineage of sin in light of Genesis 3 and how, perhaps, this can make sense, even in light of the good Creator that opens the Genesis story, we are going to have to read this story as an ancient Hebrew might have read it. I am no expert on ancient Hebraic culture, but I do know a few things. First, while Genesis 3 is brief and its story does not recur in the OT, it would permeate the Hebrew mind as they read their ancient Scriptures, especially the Torah. The Torah is seen as a literary unit, known alternatively as “The Law of Moses,” and was made up of the first five books of what has become the Biblical Canon (Genesis through Deuteronomy). In a big way, this book was not seen as five distinct books, but one large document, and in that day, just like ours, the introduction’s import for the whole of the story cannot be overstated. Thus, the opening of Genesis is of vital importance to this ancient community’s understanding of their most foundational sacred text. The first eleven chapters of the Torah explained to Israel their very purpose for being, and they would have read and reread, recited and re-recited these stories from one Generation to the next:

Speaking of the Torah, the Lord in Deuteronomy instructs the Israelites:

Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (6:7-9 NRSV)

The law, the whole Torah, was vital to the people, and their need for Torah, as explained in the stories that open the law, “The Fall” included, was to permeate their minds and define them as a people, so they would have poured over this story many, many times, and they would have read the story, not as a modern, who might simply gloss over short stories to get to bigger stories, but as the very prologue to their own existence. Moreover, they would have read the story in light of their own experience, this being reflected in the very manner the story is written. While there are many experiences that define Israel, I will mention two that I believe are of utmost importance to this particular story, “covenant” and “exile,” two ideas that are often held together throughout Israel’s historical experience as the people of God. Seeing the fall in the context of covenant and exile can help us, at least at some level, come to understand how sin has come to effect us all, and, at least in my mind, in such a way that leaves us grateful instead of frustrated with God for allowing, not just Adam’s fall, but through Adam’s sin (and our own), our fall as well. I know this sounds strange, but hang in there.

Many a theologian has seen the Eden scene in which God gives Adam a place as the steward of creation as reflecting a covenant scene. Whether we understand this to be the author’s presenting this real historical event in a artistic and anachronistic form in which covenant is simply used as a lens to understand that Adam did, in fact, have an agreement of sorts with God, or we understand it as true covenant, is beside the point. Whatever is going on, the author wants Israel to relate this historical event to her own experience, and covenant is used to perform this task:

You may have noticed that…Genesis 1 sounds a lot like the relationship between a vassal and his suzerain…Here the suzerain (Yahweh) offers his vassals (Adam and Eve) the land grant of Eden with the stipulation that humanity care for it and protect it….(see Gen2:15)….In addition to this perfect place, Adam and Eve are given each other (Gen 2:18-25), and as is implied by Genesis 3:8, they are given full access to their loving Creator. The only corner of the garden which was not theirs to use and enjoy was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…In essence, Adam and Eve are free to do anything except decide for themselves what is good and what is evil.[1]

What does all this mean? In the Scripture and throughout the Ancient Near East (the world to which the OT belongs), covenant was a very well known political agreement between two parties, often kings, in which a bond was made and promises (expectations) were expressed. The earliest known form of covenant in historical record was the Hittite treaty, which Abraham and his progeny would have been well acquainted with. In this form of covenant, the parties were not seen as equals, but there would be a greater (suzerain) king and a lesser (vassal) king. The greater would promise protection (sustenance) in return for service and obedience (faithfulness). In this Genesis account, God is offering sustenance and dominion (Adam’s garden in which to thrive and rule over the whole of creation) in exchange for Adam’s service as a good ruler who obeys the Lord, as expressed in one commandment: to not eat of the Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil, but to allow God the place of deciding what is the right and wrong directions for humanity.

Covenant was also seen as a forming or an affirmation of kinship. By entering into covenant, the two parties involved would no longer simply speak of each other in political terms, but in familial terms, the suzerain often being called, “Father,” and the vassal, “Son.” This is called a “fictive kinship,” a forming of a family bond in which one was not present before. Think of a marriage: Two unrelated persons (in terms of blood kinship) enter into covenant and are then considered real family from that point onward. In the case of Adam and Eve, they were already God’s children, but this would have confirmed this in the mind of the Israelite. Before ever receiving the written text of the Torah, Israel enters into a similar covenant in Exodus 19. God asks Israel to be His people with the stipulation that they would be Holy (faithful) so that the world could see a people of God that were different from the world and the present evil age. So, Israel would understand covenant intimately, as well as the consequences of a breach in covenant, since they broke covenant time and again. A breach in covenant was unfaithfulness (again think of marriage), and such infidelity was grounds for separation.

As we see time and time again in Israel’s own history, each time they failed to live as a Holy people and slipped into utter wickedness, they would experience a time of being removed from God’s protection and care, which was defined by Israel experiencing the natural consequence of forsaking God’s laws. They would be removed from their land at the hands of their enemies and would naturally suffer under the oppression of the kings around them, the kings of the world, the ones they were so eager to imitate and comingle with. This consequence was known as exile, and could be seen as both the natural consequence of sin—sin leads to suffering—and the judgment of God—God allowing Israel to suffer their sin. So, there is an element of sin being a primary cause of suffering, and there is an element of suffering being a secondary judgment, as God chose to remove His protection in light of a breach in the covenant:

…therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3: 23,24 NRSV)

Adam and Eve broke their covenant with God, and, therefore, suffered the same result that Israel suffered when they did likewise, exile from their home, the garden. (Not incidentally, Israel saw the “Promised Land,” as a sort of regaining of the garden.) The word translated “sent” in the passage above is the same word the OT uses for divorce of a spouse or the estrangement of a child from a parent. This is certainly covenant language. Covenant relationship between Creator and creature was broken and the family relationship severed.

Now, we have been looking at exile thus far as punishment, but what we might forget is that for Israel, exile was not Yahweh’s punishment in the sense of petty vengeance, but was often seen in light of his mercy. Exile served as a disciplinary action more than a punishment (final judgment in which there was no hope of return home). We must remember that in covenant, infidelity is grounds of full disownment, but in exile, Israel was still seen as God’s people, and His allowance of suffering would be His disciplinary action to bring them to repentance and trust in God, which would lead them back out of exile. Without the allowance of suffering, Adam and Even, as well as Israel, might never understand the problem of sin and evil, something we definitely understand today. While the strong language of divorce and disownment is used in God’s exilic action upon Adam and Eve, their very allowance to enter exile, and not immediately suffering a final death, is a hint that God is not fully done with humanity, which is also already hinted at in Genesis 3:15 in which Eve’s offspring (later to be understood as Jesus) will bring judgment upon the serpent, Satan. The real deserved punishment and natural consequence for a breach in this covenant was not just exile in which Adam and Eve would be allowed to suffer under their choice to have their own way (sin), and consequently suffer under sin’s destructive force for a prolonged but finite time, but death, which, while happening to a certain extent in spiritual exile from the Garden was not made final (the utter separation of God and man forever).

Again, in a sense, exile is a sort of death, since death is a separation from God, but it was not final death, as we see the story unfold, God still interacts with humanity after exile. Again, for Israel, exile does not represent full abandonment, as we see God redeem them time and again in their own exiles. So, Israel would have seen the fact that Adam and Eve went into exile and were not fully condemned at the very moment of sin as a great mercy. When looking at the story again, we see death as both the natural result of sin and the forensic judgment of Almighty God, and there is no reason to suppose that this death is anything less than final death, full separation from God, forever:

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Genesis 2:16,17 NRSV)

Here, and at the actual fall, we see sin seemingly spoken of as a natural result of partaking in taking from the tree, which is to effectively remove ourselves from under God’s will:
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” (Genesis 3:8-10 NRSV).

Before God declares His judgments on Adam, Eve, and the serpent, we already see Adam has lost secure relationship with God. Death is setting in. However, the Bible, and certainly Paul, does not simply see death as a natural result, but also a forensic result a judgment) of sin as well, which is what seems to bother most of us when we think about our own suffering under sin).

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23).

It is worth noting that, because of God’s providence, of course He has to make a decision to allow anything to happen before it ever does. However, this does not necessarily imply He is the cause of all that happens. We certainly would not want to make God out to be the author of sin; likewise, we are not forced to see His judgment of sin leading to death as making Him the author of death. There are two things to consider here. First, let us again look to Israel’s own experience of exile, a lesser type (analogy) of death. Here God judged Israel by delivering them into the hands of their enemies, but He did not enact His justice by active means. Instead, it was by passive means. He would remove His supernatural protection, and then, naturally, the nations Israel was flirting with would have their own ways with Israel. Then Israel would realize the perverse nature of their want to be in league with these peoples. Likewise, Adam and Eve chose autonomy from God by partaking of the tree. God allows them to then suffer the consequence of serving sin by removing His presence, a passive action indeed.

Second, we must remember that the laws of God, His proclamations of what is right and wrong, are the revealed will of God, which is inseparable from His character. They are defined by who God is, making them very natural revelations, and not secondary declarations of God saying, “You must jump through these hoops to be in my presence.” Instead, they were always a calling to man to trust God and to be a part of His image. Thus, God’s laws are tied to the nature of God, so that His opposing of disobedience, which is evil, is not simply secondary, but simply a part of who He is. He is righteous and cannot entertain evil (His free nature not being threatened here, sense evil is simply the antithesis of God’s will). In other words, it does not seem that God simply and abstractly decided that “the wages of sin is death,” but that He is declaring that sin separates humanity from God, who is our source of life, therefore, death is the result, and that, if we chose such a path, His judgment will be to allow us, at least to some extent, to suffer under that oppressive reign. Just as with Israel, God also judges to allow man to suffer under the reign of the kingdom into which they are expelled, and for Adam and Eve, this means suffering under the reign of sin. But, exile always comes with hope for a return, which is a sign of mercy. Israel then would see for Adam and Eve, “The Fall,” as apposed to a “final judgment,” as a mercy. Otherwise, human history would have been over before it began.

Now we are getting closer to ourselves. Adam and Eve, our parents, were exiled from Eden, which was the realm in which God’s dimension (heaven) met humanity’s dimension (earth). This exile represents the separation of those realities. Now man is no longer in the presence of God, and, therefore, no longer under His full blessing and care. Eden no longer exists (at least not until the return of New Jerusalem). Thus, just as any child born to a person in exile, we are naturally born into the place our parents inhabit. Therefore, if humanity was going to continue as a race, if we were ever going to be given the chance at life, and Adam and Eve’s children were ever going to come to be, then naturally speaking, they would be born in exile, under the rule and reign of the land of their exile, which is under the rule and reign of sin. This certainly does not sum up our relation to sin and the reason for our judgment, which is not simply based on Adam’s sin, but our own as well (see Romans 5:12), but it does have us, as Westerners, face a reality we often do not like to face.

We like to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, and not as incorporeal beings. We like to deny that the actions of “us,” as a whole, has any bearing on the “I,” but they do.  We are naturally related as a whole race, and the action of parents have real affects for the children. So, what would have happened if God would not have had mercy, as is implied by the exile, but instead would have allowed the final result of sin to have its final affect right then and there on Adam and Eve? They, and, therefore, we, would have all been placed under final death, full and irreversible separation from God.

The very historical fact that we are capable of recording and reflecting on such a story as "The Fall" demonstrates what God did at this moment in history. The natural and forensic result of sin is death. God could have allowed this moment in time to be less of a fall from His presence and more of a full abandonment of His presence, leading to an eventual, natural demise as entropy would have no restraint with God's life-giving presence (and common grace) fully removed from history, or, perhaps, He could have handled it in a forensic sense and enacted immediate judgment and full annihilation of humanity, utterly destroying Adam an Eve and therefore the whole race they were to bear right at the moment of transgression. They certainly deserved judgment.

He could have left our parents in sin without hope, and walked away from the world, as the deist assumes He had. In effect, even though you and I would probably never come to be if He never allowed common grace to sustain this evil world and planned a salvation history to bring us (those who trust in Him) out of exile, we (you and I) would have been judged right there. Our plight would be to never exist and know Him at all. In that sense, I must cry, "felix culpa." That God would plan to share grace with me when He had no obligation to bring me to be in the first place and even had good reason not to, is a show of historical mercy that is baffling. The very fact that there is history (as full of evil as it has been) is a sign of mercy. When we ask, "Why, God? Why did you allow this (a history following Adam and Eve, which led to me being born in exile) to happen," He is softly answering, "Because I wanted you to be, and I wanted to know you—You are a son of Adam or a daughter of Eve, if there was no offspring from Adam and Eve, there would be no you—If I had chosen not to allow this to happen (and ended your parents being), I would have likewise chosen not to have a relationship with you for you would have never come to be.”

In light of this, sin and death still remain confusing, but we see God’s mercy being displayed in the midst of this horrid event. In the fullness of time, He sacrificed His Son to bring whosoever believes out of exile and back to His full presence. We should be thankful that He chose a fall for our race and not an immediate final destruction, which none have to suffer as long as we replace our trust from our own way and back into His hands in full submission to His grace through faith. Felix Culpa….

[1] Richter, Sandra, The Epic of Eden, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), pp. 103, 104.