Friday, March 18, 2011

Beyond Binaries: A Response to Mark Galli, Part 5

Read: Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4

Having analyzed the details of Mark Galli’s review of Rob Bell, it’s time to step back and assess the big picture. First things first, it cannot be emphasized enough that Galli’s review is without question the best review I have yet seen. In fact, it is precisely because it is so good that I have felt compelled to respond to it. Most of the blogosphere has been dominated by superficial engagements that have already ruled out the possibility of a universal hope for salvation prior to any actual historical, exegetical, or theological inquiry. What distinguishes Galli’s review is the far greater knowledge that he brings to the table. Unfortunately, in the case of Bultmann, for example, it still remained on a fairly superficial level. This series of posts has been an attempt to probe the matters raised by Galli in a more thorough and critical manner. The goal has never been to criticize Galli himself; rather, my intention has been to engage in a critical conversation with his review for the purpose of facilitating an ongoing dialogue that needs to take place within evangelicalism today.

In this concluding post I want to review the ground that I have covered and pick up bits and pieces along the way that I either overlooked or held off discussing until now. I will treat these under the headings of the previous sections of this review: (1) universalism, (2) the cross and atonement, and (3) liberalism, evangelicalism, and orthodoxy.

I. Universalism: Love and Justice

Near the conclusion of his review, Galli writes the following:
Most Christians grasp that to demythologize one doctrine is to make the others less coherent. They recognize that a Christianity that teaches about "a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross" (H. Richard Niebuhr's classic summary of liberalism) does not reflect the thickness of biblical revelation nor lived reality. And they see that when all is said and done, there is no painful contradiction between the love and justice of God. That in the end, not only does love win, but justice, too.
First, to get on my academic soapbox for a moment, if Niebuhr’s famous quote is the definition of liberalism, then Bultmann is most definitely not a liberal. Neither is Schleiermacher for that matter. Demythologizing has nothing whatsoever to do with the neutering of the gospel and the watering down of the faith. These kinds of statements completely misconstrue the theologians of the past, effectively denying their significance for the future. For our sakes, they deserve better. (Soapbox over.)

What I am more interested in is the final statement about love and justice. He speaks of there being no “painful” contradiction between the two, such that both love and justice win in the end. This, unfortunately, does not go far enough. If liberalism is defined as love without justice, then (Galli’s) evangelicalism is love and justice. But neither of these are adequate. Theology properly recognizes that if God is love and if God is just, then Christian faith must speak of love as justice and justice as love. The problem with so much of the traditional literature about love and justice is that it treats these as reified objects that compete with each other. “Love wins” is taken to mean that “justice loses.” Galli wants to say that both win, but what does he mean by this? He says that there is no painful contradiction, but does he still not have some kind of contradiction? It’s not painful because love and justice are being applied to two sets of people—those who are saved, and those who are not. By splitting up humanity in this way—either through double predestination or through allowing human beings to decide for themselves—he allows love and justice to counter each other, but in a painless way.

The problem is that love and justice are not “things” that exist “out there.” To say that “love wins” or that “justice wins” are simply two ways of saying the same thing: God wins. But it’s precisely because love and justice are defined by God’s being and act that we cannot separate them. God’s gracious action in Jesus Christ is the event of love and justice. God is just precisely in submitting to death on a cross, and God is love precisely in carrying out this act of divine justice on behalf of all humanity. This is what Galli seems to have missed altogether. He seems to think that universal salvation requires a God who does not judge. But that is entirely untrue. It is the judgment carried out in Jesus Christ that makes universal salvation both possible and actual. If Jesus does indeed stand in our place, as Galli clearly wants to say, then there is absolutely no reason why the judgment of sin on the cross cannot be—and perhaps even should be—understood as being effective for all people. Love wins at the same time that justice wins, because love and justice—being two aspects of the same christological event—are finally identical.

II. The Cross: Substitution and Ontology

I want to return to the problem of substitution. I think there are some serious theological issues that are simply not on the radar for people like Galli. Perhaps the most crucial one is the question of ontology. In my discussion of substitutionary atonement, I briefly raised the question: what does substitution mean?  Is it an ontological connection between Jesus and the rest of humanity? This is, I think, a question that needs to be addressed.

The “orthodox” position is based, by and large, on an ancient ontology. The ancient church of the early ecumenical councils presupposed a substance ontology in which divinity and humanity were essences that had certain properties and could be treated like substantial objects. In the case of God, the divine nature was ascribed certain properties presupposed by classical Greek philosophy (e.g., uncreated, immortal, impassible, etc.). In the case of humanity, the human nature was understood to be something in which all individuals participated. It had an opposite set of properties (e.g., created, mortal, passible, etc.). We have to remember that when the church was figuring out what to say about the two natures of Christ, they were presupposing this Greek ontology. Their understanding of salvation was a deification in which the human nature came to participate in certain properties of the divine nature (e.g., immortality and impassibility). The Chalcedonian Formula was constructed to ensure (a) that the two natures qua natures remained absolutely separate due to the metaphysical antithesis between divine impassibility and human passibility, and (b) that the two natures qua person were in unity, in order to preserve the eschatological possibility of a future deification in which humanity came to participate in divinity. These were the concerns of the church at that time, and they cannot be understood apart from the ontology that they presupposed.

Within such an ontology, the language of Christ as substitute makes a lot of sense. In the incarnation, the Son assumes a human nature or essence in which all other human beings necessarily participate. There is a common ontological essence that unites every particular person. By and large, it is this abstract philosophical essence that is presupposed when speaking of substitution. But the question is: are we obliged to adopt this ontology simply because it was so important to the church in the past? Is this ontology itself essential to the gospel? Can we think of Christ being “in our place” in a new way today? Can we think about Christ in a postmetaphysical manner that dispenses with substance ontology altogether? These are the kinds of questions that Galli entirely overlooks. By identifying substitution as the biblical position without giving any attention to ontology, he gives the impression that Greek metaphysics is itself the biblical position; conversely, he implies that to think differently about substitution (i.e., to rethink our relation to theological ontology) is intrinsically a liberal move that is no longer faithful to Scripture.

This is a crucial issue. I think evangelicals need to spend a great deal of time critically examining to what extent they have baptized and deified a past philosophical ontology. Unlike Roman Catholics who are quite explicit about their baptism of Greek philosophy, evangelicals have no such commitments. We need to strictly differentiate between the gospel and all philosophical conceptualities. While theology is necessarily always appropriating philosophical concepts for the sake of bearing witness to the gospel, those concepts are always dispensable. The subject-matter of Christian faith is infinitely translatable from one conceptuality to another. If we do not make this distinction, we run the risk of idolatrously deifying a philosophy as itself the gospel and so making the message of Jesus Christ a sacrificium intellectus.

III. Towards a Missionary Orthoheterodoxy

What is orthodoxy? What is heterodoxy? Are we really so sure that we know what these words mean? Evangelicals have traditionally avoided rigid doctrinal formulations out of a pietist concern for an authentic faith that responds obediently to the message of the gospel. For this reason, evangelical organizations have generally had very limited statements of faith. They tend to be limited to (1) the affirmation of the triune nature of God, (2) confidence in the authority of Scripture, and (3) belief in the divinity and saving significance of Christ. Beyond these fairly general statements, most evangelicals are unwilling to lay down a specific doctrinal law to which one must assent. This is an impulse that stems from the Reformers themselves.

It is for this reason that I am deeply concerned about the rush to define orthodoxy in a way that restricts the circle of evangelicalism. In many cases, this results in ironically having to exclude some of our evangelical ancestors in the faith from evangelicalism. But what really concerns me is the missiological problem that I raised in the previous post. The attempt to nail down what orthodoxy means according to specific doctrinal formulations inevitably requires that the mission of the church be one of mere diffusion. It identifies the gospel with a particular cultural form, i.e., with a particular conceptuality rooted in certain cultural, historical, political, and philosophical presuppositions. The gospel is then turned into a worldview, one that is universally valid in advance and in the abstract. I firmly believe that Christian faith must distinguish itself from every worldview in as strong a manner as possible. The result of confusing the gospel with a worldview is always some form of legalism. An ethical worldview results in an ethical legalism that makes conformity to a universal moral code the measure of faithful obedience to God. A doctrinal worldview results in a doctrinal legalism that makes intellectual conformity to a universal dogmatic code the measure of “right belief.” Either way, the gospel has been distorted. The good news of God’s love becomes the old news of a past culture or a static system of belief.

In the end, I want to propose an orthoheterodoxy. By this I mean we need to be able to “think differently” (hetero-doxy), but in the “right” way (ortho-doxy). Orthoheterodoxy captures what I referred to in my earlier post as the relation between indigenization and pilgrimization. The gospel must continually become indigenized within specific historical contexts. It is this ongoing process of indigenization that constitutes the diverse history of the church community. Despite the infinite variety of cultural forms—and here just think about the amazing array of contexts into which the gospel has been culturally and linguistically translated—there remains a singular message of divine judgment against sin and divine grace and mercy through Jesus Christ. This message, captured in the kerygma of the cross and resurrection, is what we must proclaim again and again, and in ever new ways. This gospel cannot be constrained to one particular form; it must not be frozen in one time and place. If we believe that the Word is living and active, and if we believe that Christ is truly present with us in the Spirit, then we must confess the freedom of the gospel to indigenize itself in new contexts and to radically transform them in light of a hope that is far greater and more glorious than anything we can imagine. To “think differently” means to think from one context to another, from past to present, from one situation to the next. But we must engage in this work of missionary translation responsibly, always allowing the kerygmatic message of God’s grace in Christ to be our critical norm. It is this norm that illuminates our reading of Scripture (clarifying which passages are to be privileged over others) and funds the infinite diversity of the Christian community. In holding rightly to this norm, we must also think freely and differently. That is the task of evangelical Christianity today.


rootedradical said...

"By splitting up humanity in this way...he allows love and justice to counter each other, but in a painless way." Painless only if you're not the one who is under justice.

Part of the problem is that the ES crowd continually conceives justice in a negative/retributive sense, completely overlooking the relationship between shalom and justice. But, I suppose they would argue that shalom is some ethereal warm-fuzzy feeling for the "heaven-bound" folks.

signonthewindow said...

Reading this post reminded me of Ellen Charry's comment in systematic theology that no church council declared an orthodox position on soteriology. Thinking about this I've been amazed at how many respondents to Bell have more or less labeled him as outside the camp. If we're sticking to a definition of orthodoxy as the creedal position of the councils then Bell has all sorts of room (as we all do) to work out these questions.

David W. Congdon said...

It's quite true - there ought to be room for Bell to move within. I think all of this reveals quite clearly a divide within evangelicalism in America between those who want to maintain its diverse and ecumenical openness and those who want to turn evangelicalism into a new denomination with its clearly defined doctrinal boundaries. This problem has appeared many times in the past, perhaps most famously in the dispute over open theism. I'm afraid we're approaching a similar split within the ranks.

As for the question of orthodoxy, though, I don't want to define orthodoxy in terms of the creedal formulas. I would rather be a little more circumspect (and hermeneutically careful) and say that we need to abide by the theological concerns of the creeds, without making the creedal formulas themselves a doctrinal law to which we must subscribe.

rising4air said...

Any contact from Galli yet?

David W. Congdon said...

No, not yet. I'm not expecting anything.