Freedom and Determinism

For those who are trapped, wandering up and down the road of modern philosophy, there seem to be only two possible positions: the protesting demands of absolute freedom, or the resignation to determinism.  Whether genetic determinism (Watson and Crick), psychological determinism (B.F. Skinner) or mathematical determinism (Stephen Wolfram); rationalism logically leads one to conclude that there is no freedom or choice (other than to logically accept the position of determinism).  This is hardly even the Stoicism of the Greeks, where one is caught up in the determinism of the Fates, but is free to choose how one accepts one own’s fate.  The other position is the rejection of reason and an irrational insistence in absolute freedom, any restriction is an unacceptable oppression that must be eliminated (with violence if necessary).  This is Karl Marx’s hatred for God, because his very existence implies a limitation on us; and the post-modern insistence that we are free to define ourselves (sexually) any way we want.

While some strands of Christianity have gotten caught up in this rationalism (I am thinking of Calvinist determinism as a particular example), the Patristic traditions are more complicated; they seem to state positions (often quite contradictory) without trying to explain them.  This can be particularly evident in the prayers of the Church.  Some can sound down right Stoic:

Oh Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy Holy will.  At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things.  Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is sent down from Thee.  Grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it, direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive and to love. 

We see such contradictions in one of the Morning Prayers:

My most merciful and all-merciful God, O Lord Jesus Christ! In Thy great love, Thou didst come down and become flesh in order to save all. Again, I pray Thee, save me by Grace! If Thou shouldst save me because of my deeds, it would not be a gift, but merely a duty. Truly, Thou aboundest in graciousness and art inexpressibly merciful! Thou hast said, O my Christ: “He who believes in me shall live and never see death.” If faith in Thee saves the desperate, behold: I believe! Save me, for Thou art my God and my Maker. May my faith replace my deeds, O my God, for Thou wilt find no deeds to justify me. May my faith be sufficient for all. May it answer for me; may it justify me; may it make me a partaker of Thine eternal glory; and may Satan not seize me, O Word, and boast that He has torn me from Thy hand and fold. O Christ my Savior: save me whether I want it or not! Come quickly, hurry, for I perish! Thou art my God from my mother’s womb. Grant, O Lord, that I may now love Thee as once I loved sin, and that I may labor for Thee without laziness as once I labored for Satan the deceiver. Even more, I will labor for Thee, my Lord and God Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

This can sound almost Freudian, with multiple personalities.  That these are prayers implies that they are requests of a free will (“save me”), yet the freedom is asking God to deterministically do something (“save me, whether I want it or not!”).

Behind this is the bizarre idea that we are not presently free (we are not totally rational free agents), but that we are enslaved to sin; and the only way to freedom is through radical obedience to God’s will; or as practically expressed in the monastic tradition, through radical obedience to a spiritual elder.  A radical denial that is freely chosen as an affirmation to develop the freedom of one’s will.

There is no explanation here, it is mystery that can only be answered through worship.

The Field and the Road


I am becoming convinced that the paradigms of our moral philosophy have a fundamental flaw.  Traditional morality tended to be binary – something is either right or wrong, good or bad.  Modern morality denies categories of right and wrong.  In some ways this is an outworking of traditional philosophy (Plato and Aristotle), and the struggle between ‘universals’ and ‘particulars’.  Plato points up with one finger to the universals, and Aristotle’s fingers reach out to the individual particulars.  Are there rules and categories that hold for everyone, or are there only the particulars of the individual?  Do we have categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’, or is everyone free to define whatever gender they choose?

In Western tradition, the concept of categories use to be the general norm, there were some nuances and grey areas; but generally people walked the ‘narrow way’ of virtue and knew ‘right from wrong’.  Moral issues have always been debated (can war be justified?), and moral norms have always been broken (theft, murder, adultery, …), but the belief that there were moral categories endured; at least up till modern times.

Today we seem to be caught in a strange blend; rationally wanting to follow Kant and Hagel, giving up on universals and seeing only the existence of particulars, the only truth is the truth that I perceive at this moment (ie gender identity).  This is irrationally thrown together with an absolute belief in an undefined  ‘social justice’ that is intolerant of any opposition (while demanding ‘tolerance’ of diversity!).

Such a state did not come about from nothing, but rather is a reflection of a long philosophical history.  I find this history best captured by two people:  Franz Brentano (as translated and explained by Barry Smith), and Francis Schaeffer (in Escape from Reason).    Brentano sees the history of philosophy as going through a series of cycles, starting with Aristotilain realism, having a growth of development, then declining into skepticism and finally mysticism.  I agree with him, but would go further and say that rather than a repeating cycle it is a spiral, that ever tightens and becomes more restrictive.  Schaeffer sees the history of philosophy as a series of struggles between Plato’s universals and Aristotle’s particulars, with the progressive death of grace, nature, freedom and rationality.  Philosophy, up until Kant and Hagel, sought a unified knowledge that would logically unite ethics and science.  Kant and Hagel brought about the ‘death of philosophy’ by separating mathematics and logic from meaning and values.  You could measure and define mathematics, chemistry and physics; but there could be no discussion of their meaning or value.  Meaning and value were a personal, subjective faith; hence, outside rational discussion.  I can have exhaustive statistics on arrests, deaths and other social and psychological events; but while screaming for ‘social justice’ and stopping ‘hate’, without definitions there is little or no agreed upon, articulated policy of how to change it  (other than a Utopian faith in revolution).  Our moral collapse is merely a reflection of a larger philosophical collapse.

When Kant and Hagel created ‘modern’ philosophy when they separated reason and faith (physics from meta-physics), they did not set out to destroy philosophy, but thought they could save it with a new dialectical approach.  They were willing to sacrifice a ‘unified field of knowledge’ in order to preserve human autonomous reason.  We are now facing the unintended consequences of this choice.

Before ‘modern’ times, philosophers would argue where the ‘stake in the ground’ should be driven.  They would disagree, pull up the stake,  and move it to different places in the field where they thought it belonged.  There was debate, and continual moving of the stake, but agreement that the stake should be somewhere within the field (although its exact boundaries were not defined).  This created an environment in which rational debate over values could exist, and a broad (though fuzzy) agreement over what the field (domain) of discussion covered.

With modern thinking, there is no stake or field.  Everyone has their own stake, and they march from ‘now’ to the future, down the road and over the horizon to the (assumed to exist) place where they think the stake belongs.  There is absolute, existential, certainty that the stake belongs there; and nothing can be allowed to get in the way of the ‘progress’ to get there.  The universals and particulars have not gone, but manifest themselves in the rhetoric of the ‘left’ turning down the road of socialist collective (universal), or turning to the ‘right’ for individual (particular) freedom and autonomy.  Plato and Aristotle are no longer walking about talking with each other; but are marching in opposite directions, with no means of dialogue.  Both the Democrats and Republicans (in the United States) have departed the field of discussion and compromise, to head down their respective roads, and confront (with stake wielding violence if necessary) anyone who stands in their way.  This is where we end up in logical positions that are absurd: age (or gender) is an individual state of mind, therefor if I am chronologically 16 years old, but perceive myself as 21, I should legally be allow to have a drink in a bar. It is my perception and my choice, who are you to call me wrong (you ageist bigot!)?.

I envision a needed return to the field, but not to the way it was.  Everyone looses their stakes, as there is not one (unknown) correct place to stand that is logically or individually determined. The stakes are placed as a safety perimeter bounding the field.  Anywhere within the field is a legitimate place to stand and talk, though people may want to shift locations due to changes in time and weather.

Traditional Christian thinking was reasonable, but not rationalistic.  While Aristotle insisted on the law of non-contradiction (A != -A), Christian thinking started and ended in mystery – the unknowable.  God is one God, but exists as three persons.  Christ is incarnate, he is both fully God and fully man.  These understandings became the stakes that defined the perimeter of the field.  One person could emphasize the unity of God, as long as they did not deny the three persons; another could emphasize the difference of the persons, as long as they acknowledged the unity of essence; and any place in between is also acceptable.  The Church councils identified already existing boundaries (what was the nature of God), and carefully placed stakes at these locations; the stakes did not make the boundaries, but visibly marked them for all to see.  The heresies of Arianism and Modalism were truths taken to a logical extreme, wanderings down a road beyond the boundaries the stakes identified.

This is where conversations about ethics and politics will be strolls around the field; an agreement on where the stakes are, but difficult discussions about where one should stand at any given moment.  The stake on one side says to be a generous giver, without asking whether the recipient is worthy; the stake on the other side says that if a person does not work they should not eat.  How do we stand between charity and responsibility in any given situation?  We need economic sufficiency and ecological responsibility; how do we decide whether to cut a forest or protect the trees?  The church is hierarchical (with God at the head) and conciliar (with every person in the image of God); how do we avoid dictators or mob rule?  These issues have no single answer, and different positions have been, and may be, necessary under different conditions.  Determining the position of the moment requires thought and discussion, as well as compromise.  The only wrong answer is when one sets a path down the road and strays outside of the staked boundaries.




White Privilege

I have debated with myself on whether I should write this post, since an article in the Huffington Post  got me thinking more seriously about the issue.  Some might say I am incapable of writing on the subject (since I am a white male), but I don’t believe the ‘ad hominid’ fallacy that my genetics prevent me from being logical.

This is a difficult issue, because it embodies a lot of emotion and experience in addition to a long philosophical history.   Anyone who denies the pain and suffering based upon racial and gender differences has to have a very narrow experience of life.  I do not want to minimize the real pain, both individual and social, but I would like to try and separate the reality of the pain from what is presented as the ‘obvious’ cause and solution.

The woman in the article sites a number of personal experiences when she felt singled out and abused for her race and gender.  For some there were clear connections (racial slurs), but not in all cases.  Not having been there, it is hard to deny her conclusions, but I begin to get uncomfortable when she starts ascribing almost all of her interpersonal hurts to ‘white privilege’.

I don’t want to start a debate of ‘my hurts are worse than yours’, but what do I ascribe my hurts from bullying in high school to (or am I not allowed to claim ‘discrimination’)?  Before I started high school, my parents moved to a small southern Indiana town.  One day, a teaches was visiting our house and said, “You are not from around here, are you?”  When asked why they said this, the response was, “You have too many books.”  I felt an outside minority much of the time, and there were days when walking down the school hall someone would randomly punch me in the back, or throw things at me.

My point is not to deny racial and gender problems, but that the problem is bigger (but not less).  Differences threaten people, whether the differences are racial, nationalistic, gender, economic or culture.  There is a fear of the different, that turns to hatred; and while it starts out between large groups, it eventually divides individuals and can even internally tear a person apart.  I don’t think that the philosophical solutions that are going around in recent times are willing to grasp this complexity; it is not just ‘my group’ that has a problem, but it is universal.

One of the problems I have with ‘white privilege’ is that I see it as the most current manifest of a long philosophical history of trying to identify the root of evil.  Ever since the Enlightenment, when the traditional Christian doctrine of ‘the Fall’ was rejected in favor of wanting to affirm the goodness of all humanity, there has been an effort to identify a new cause of evil.  Rosseau wanted to blame civilization for our ills, the ‘noble savage’ was his ideal of a person free, wise and good in a state of nature.  Freud ascribed our problem to sexual repression, and Marx blamed economic differences between the bourgeois and proletariat classes.  Modern leftist view hold that our problems (inner city or international) are the result of poor education and economic opportunity.  With ‘white privilege, it is now DNA that is the popular deterministic cause.

Whatever is pointed to as the potential cause (economics or white privilege), there is a common pattern:

  • The person or group suffering is a victim, who is not responsible and limited in being able to bring about change.
  • Someone, or something, else is to blame.  The problem is in the system or someone else.
  • The solution is to remove any privilege or advantage, bringing everyone to the same common level (usually the lowest common denominator).
  • It requires government force, or group violence to change (or eliminate) the problem.

While the logic may be new, the attitude is embodied in old humor.  It reminds me of the old Russian joke about a poor peasant who’s only cow has died, and he sits in despair staring at his neighbor’s cow.  His guardian angel feels sorry for him, and asks God what can be done for him.  God tells the angel that he can grant the peasant one wish.  The angel goes to the peasant and asks him what he wants, “Do you want a new cow, do you want a horse?”  The peasant looks at the angel and says, “No, I want you to kill my neighbor’s cow.”

While economics and opportunity are contributing factors, I think that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn more correctly understood the fundamental problem when he said

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956


Atonement: Wright and Florovsky

I had thought that NT Wright’s views on atonement were moving toward traditional Orthodox thinking (see my previous post on Wright’s book), but I was never sure I had found a full Orthodox exposition on the subject until a dear friend (and better theologian) pointed me toward the review of Fr George Florovsky titled On the Tree of the Cross.

Some Orthodox want to make an absolute opposition between Western and Eastern theology, seeing one as legal and the other as organic; is the problem sin or is the problem death?  There are priests I have met who will deny that Orthodox believe in atonement (of almost any form, let alone Anselm’s substitutionary atonement).  I have fought this either/or thinking, and tried to see it as a both/and position, with different emphasis.

This collection of essays is causing me to rethink my position.  I have been Orthodox for over 30 years, but it seems I still do not have ‘the mind of the Church’.  This book is an affirmation of my both/and thinking, though it pushes the affirmation of all sides stronger than I have.  What I find challenging is how the theology is done; the starting point is neither scripture nor systematic theology, but liturgy.

While the Church Fathers are frequently cited in the articles, there is an acknowledgement that different ones have different emphasis (and omissions).  The ‘mind of the Church’ cannot be found in one Father or another because there is a diversity of thinking, and it is too easy to selectively pick through them to justify one’s own position.  It is liturgy that has a slower development in which the faith and practice (lex orandi lex credendi) comes together.  It is here that atonement is not addressed (only) in Pauline theology but more in priestly actions and the words of Hebrews.

While I appreciate the careful scriptural work of Wright (and many Orthodox could use more of it), it is this liturgical theology that always takes my breath away.  The final result of theology is not admiration of my thinking, but worship; worship of the redeeming and atoning God.  The other beauty of liturgical theology is that while systematic theology wants to rationally divide and categorize (did the ransom get paid to Satan or to the Father?), liturgical theology is more poetic, allowing ideas to be jumbled together and thrown against each other, and left in a confusion of mystery.  Jesus was a baited hook that deceived the fish of Death (ie. allusions to Jonah), and after being swallowed makes Death vomit up all those who had been held captive until then.

Maybe a better scholar could find some differences between Wright and this book on Florovsky, but I found them very complimentary: scriptural exegesis in light of first century Judaism combined with patristic writings and liturgy, a wonderful combination; Glory be to God.

Freedom of Religion

Are you for it, or against it?

As an Orthodox Christian, I am for religious tolerance.  When ,William Seward talked the United States government into buying Alaska from Russian in 1867, the Civil War had recently ended and people were looking to Westward expansion – and concerned about Indian uprisings that would interfere with ‘progress’.  To most people, the Alaskans were another native American threat that needed to be managed via the ‘Pennsylvania Plan’: removing native children from their families and villages, put them in Protestant boarding schools which forbid them to use their native language and practice their customs.  What they didn’t realize was that due to Russian Orthodox missionaries, Alaska was more literate than the ‘lower 48’ at that time, with some natives captaining and navigating ships that circumnavigated the globe multiple times.  Unfortunately, their appeals to Congress to protect their religious freedoms were ignored, with disastrous results that impact the people to this day.  (for a history of this time, see Fr. Michael Oleska’s Alaskan Missionary Spirituality).

With this past as a part of my ‘faith tradition’, I am still not sure I agree with the modern understanding of religious freedom.

The Bill of Rights defines religion as one of the ‘inalienable rights’, something that cannot be taken away because it is not something given to us by the government; it is a part of ‘how things are’ as given to us by the Creator (which is not defined).  Like much of the founding of the government, this was a compromise that leaves many (if not most) less than fully satisfied.  This was also a position of the federal government; not state government, for many of the states individually supported specific religions. Massachusetts financially supported local Congregational churches as late as 1830. It was Virginia that lead the way in tolerance, under the influence of European Rationalists and Protestant values, with support from minority groups like the Baptists (who theologically separate church and state).  This policy gradually became the norm for most states.

There was however, never a complete open toleration of all religions and religious practices.  Human and animal sacrifices are not permitted, as well as polygamy and child brides.  At times various native american practices have been outlawed (Ghost Dance and peyote).  In the last 150 years, many practices that were forbidden are now legal.

Modern thinking about religion is vastly different from the time of the Bill of Rights, and the modern Structuralist (Rationalist) approach, and post-modernism, while affirming religion, significantly redefine it, and ultimately destroy it.

Ever since Kant and Hagel, meaning and values have been pushed into an ‘upper story‘ where all meta-physical, meaning and value are considered to be non-rational. As Nietzsche put it “God is Dead”, so god is no longer a source for meaning or values.  This is the undisputed belief of modern thinking (both Structuralists and post-modernism).  Religion has changed from doctrines, practices and beliefs to a personal, internal spirituality (see Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion for a good discussion on the changes to the definitions of science and religion).  For modern Rationalists (Structuralists) the concept of religion is something to be disposed of as meaningless (sort of like Unicorns).  Post-modernists are willing to affirm religion, as long as we obey the bumper sticker and “Coexist”, but affirm it as long as we are willing to let them deconstruct any particular religion and let them redefine so that any ‘teeth’ of value and meaning have been pulled.  By definition, religion has nothing to say regarding practical issues such as abortion, marriage or sexual practices.

Since god is dead, religious freedom (along with any other rights) are no longer something inalienable, as there are no metaphysics and values ‘out there’.  Governments that follow this modern thinking may make laws affirming rights (such as abortion and gender identity), but at the expense of defining them as something the state grants, and hence can also take away.

The problem I face as a minority philosophy in this country (ie Patristic Orthodox Christianity) is how to affirm tolerance, yet also see the need for limits.  Any talk of sacramentality (ie: God working through and being reflected in the creation) sounds to many people an lunacy.  I want tolerance, as I want the freedom to express and live out my values (even as I mournfully watch others exercise their ‘freedom’ to destroy themselves by disregarding those values).  In some ways, I am not too concerned about the future of Christianity, as it started under Roman rule; which was no friend to anyone challenging Ceaser’s authority and divinity.  I don’t think it is likely that human sacrifice will be re-introduced soon (unless one puts abortion in that category); however, my real fear is what will happen to this ‘tolerant’ country when it encounters pre-Kantian thinking that is not tolerant – in particular I am thinking of certain threads of Muslim theology.

I need to be careful here as Muslim theology is somewhat diverse and varied.  Accusing all Muslims of terrorism is similar to blaming a Baptist or Quaker for the Crusades.    Yes, there are devout, peaceful Muslims; but don’t confuse Sufi with Wahhabi (the latter being a particular focus of concern).  Saudi Arabia is quite willing to use western tolerance to fund mosques wherever they can, but it is not a reciprocal policy that is open for the West to build churches in their country.  They will take advantage of our tolerance, but are less free to give it back (ie, to ‘Coexist’).  Orthodox Christians have a long and complex history with Muslims.  Mohammed was given protection by St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai, and in return he gave them a document of protection.  Yet there are innumerable saints who were martyred under the Ottoman Empire and are still martyred to this day in many places.  It is a complex issue that requires more than a blog to resolve.

I want freedoms and tolerance, but I also see the legitimate need for limits.  We need boundaries to protect us from each other.  The problem I face is that such conversations (of having limited freedoms) has no coinage in modern thinking.

Structuralism and Post-Modernism

A couple of recent articles caught my attention.  One was an evaluation of Donald Trump’s campaign as a successful understanding of post-modernism, the other was a review of Derrida’s development of deconstructionalism (continental philosophy or post-modernism) and its conflict with structuralism (analytic philosophy or rationalism).  This is poignant to me, as much of Indiana University and the local politics (I live in Bloomington Indiana) are based around analytic philosophy; with many students and the community following post-modernism.

Besides helping to shine a light on modern philosophy for me (I have been out of touch with technical philosophy for a while), the articles have left me with a range of mixed feelings, from appreciation of various aspects of both sides, horror at the spiraling suicide of philosophy, and humor that both sides are fighting each other so hard: ie. in post-Kantian philosophy there is not suppose to be thesis and anti-thesis,but opposites resolve through systhesis.  So how can both sides be fighting each other with such thesis/anti-thesis perspectives?

Structuralism developed out of Wittgenstein, a mathematician who was involved with process/analytical philosophy – he proposed that clarity of thought (definition and process) would help articulate basic philosophical issues, which would hopefully provide a solution to the problem of existence.  This line of thinking has been very productive, and has influenced a lot of science; computer languages being a key example.  Computer codes are a language of structures and relationships that give precision and clarity to logic.  Thus:

“Philosophy, in most if not all of its forms, must rely on the possibility of truth. It is a search for meaning, which assumes meaning can be found, and that ideas and concepts have meanings in themselves in some sense, not simply as they relate to the concepts. Science and logic become the final arbiters in a search for meaning which holds that all can (and eventually will) be explained by a rational and scientific approach.”

If this sounds like much of the “New Atheism”, you are hearing correctly, most of their thinking (when they acknowledge philosophy) comes out of this school.  Structuralism holds to the idea that meaning is found in fundamental ‘structures’ that can be discovered through the analysis of structural relations (almost the ghost of Plato’s ideals, behind the shadows of particulars).  But if there are no fundamental structure, then there is only discourse: words pointing to words and no real meaning.  It is like if the “C” computer language had structures (if/then, procedures, …) and pointers but no fundamental data types (integers, strings, …).  You are left with only pointers pointing to pointers pointing to pointers.  Structuralism and science can put people on the moon and create quantum computers; but can give you no reason why you should.

Derrida held the pin that threatened to pop (deconstruct) the Structuralist balloon; and much of its pride needed deflating.  Post-modernism says that language has no intrinsic meaning, it is only meaningful in the context in which it is used – change the context and you change the meaning: hence all meaning is relative to the context (there is only discourse), and there is no final structure (meaning).  Such deconstruction is useful, it is the basis of pointing out prejudices and biases behind many statements (who is paying for this?  who benefits from this action?).  The problem is that it is basically a skeptical philosophy, it can tear anything down but has no ability to build anything.

Few people have the courage and integrity to wield deconstruction as carefully as Derrida.  Saturday Night Live can wonderfully parody Donald Trump, but fail to let the sword cut in both directions with their own values and ideals.  Black Lives Matter will deconstruct police prejudices, but don’t want the body cameras pointing to their own culture and practices.  We demand ‘justice’, but nobody can rationally define what that would look like.  Anyone who attempts a claim to ‘goodness’ is attached; for in a relative culture any claim to ‘better’ or ‘superior’ is rooted in inequality which inevitably will cause prejudice, conflict, and oppression.

It is disturbing that most-modernism puts an end to discussion, as any discourse is defined as only an attempt to gain power over another.  Yet, I find some optimism in the idealistic utopianism that many of these people still hold – there is still an element of humanity left in them that has not been deconstructed.  It may not be the western approach of rational logic that gets through to them, but an older approach that first seeks beauty, then goodness and truth.


The Day the Revolution Began

There is a scene in the movie The Magic Christian where an original Rembrandt is purchased at a Southby’s auction for three times its value.  The buyer then cuts the nose out of the painting, walks out with the nose in his pocket and leaves the rest of the painting in the trash; saying: “I like the nose”.  This is somewhat how N.T. Wright sees recent theology of Christian salvation, focusing on one part and ignoring (throwing away) the larger context, and leaving everyone around in shock and confusion.

The answer to salvation has to be found in scripture, but I am not going to try and work through Wright’s exegesis.  If scripture is the the grand play, N.T. Wright’s works is an in-depth exegetical analysis; I am trying to be the Cliff Notes (at best).  Much of this will be a stringing together of quotes from the book, with a few comments to tie it together and summarize.

Wright contends that the late western church got caught up in Middle-Ages problems: purgatory (when and how does God punish people) and the Mass (when was Christ sacrificed).  These questions framed the shape of their answers, because they did not ‘question the question’.  Epicurean influences of the Enlightenment further eroded theology, bring in the notion that god was distant and

The gospel is summarized as “The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible”, but what this means can be taken in different directions.  Most Western Christian traditions have Platonized and paganized it to mean: “We sinned; God punished Jesus: we have been forgiven (and can go to heaven)”.

The longer “Roman Road” expresses it as:

  • All humans sinned, causing God to be angry and to want to kill them, to burn them forever in “hell”.
  • Jesus somehow got in the way and took the punishment instead (it helped, it seems, that he was innocent-oh, and that he was God’s own son too).
  • We are in the clear after all, heading for “heaven” instead (provided, of course, we believe it).

This solution is Platonized, “eschatology” or “The Last Four Things” consist of “death, judgment, heaven, and hell”; not the new creation; a resurrection of our bodies and a new earth.  It is paganized in that it having an angry, wrathful god who exhausts his vendetta of offense by punishing and killing his son.

In order to understand what I Cor. 15:3 means when it says “The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible“, Wright takes us back to the first century Jewish context of Paul, where the stories of Exodus and Exile, covenant and Temple are never far away.  The gospels, and the passages in Romans must be understood as the working out of God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham that “all nations will be blessed through you”, and that Israel will be his people through whom all nations will come to the knowledge of God.  In spite of the failings of Israel, God remains faithful.  Jesus as the Messiah (the representative of and from Israel) brings about the exodus from the captivity of sin, and is the glory of God present with his people.  And the motive for all of this is always the “covenantal faithfulness” or love of God (Gal. 2:20, John 3:16, Romans 5:8, Romans 8:38-39).

This reframing of things requires a redefinition of sin.  “We have all to often imagined ‘sin’ as the breaking of arbitrary commandments and ‘death’ as the severe penalty inflicted by an unblinking divine Justice on all who fail to toe the line.” (p. 103)  Instead, “‘sin’ becomes the refusal of humans to play their part in God’s purposes for creation as a whole.  It is a vocational failure as much as what we call a moral failure.”

Ultimately Wright sees sin as rooted in idolatry (cf Romans 1). “When humans turn from worshiping the one God to worshiping anything else instead, anything within the created order, the problem is not just that they ‘do the wrong things,’ distorting their human minds, bodies, hearts, and everything else, though of course that is true as well.  In addition – and this is vital for grasping the meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion – they give to whatever idol they are worshiping the power and authority that they, the humans, were supposed to be exercising in the first place.  Worshiping things other than the one true God and distorting our human behavior in consequence is the very essence of ‘sin’…” (p. 100)


“The goal, over against the Platonizing distortions, is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham to give the worldwide inheritance (see Rom. 4:13) to his entire single family.  The problem is not the general problem of human sin or indeed of the death that it incurs.  The problem is that God made promises not only to Abraham but through Abraham to the world, and if the promises-bearing people fall under the Deuteronomic curse, as Deuteronomy itself insists they will, the promises cannot get out to the wider world.  The means is then that Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, bears Israel’s curse in order to undo the consequences of sin and ‘exile’ and so to break the power of the ‘present evil age’ once and for all.  When sins are forgiven, the ‘powers’ are robbed of their power.” (p. 241)

This solution is possible only by the faithfulness of God fulfilling his covenant promise.  “The Israel-shaped purpose, to which Israel itself has been faithless, has been fulfilled in the Messiah himself…The point about the Messiah’s death, the, is that it demonstrates in action the faithfulness of God to his covenant plan-the plan to rescue the world through Israel, to renew the whole world by giving Abraham a vast, uncountable sin-forgiven family.  It was not a matter of Jesus’s persuading God to do something he might not otherwise have done.  The Messiah’s death accomplishes what God himself planned to do and said he would do.  Somehow, the Messiah’s faithful death constitutes the fulfillment of the Israel-shaped plan.  Or to put it another way (since Paul, like all the early Christians, had thought everything through again in the light of the resurrection), when God called Abraham, he had the Messiah’s cross in mind all along… God is faithful to the covenant; and, since the covenant focused on the purpose and promise to rescue the world through Israel, this is what has happened in and through the Messiah, who has offered to God the Israel-shaped obedience, the “faithfulness,” that was previously lacking.” (p. 320-321)

The goal is the concept of vocation, that God works through human agency. We are not called to escape the world, but to wisely govern it, and lead all nations into the correct worship of God.  Being the image bearers of God means “reflecting God’s glory into the world and the praises of creation back to God.”(p. 357)

Our intended purpose is worship, carried out through our role as priests and kings (Rev. 1:5-6, 20:6). “…humans were made to be ‘viceregents.’ That is, they were to act on God’s behalf within his world.  But that is only possible and can only escape serious and dangerous distortion when worship precedes action.  Only those who are worshiping the Creator will be humble enough to be entrusted with his stewardship.  That is the ‘covenant of vocation.'” (p. 102)

Wright brings this outline to life by careful exegesis, particularly of key passages in Romans; not seeing these as isolated proof-texts, but as a complex and nuanced single (but multi-threaded) argument.  His interpretation is sure to be controversial, but it is something he has been working at through many books before this and represents some of his best scholarship.


Being myself Eastern Orthodox, I find it tantalizing that in almost every book, N.T. Wright quotes or references the eastern church to counterpoint issues, but never pursues the tease.  He rightly sees that the East never ‘had an Anselm’ and never tried to work out the accounting of a substitutionary atonement (in fact Gregory of Nyssa strongly warned against it); and hence don’t have the problem he is trying articulate. Along this line is Wright’s quote of a Greek Orthodox bishop who rather vexingly refused to answer his question on the Orthodox teaching about the cross, only to say that it is the “prelude to the resurrection”.  I don’t know if Wright has met very few Orthodox clergy, or is generous and only quotes the best examples (I suspect the latter, and Fr Thomas Hopko has quite a bit to say on the subject of the cross). Such statements and quotes are thrown out as if they were nuggets of solutions, but then left alone as he dismantles a Western problem and builds his solution on a new (or older?) foundation.

Being Orthodox, I find Wright incredible, but also frustrating; in that he doesn’t pursue such Orthodox comments.  Orthodox do focus more on the resurrection than the crucifixion, but see them as working together as a complete solution.  I believe there is a sense in which sin and death are intertwined (as he states: p. 103), and cannot be separated as ‘the problem’ (something Wright himself suggests in other writings).  This is not an ‘either or’ problem, but a case of ‘both and’ (again the type of solution Wright typically presents).  My criticism is one of omission, not of contradiction; though I need to be careful in this criticism.  The book focuses on the western problem of substitutionary atonement, and particularly focuses on passages in Romans.  In addressing the problem of sin, I think he gives the correct and complete answer.  It is the flip side of the coin: death and resurrection; that I would like to have seen paired with this, but technically he may be restricting himself to a more narrow question.  Orthodox have been addressing the problem of Anselm for some time (ie the article The River of Fire [a bit polemic, but good content], and Frederica Matthew-Green’s article on atonement), but the approach always seemed to be one of giving an alternative paradigm to the doctrine of salvation, not directly addressing the passages in Romans.  Wright steps in and provides the scriptural support that I have felt was missing.

I am not sure that Wright’s solution fully works without also addressing death, as the problem of an ‘angry god’ penal approach is not just Anselm, but also goes back to Augustine and his interpretation of Genesis: “on the day that you eat of the fruit, I will kill you”.  This interpretation places death as a punishment from God, and sets up the need of a death to satisfy the offense.  This doctrine is is embedded in western theology.

If any man does not confess that the first man, Adam…through his transgression suffered the wrath and indignation of God and, because of this, death, let him be anathema. Council of Trent (1546, First Canon, Fifth Session)

The punishments of sin in this world are either inward, as blindness of mind, a reprobate sense, strong delusions, hardness of heart, horror of conscience, and vile affections; or outward, as the curse of God upon the creatures for our sakes, and all other evils that befall us in our bodies, names, estates, relations, and employments; together with death itself. Westminster Confession, answer to question 29

To focus solely on sin could leave us in a position where Christ’s death is all that is needed for the answer (ie. the resurrection is only an apologetic showing that the Father accepted the Son’s sacrifice of death).  Again, it is not that Wright denies the importance of the resurrection, but that he does not address it in the context of this book; and I think the full solution requires looking at sin and death as a single conjoined problem, with the solution being both crucifixion and resurrection as one action.

I am sure that this book will be controversial, as he is making a head-on challenge to traditional substitutionary atonement theology, and will likely find that many feel justified to bring the ‘wrath of God’ down upon him; but I think he is on the right track.  Because of the position he takes, it also serves as a bridge between Eastern and Western Christianity, and may open up more dialogues of common ground in this area.

May our loving God be with us all.