Augustine on temptation

Is God so unaware of things, is he so ignorant of the human heart, that he has to discover a man’s character by testing it? By no means. But he acts in this way in order that a man may discover his own character…Therefore, dearly beloved, you have learned that God does not engage in tempting in order that he might learn something that he did not know earlier, but that by tempting (that is testing) he might make manifest what is hidden in a man. After all, a man is not so known to himself as he is to his Creator, nor is an ill person so known to himself as he is to his physician. Man is ill. He suffers. The physician does not suffer. And man expects to learn what he suffers from him who does not suffer.

-Augustine, De Scripturis, Homily 2, on Abraham, When He Was Tempted by God

Saw this superb thought today at a site new to me, called Absorption , during a wordpress tag search.

I thought it might be nice to grab some authority from Augustine for some recent thoughts on the difference between temptation and sin and the parts they each play in the economy of repentence and new birth.  I like Augustine’s thinking here because it suggests to me that tempation alone can accomplish quite a bit in the whole area of salvation and redemption without the necessity of actual sin.  

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Paul’s two perspectives on Jesus

I hope it is not controversial to say that Saul of Tarsus before his conversion must have shared what was probably the majority view in Israel – that Jesus of Nazareth was an offender against the Torah and a misleader of the people, who had rightly suffered the death of one accursed.

Even our first record of Jesus’ early career (Mark) moves immediately from a 16-verse introduction to a string of 88 verses in which ten out of twelve stories portray Jesus transgressing the literal sense of seven different points of the Law:

1. Sabbath-breaking (Mk 2:24 & 3:6)

2. Neglect of fasting (2:18)

3. Neglect of family (3:33)

4. Contact with lepers (1:41)

5. Eating with sinners (2:16)

6. Blasphemy i.e. Authority to forgive sin (2:7)

7. Alliance with Satan (3:22) i.e. authority over demons (1:27, 34, 39, 3:11)

Mark’s source for the early career of Jesus clearly relies heavily on stories of apparent law-breaking, most of which are accompanied by Jesus’ own prophetic rationale for setting aside the Law.  Can it be doubted that many reports of the deeds of Jesus were circulating without benefit of the sayings attached by Mark?  I think Mark’s emphasis suggests that lawbreaking was an issue for Jews who criticized the mission of Jesus in his lifetime and after the crucifixion.

To an unsympathetic ear it would make no difference if these stories circulated with or without Jesus’ rationale attached.  Because it was I think a matter of common knowledge – also confirmed by Mark (8:11-12) – that Jesus had refused to provide the test-sign demanded by the religious authorities in proof of his authority.  This constituted for them a warrant of the Law itself for disregarding Jesus’ prophetic claims.

I think this is the perspective of the old Saul – knowing that Jesus, despite his alleged works, had after all refused to authorize his mission by the sign required by Moses, Saul had judged that the Law justly regarded his sin as worthy of condemnation and death.

The perspective of the new Saul is best seen from the standpoint of his brief and electrifying encounter on the way to Damascus (Acts 9:2-9).  I trust this report to represent not a dream or myth but a genuine revelation event.  Saul sees and hears for himself what the martyr Stephen had claimed to see – that this Jesus who for all appearances had set the law aside – who under the Law of God was made to be sin and was crucified – is now in the power of the spirit alive.

Saul’s revelation doesn’t give him faith in the fact of the resurrection (one doesn’t ‘have faith’ in experienced facts).  The true object of Saul’s faith is his rapidly-developing view of the meaning and value of the resurrection.  This view was illuminated by Saul’s faith in God, which was never in question.  In its light he comprehends that it is the God of Israel who has raised Jesus from the dead.  A corollary to this faith is the belief that the risen one is God’s anointed, the hope of Israel.

All of which will be quite formative and quite problematic for the future of Christianity.

How Paul got his gospel on the Damascus Road

In his letter to the Galatians Paul claims an apostolate not through man but ‘through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead’ (1:1).  He further says he ‘did not confer with flesh and blood’ regarding the Gospel he preached until three years after his conversion (1:16-19).  How is such independence possible?  Where did his Gospel come from?

I think the ‘miracle’ of Paul’s independent acquisition of a gospel and an apostolate has only one supernatural element: his very brief encounter with the spirit of Jesus Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-6).  Because once he has accepted the spiritual reality of that encounter, I think he might easily have inferred from it the truth of all four pillars of what he calls his gospel.

Inference 1 – The Resurrection:  If Jesus, who was crucified and buried at Jerusalem, has appeared to him in the spirit near Damascus, Saul could with great confidence infer the truth of the resurrection – that God himself must have raised this Jesus from the dead.

Inference 2 – The Christ:  If this Jesus whom the God of Israel raised from the dead identifies himself with those whom Saul is persecuting – who proclaim him messiah – then it must be inferred that Jesus is in fact he whom Saul had been so furiously denying – the Christ, God’s anointed.

Inference 3 – The Cross:  If it is manifest from 1 & 2 that the mortal destruction of God’s anointed was accomplished on the cross in the process of punishing one who was judged worthy of death in accordance with the law, the need of a rationale for preaching ‘Christ crucified’ becomes apparent.  We should also expect to see a development of a theology of sacrifice which combines the idea of a divinely sponsored Law which had ‘made him to be sin’ with the idea of a divinely willed death of one ‘who was without sin.’  This gets complicated, but for Paul creates the possibility of reconciliation and peace between man and God.

Inference 4 – Grace, the free gift:  If God’s anointed was crucified under the Law, then the effect of its paradoxical result (reconciliation of God and man) must be intended by God to take the place of the Law.  The inference from this is the end of the Law with respect to justification, and a new dispensation of grace in which all who otherwise were destined to condemnation either under the law or outside the law now have justification by faith in the free gift of the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

I do not mean that Paul perceived all the details of his gospel in the twinkling of an eye.  I only argue that there is no reason to doubt that he apprehended it in its broad outlines immediately and independently of Ananias or Cephas or any other evangelist – in that moment of truth in which he recognized and accepted the identity of the one who came to him so suddenly on the way to Damascus.

Justification (or not): Can ‘classical’ views be unbiblical?

All of the fall-out from the ETS Atlanta meeting last week was a great clinic for me on new and old perspectives on Justification.  My blog reading since Friday includes numerous posts by Marc Cortez, especially his final reflections.  Also the thoughts of Collin Hansen.  And N.T. Wright checked in with clarifying comments at Denny Burk’s site.

Meanwhile I’m reading Paul again, and Wright’s 2006 paper, ‘Redemption from the new perspective?’, but am still far from answering a question that intrigues me in all this discussion – Do Evangelicals have an unwillingness to address the complexity of all the Biblical evidence for justification?  If such selectivity exists, I am inclined to suspect it may be explained as the result of a close association in the evangelical’s mind between a particular theory of justification and the alleged ‘facts’ of his own conversion experience.  It’s common enough in the sciences that an interpretation of one’s own experience can (temporarily) prevent one from seeing contradictory evidence.

I find that, 130 years ago, some similar and allegedly ‘classical’ Protestant interpretations of justification were called out by Albrecht Ritschl as ‘unbiblical’ assumptions:

It is unbiblical to assume that between God’s grace or love and His righteousness there is an opposition, which in its bearing upon the sinful race of men would lead to a contradiction, only to be solved through the interference of Christ.  The righteousness of inexorable retribution is not in itself a religious conception, nor is it the meaning of the righteousness which in the Old and New Testaments is ascribed to God.  God’s righteousness is His self-consistent and undeviating action in behalf of the salvation of the members of His community; in essence it is identical with His grace.  Between the two, therefore, there is no contradiction needing to be solved.

It is unbiblical to assume that any one of the Old Testament sacrifices, after the analogy of which Christ’s death is judged, is meant to move God from wrath to grace.  On the contrary, these sacrifices rely implicitly upon the reality of God’s grace toward the covenant people, and merely define certain positive conditions which the members of the covenant people must fulfill in order to enjoy the nearness of the God of grace.

It is unbiblical to assume that the sacrificial offering includes in itself a penal act, executed not upon the guilty person, but upon the victim who takes his place.  Representation by priest and sacrament is meant not in any exclusive, but in an inclusive sense.  From the fact that the priest draws near to God when he brings near the gift it is not meant that because the priest and the sacrifice come near to God, the others may remain at a distance from God…

Lastly, it is unbiblical to assume that a sacrifice has its significance directly for God, and only under certain other conditions also for men.  On the contrary, the sacrificial act is just what combines these two relations.”

Justification and Reconciliation, Vol. III (1874; 3rd 1888, ET 1900), p.473-74

“Why I believe again”

Today I found a link to a New Statesman article from April 2009 which I had completely missed, by A.N. Wilson, Why I believe again.”   Thanks to Studium et Liturgica for the link, and apologies to any who feel it’s way old news, but please indulge me in some observations about Wilson’s rediscovery of faith after 20 years as a convinced atheist. 

First, I appreciate the way he notices the differences between his conversion from and his conversion back to Christianity.  His conversion to atheism, he admits, had been like a Damascus Road experience, and yet he notes in retrospect that just such a rush of sudden decision had been very unlike him:

“By nature a doubting Thomas, I should have distrusted the symptoms when I underwent a “conversion experience”… Something was happening which was out of character – the inner glow of complete certainty, the heady sense of being at one with the great tide of fellow non-believers.

“For months, I walked on air… For the first time in my 38 years I was at one with my own generation. I had become like one of the Billy Grahamites, only in reverse.  If I bumped into Richard Dawkins (an old colleague from Oxford days) or had dinner in Washington with Christopher Hitchens, I did not have to feel out on a limb.”

Meanwhile, Wilson’s return to faith in God has been accompanied by just the kind of doubting and slow probing which make his reconversion, he thinks, all the more a genuine expression of his true ‘doubting Thomas’ nature – effecting a change which he feels is irreversible.

And isn’t it interesting that Wilson passed over the line into atheism just after publishing a biography of C.S. Lewis?  I love such counter-intuitive anecdotes (I sometimes find Lewis overbearing, even unbearable, but love him for the good I also find).

Wilson describes a public discussion of Lewis’s work in which he hauls the great apologist up for blame – but we get the usual litany of gripes after all:

“I can remember almost yelling that reading C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity made me a non-believer – not just in Lewis’s version of Christianity, but in Christianity itself. On that occasion, I realised that after a lifetime of churchgoing, the whole house of cards had collapsed for me – the sense of God’s presence in life, and the notion that there was any kind of God, let alone a merciful God, in this brutal, nasty world

And I loved this intimate scene with Hitchens from Wilson’s early atheist days:

Hitchens was excited to greet a new convert to his non-creed and put me through a catechism before uncorking some stupendous claret. “So – absolutely no God?” “Nope,” I was able to say with Moonie-zeal. “No future life, nothing ‘out there’?” “No,” I obediently replied. At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world.”

The whole article is worth a look.