More on the Anthropology of Sola Fide: Enfleshed Forensics

My last post on the anthropology of justification, much to my pleasure, received some noteworthy criticisms. There were basically two objections:

  1. The proposed anthropology seems to solve the anthropological dualism in a technical, pedantic sense, but the solution is purely nominal. Now there is simply an alternative dualism, between the newly-conceived ontological self and the moral self, and justification still seems to be unrelated to the lived life.
  2. Closely related to this, Leithart’s account seems to express an undesirable theological voluntarism/nominalism. God’s will alone determines who and what things are without any particular controls of nature or reality. Seems like a high price to pay.

These two issues are very closely related, so I will not try to address them individually but will rather, hopefully, solve them together by unpacking Leithart’s wider account of anthropology and atonement.

How does Leithart’s account of anthropology avoid being purely formal or nominal? What prevents is from replacing a legal fiction with what basically amounts to a trick of ontological wordplay? In large part, the key here is to realize that Leithart does not allow for the existence of a “pure status” or a merely nominal relationship. If his ontology is relational, it is also realistic and enfleshed. It is impossible to have a relationship or status, either legal or personal, which does not have a concrete effect on the real-world life of the subject, both externally and internally. Indeed, the “external” application of a status pushes the “internal” self organically into a new shape and direction.

Another Leithart book, The Baptized Body, provides the President of the United States as an example. When a man is sworn into the presidency, nothing magically shifts in his inner “stuff.” Yet there is a definite change which cuts messily across the inner/outer, status/action distinctions. To quote (excuse the political anachronism):

William Jefferson Clinton is inaugurated President, and what makes this rite of passage real is that thereafter everyone treats Mr. Clinton differently. Everyone defers to him, calls him by his new name—”Mr. President”—cozies up to him seeking support for legislation or urging him to ignore human rights abuses in Indonesia or China. Each of these is a reaffirmation of his new status, and each affirmation reminds Bill Clinton of his status and the obligations it places on him. He is constantly challenged to make what the Westminster Larger Catechism might have called an “improvement” on his inauguration, to live up to the obligations imposed by the rite of inauguration.1

Immediately upon inauguration, starting from the outside, the new President’s life changes. People treat him differently in concrete ways, which in turn changes his own concrete existence. His thoughts, feelings, and behaviors begin to adapt themselves to his new relationship to everyone else, even when they do so badly. Instead of skimming past news about international political developments, he begins to think of them as relevant to his life, to feel anxious or excited or concerned, and to take actual steps toward addressing them (writing speeches, calling White House staff members, setting up meetings with foreign leaders) from his official position. Even just the shift of awareness, the self-knowledge of a new identity, physically changes what’s going in their brains and eventually forms new neural pathways if the identity is reinforced inside and out.

For Leithart, then, justification works similarly. The ontological change which is involved in the transition from an unjustified man to a justified man is not purely nominal, not just a semantic game, but affects his actual existence. Now aware of Christ’s sacrifice, God’s mercy, and his membership within the community of the righteous, his mind, heart, and practice immediately start to shift. The proper, natural, and organic direction of this change is toward the image of Christ. The newly justified man may not change in this way (either by refusing to change or by changing in a wrong direction), but this is a perversion and an absurdity. It is like a man who, after his wedding, moves off by himself and continues dating other women. And like such a man, the justified man is essentially different, and worse, if he behaves in such a way as a justified man than he would be if he were an unjustified man. Either way, he is changed in the concrete, lived life. For his patterns of thought, feeling, and action have shifted permanently in a new shape and direction, whether in faithfulness or unfaithfulness. And though both routes are possible, the “natural” direction of the essential change wrought by justification is sanctification.

If it seems like a stretch that justification conceived of in these terms should lead organically to sanctification, it must be understood that the mere consciousness of justification alone does not, in Leithart’s account, bear the full weight of transformation. Rather, the Spirit employs several effective means to cultivate fruit in the justified, all of which hinge on the accomplishment of justification in history. The mechanics of this are bound up with Leithart’s view of atonement. Any discussion here would be incomplete without this atonement framework, but this post will run far too long if I provide such help, so I will have to reserve it for a third and (probably) final post.

More on the Anthropology of Sola Fide: Enfleshed Forensics

The Anthropology of Sola Fide

One of the most common claims Catholic and Orthodox critics make of Protestant theology is that the doctrine of forensic justification by faith alone amounts to a legal fiction. God calls us righteous, but we really aren’t righteous. God cooks the books, and the whole atonement is a clever gambit by which God uses Christ’s death to pull the wool over His own eyes.

This objection appears to have some force at face value. After all, if God just counts (“imputes”) Jesus’ righteous life to for us, and in fact nothing has changed about us personally, how is this not a legal fiction? (Sadly, some Protestant theologians have actually bit the bullet and granted this point.) How, then, is the atonement anything other than a divine self-con? Most importantly, how can the God who justifies by fiction really be just?

This is a problem that Peter Leithart addresses in his book, Delivered from the Elements of the World. He answers it with an appeal to a genuinely Protestant anthropology. The problem, he argues, arises from an anthropological dualism between the true inner man and the outward status. On both sides, people tend to assume that there is a hard and fast line between who someone really is (on the “inside”) and how they relate to the persons and societies outside of them. I have relations to the parties with whom I interact, but my own inner being is hermetically sealed from these, and they cannot affect who I am.

This anthropology naturally leads to the problem mentioned above. If this view of human nature is applied to justification as a forensic declaration based on faith, then we have the awkward situation of someone having an artificial external relation of right-ness toward God which is in fact fundamentally disjoined from the actually real reality that I am still a sinner on the inside.

Leithart claims, however, that the solution to this is neither to bite the bullet (confessing justification as a legal fiction) nor to hang the declaration of righteousness on the infusion of virtuous habits into the real, inner self (the Catholic error), but rather to correct the anthropology. We must remove the dualism between inner and outward human existence, allowing the two to interpentrate and mutually define each other. For Leithart, then, a truly Protestant anthropology means that a change of outward status in relation to a person, especially if that person is the first and foremost Other, namely God Himself, goes all the way down. To quote:

[I]ndividuals are what they are not because of what they are in themselves but by virtue of God’s regard for them…If this is the case, then justification—which by strict Protestant definition is a change in my status before God—changes me in the profoundest way possible. If I am what God judges me to be, then justification marks a transition and change in my identity, a change in my being and person—not in addition to a change of status but precisely because it is a change of status. It can even be said that the verdict changes the answer to the question of essence: if a thing is what God names it to be, if it is what it is in relation to God, then when God names me as “righteous” and counts me as righteous, I am essentially different. When God says “this sinner is just,” I am no longer the same man I was before that declaration. I continue to sin; but I now sin as one who has been redefined as a righteous man, and so remade. Once God declares me righteous, I simply am righteous…Protestant soteriology supposes a radically decentered self, a self whose real, factual existence is determined by the free and gracious word of God.1

The claim works like this: for a Protestant anthropology, to be a “righteous man” is not fundamentally to be a man with a certain level of internal moral character. It is to be a man whom God favors, to have a right standing with Him. This is something that comes sheerly as a gift of gratuitous forgiveness, and it turns the “sinner” into a “righteous one.” God simply has to say, “With you I am well pleased,” and it is so. Since, according to Leithart, the inner man and the outward status are inextricably intertwined, this reaches down into the roots of our being and redefines us.

Marriage, Leithart explains, can be an analogy of this. The declaration “I now pronounce you husband and wife” is pure declaration and does not involve a magical ability to tinker with someone’s soul. Nonetheless, it changes the people involved. Five minutes ago, they were simply a man and a woman. Now they are husband and wife. Nothing on the “inside” seems to have changed, and yet their whole identities and moral characters have been radically transfigured. They have new obligations, new privileges, new titles, new public significance, and a new future, all because they have, simply by a declaration of authority, been given a new relational status. The night before, if they had slept together or slept with anyone else, it would have been fornication. Tonight, if they sleep together, it is chaste, and if they sleep with anyone else, it is adultery. Even the moral quality of the very same actions has been changed by what seems to be a “merely external” change of status.

Moreover, if a man cheats on his wife, it is not because he is, somewhere deep within, still “really” an unmarried man. If the woman turns out to hate her husband, it does not mean that their marriage is only a legal fiction. The reality of the marriage is a public and objective relationship, with which the parties involved can either act appropriately or inappropriately, faithfully or unfaithfully.

Getting this is the key to Leithart’s proposal for the anthropology of sola fide. When God declares us righteous by faith alone, that is enough for us to simply be righteous. It is a fact: this man is justified, on right terms with God, because he has been baptized by faith into God’s righteous Son. If the justified man goes on to sin, it is not because his real self inside is an unjustified sinner, but rather because the justified man is misbehaving as though he were still an unjustified man. He still lives in the flesh until his resurrection, and so he still capitulates to fleshly behavior, but by virtue of his relationship to God in Christ he is a justified, righteous man.

Basically, it’s a relational anthropology. We are who and what we are in relation to others, and God is the ultimate Other, so He ultimately defines who and what we are by His free declaration that we are His righteous people in Christ.

The Anthropology of Sola Fide

Who Acts in Our Salvation? Jesus!

When we’re initially saved, who makes it happen? If you’re not familiar with many aspects of the traditional Calvinist/Arminian debate, you may be wondering what quite this question is getting at. If you are, you may recognize the doctrinal point involved. The question at hand is the debate of monergism vs. synergism. If you don’t know what those mean, they are actually fairly simple to understand.

When we are first saved, how does it happen? Who does what? Obviously there are at minimum two persons in involved: God and you. But how do your roles relate? In the traditional forms of Calvinism and Arminianism, the answers are like this:

Calvinism affirms monergism, which means “one working.” In Calvinism, the only person who actually acts in bringing about your salvation (usually specified as regeneration) is God Himself. Your repentance and faith are altogether secondary and only happen because God first gives you a new birth which enables (and guarantees) your response to Him. God alone acts by the Holy Spirit to save you, and from this saved ground you can repent and believe in the Gospel. R. C. Sproul put it this way:

We also believe that regeneration is monergistic. Now that’s a three-dollar word. It means essentially that the divine operation called rebirth or regeneration is the work of God alone. An erg is a unit of labor, a unit of work. The word energy comes from that idea. The prefix mono– means “one.” So monergism means “one working.” It means that the work of regeneration in the human heart is something that God does by His power alone—not by 50 percent His power and 50 percent man’s power, or even 99 percent His power and 1 percent man’s power. It is 100 percent the work of God.

Arminianism, along with many Catholic view and Eastern Orthodoxy, counter with synergism, which essentially means “working together.” In synergism, God initiates and offers grace, and man must cooperate with his free will. Salvation essentiallly occurs by the acts of both parties, God in giving and man in receiving, with the idea of man’s reception being conceived of as an act of a human free will. In this view, repentance and faith are integral to the beginning of salvation, rather than a result of a beginning accomplished simpy by God alone. Some would characterize synergism as being a 50-50 view, although most synergists would disagree. In any case, synergism relies on man cooperating with God’s grace, so that God does part (certainly the superior part) and man does part (an inferior, receptive part). Eric Landstrom of the Society of Evangelical Arminians gives this explanation:

So important is it that God monergistically works that Calvinists have effectively written out and forgotten that all relationships are in point of fact synergistic. If any “relationship” isn’t synergistic, then it is said to be one-sided, and one-sided relationships are both sad and unhealthy.

But God is personable and so too are we also personable. As such, we should expect that, as a person, God interacts with us on a personal level and in a personal way…[W]hen God reaches out to us, we can respond—but just like any healthy relationship, we needn’t respond to God by necessity. But if we respond to God’s reconciling ministry of grace, and our response is theocentric and sustained by continuously drawing upon the strength of grace received by God, then God continues to augment the process with more grace; and by augmenting the process the relationship between the creature and God grows.

Now, if you don’t already have a settled opinion on this matter, which view will ring true to you probably largely depends on the preaching you’ve heard and the reading you’ve done. But before you consider making any conclusions, I would like to present an alternative.

See, my problems with both monergism and syngerism in their traditional forms are two: (1) they assume a competitive relationship between divine and human agency, and (2) they don’t take Jesus into account.

What do I mean by these? For (1), the problem is that Scripture does not assume any view of the relationship between God’s will and man’s will which must simply add up to 100%. Traditional monergism and synergism do. For monergism, the 100% of action must belong entirely to God, leaving man with 0%. In synergism, the numbers must be divided up some way, perhaps 50-50 or 90-10, or even 99-1. But there is no Biblical evidence for this kind of zero-sum game. All of God does not mean none of man, and neither does God and man mean only some of each.

But to make my (1) make sense, I have to explain (2). Neither traditional monergism nor traditional synergism make any explicit use of Christology, the doctrine of Jesus, instead either talking of God generally or specifiying the Father or the Holy Spirit. And yet, if we are trying to understand the relationship between God and man, we can’t bypass the one place in all reality where God and man are truly and fully one, hypostatically united as a single person named Jesus.

I follow, then, the Evangelical Calvinist tradition in focusing on what is called the vicarious humanity of Christ (posts related to this can be found here, and Martin M. Davis has a good series on it beginning here). Jesus did not simply die in our place; He was and is human in our place. Our true humanity is based in Him. Everything that needed to be done for our salvation, both on God’s part and on man’s part, has already been done in His own Person and work.

So how does this affect monergism and synergism? I look at it through Christ. Contrary to synergism, the only true cooperation between free human will and divine grace is found in Jesus, where He lived a whole human life in obedience to the Father, even unto death. If we are to respond to God at all, our reponse will have to begin with the human response of Jesus to His Father, not with our free will. Contrary to monergism, though, this does not somehow remove our response from the equation. On the contrary, our response plays a decisive role in our receiving salvation precisely because it is not our own response but rather the response of Jesus in which we participate by the Holy Spirit.

If you’re lost a bit, I’ll step back. For humanity to have a saving relationship to God, we need faithfulness and holiness. For sinful humanity to return to God, we need faith and repentance. We fallen men, however, could never offer God any of this. So Jesus offered it in our place. He gave God on our behalf perfect faithfulness, perfect holiness, perfect faith, and even perfect repentance.1 This perfect human response to God could only be given by Jesus who was Himself God. Jesus is both the Word of God who calls for repentance and faith as well as the true Human who responds to God’s word in repentance and faith.

With this in mind, perhaps I could call my view Christological monergism. In one sense, it is God alone who acts to bring us to salvation. The Father sent the Son, the Son gave the Father the necessary human response for salvaiton, and by the Holy Spirit we are brought into saving union with Jesus. The true actor in our salvation is Jesus for us, and He is God. But on the other hand, we are also involved. By our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we do truly and really repent and believe to be saved. I respond to God, yet it is not I but Christ in me, and the response I offer to the Father, I offer by the response of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.2 And God accepts this response, and me, because what He is really accepting in Jesus, who is in me, and I in Him, and His response.

So it is not simply 100% God and 0% man, nor is it part God and part man. In Jesus salvation comes as 100% God and, albeit in a secondary sense, 100% man. Yet even man’s part is not just man in and of himself, not any natural human free will, but the part of Jesus as a man for us. It is only through, in, and by Him—us united to Him by the Holy Spirit—that we can be free for God, and in this freedom choose life by choosing what Jesus has already chosen for us and in our place.

I’ll conclude, then, with an editor’s summary of T. F. Torrance’s view in his book Incarnation:

[F]or Torrance, the Christian life is one of union with Christ in which in faith we live out of his faith and his righteousness. Having no righteousness in ourselves, we arc united to him so that we may live out of his. Our faith is the knowledge, given to us in the Spirit, that he has accomplished our salvation in his person and work and that we are saved purely by his unconditional grace.

This does not mean that we do nothing although it does mean that we do nothing for our salvation. For Torrance, there is an analogy here with the person of Christ. The fart that the humanity of Christ owes its being entirely to the action of God in the incarnation, does not mean It is not real. The fact that Christ is all of God, or that all of God is in Christ, does not mean that there is nothing of man in him, but the opposite, that all of man is in him. Torrance used to explain that in the logic of grace, ‘All of grace does not mean nothing of man. All of grace means all of man.’ The knowledge that forgiveness and salvation is all of grace liberates us out of ourselves into union with Christ, freeing on to live fully and freely out of him. All of grace means all of man, just as the action of God in Christ means all of man in Christ.

Who Acts in Our Salvation? Jesus!

Reflections on Depravity (With Patrick Bowers)

I recently finished up the chess series of the Patrick Bowers books by Steven James (The Pawn through Checkmate; I’m not counting Opening Moves, which I’m still reading). For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a series of crime thrillers which tends to focus both on serial killers and on terrorist plots. That’s enough reason for it to occasionally be a bit outlandish, and too often you find yourself having to choke down some pretty horrific images (human depravity stands out, for sure), but there is gold as well. The relationship between the main character, an FBI agent named Patrick Bowers, and his stepdaughter Tessa Ellis is an interesting one, with plenty of stereotypes but also plenty to appreciate as they grow closer and mature following the death of their wife/mother (not a spoiler: she died before the first book). But even better, they and some other characters get into wonderfully interesting and somewhat deep conversations (both with each other and themselves) about theological and philosophical issues. These alone are worth the read if you can stomach the graphic content.

The theological question I found most engaging is the depravity of man (no, this isn’t a post about total depravity in TULIP). In a series like this, it’s hard to avoid if you think much at all, and Steven James doesn’t avoid it. Instead, he tackles head-on one of the most serious issues about evil: just who is capable of what? What makes serial killers, assassins, and terrorists different from the rest of it.

In the Patrick Bowers series, the only clear answer is, “Very little.”

The prime example of this is how the series frequently calls back a case in which, upon arresting and handcuffing a serial killer, the killer said something that set Bowers off, and he responded by breaking his jaw and preparing to cut him apart with a scalpel before stopping. He recounts over and over in the narration how it felt kind of good, how it frightened him, and how it plagued him with the thought that maybe he and the killers he tracks aren’t so different after all. Indeed, he couldn’t shake the idea that we’re really all this way.

Of course, as Christians we rightly ought to understand from our faith that this is a realistic issue. We are corrupt in our flesh, and easily corrupted even further. As Batman and the Joker have noticed, no one is really more than one bad day away from becoming something which would have horrified them the day before, from actualizing depravity. If you doubt this, consider the Holocaust. Most of the people who participated in the crimes that tortured and killed millions of people were not previously obvious monsters. Before World War II started, you would not have thought anything was wrong with them. In fact, it would be quite absurd and offensive to suggest that Germans were simply more evil than the other peoples at the time. They simply were given the right nudges and conditions to bring out the darkest depths of who they really are. One example of a conversation that highlights this:

“But serial killers always look like the rest of us. They never really look like what they are.”

“Or maybe they always do.”

That was a troubling thought.

She looked at me intently. “I’ve been thinking about it since we talked about how clever criminals can be in prison—how they could ever act so inhuman to each other. Do you know how to turn someone into a monster?”

“I’m not sure. No.”

“Let him be himself without restraint.”

Then she went to her room and left me to sort through what she’d just said.

We’d had discussions on this subject before, and she’d quoted to me the words of Dr. Werjonic: “The road to the unthinkable is not paved by slight departures from your heart, but by tentative forays into it.”

Being yourself without restraint.

Taking deeper forays into your own heart.

Two ways of saying the same thing.

The true nature of man left to himself without restraint is not nobility but savagery.

The King, The Patrick Bowers Series, loc. 241-242 in EPUB version

If there is any moral to take from the Patrick Bowers books, it’s this: No one is more than a few steps away from becoming a killer. And no killer is more than a few steps away from becoming a serial killer. That’s how deep and pervasive human depravity is. It’s in us all, coloring everything we are and do.

Alas, even though the books do in fact touch on Jesus, God, and prayer on many occasions, the fact of Christ as the solution to the depravity in our flesh never really comes out (albeit in one or two places it is implied; e.g. a character notes that we can’t rise above who we are, to which Tessa responds, “Can someone else lift us?”). Instead, by the last book you are left with the vague impression that all we can do is try harder to combat the darkness, and if we’re lucky we might just keep it at bay.

Obviously, such a conclusion would be insufficient hope for anyone who is truly confronted with their own radical evil, the evil James makes so big a theme in his series. Maybe he didn’t intend it to end on that note, but in any case Paul has a better conclusion, the one for which the experiences of Patrick Bowers cry out, in Romans 7:24-8:2.

Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. 

Amen! In a world of darkness, especially in our own hearts, may we look to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit for the only light.

Reflections on Depravity (With Patrick Bowers)