In December 1945, as Allied forces were making their way through Germany arresting war criminals, two Egyptian brothers were going about their farm work near the upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi.
The day started out like any other day for twenty-six year-old, Muhammad ‘Ali al-Samman, and his fifteen-year-old brother, Abu al-Majd. On that particular day the brothers were riding on camels in search of a special soft soil that served as a fertilizer for crops.
Coming to a large boulder, they decided this looked like a good place to dig for the nitrogenous fertilizer. No sooner had the brothers begun digging when they hit the top of a red earthenware jar. This jar, which turned out to be almost a meter high, was sealed on the top with a bowl.
Having grown up as a Christian, I would always have said I believed in the resurrection of the body. However, my primary concern was focused on the immortality of the soul. Without giving it much thought, I simply assumed that the doctrine of resurrection was a shorthand way of referring to going to heaven when you die. Even though I had read the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection many times, and even though I had read Paul’s lengthy discussion of bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, I still unthinkingly assumed that the resurrection of believers would be non-physical.
My belief in a non-physical resurrection was part of a larger perspective that deemphasized the importance of the physical world. In some of my earliest writings I argued that during the Old Covenant the Lord’s work had been focused on the material world, whereas in the era of the New Covenant His work was purely spiritual (read: non-physical). Accordingly, what happens in the material world is unimportant to God. The best we can hope to do, I thought, is prepare for the next life. In the next life, the soul will be liberated from the body that now imprisons it.
From my article “Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 1: Historical and Theological Background”
…to say that human beings have “a fallen nature” refers to more than simply each individual’s inability to stop sinning; rather, it refers to the way human beings are oriented towards disordered affections that present substitute notions of what it means to flourish. These substitute notions of human flourishing compete with the God-given vocation originally bestowed upon mankind by the Creator God. Thus, the curse of Adam and Eve after they disobeyed God was not a purely juridical act that might have been otherwise – rather, being cursed with death was a natural and organic correlate to cutting oneself off from the ultimate Source of life. To use an analogy from Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Happened, the death and judgment that follows sin is like having an accident from driving around a corner too quickly rather than getting a speeding ticket (the latter is arbitrary, whereas the former is organically related to the offense itself). As human beings pursue substitute notions of human flourishing that are separate from the Source of life, human beings move away from everything that gives health to our souls. The result is that we become progressively subhuman….
Within this context, to say Jesus “saves” mankind refers to much more than simply that Jesus made it possible for believers to go to heaven when they die. Rather, Jesus saves humanity in the sense that He reunites human nature to the life of God. Instead of mankind being defined by death, man can now be defined by life. As such, death ceases to be the enemy because, even in the midst of death, it is the life of God that defines those who are united to Christ. Thus, as an instrument of death the cross also becomes a powerful symbol of life. In the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, the uniting of man with God that began at the incarnation continues as the life of God is mediated to mankind through the sacramental life of the Church. The ministry of the Church thus becomes the means for men and women to experience salvation, in the aforementioned sense of being reunited with the divine life. As such, salvation is as much medicinal as it is juridical. The incarnation of Christ—made present to men and women through the sacramental life of the Church—is the medicine of immortality through which the human soul is healed and able to move towards flourishing.
From my earlier post ‘Virtue and Classical Education: A Commencement Address to a Graduating Class’:
“We all long for Christ’s presence, for the beatific vision. We long for Him like flowers stretching forth towards the light of the sun, for it is in our nature as human beings to aim towards what is good, true and beautiful, and all goodness, truth and beauty is but a dim reflection of the Creator. But the impulse towards the good can misfire, as we follow after merely transitory and temporal goods rather than the Eternal Good, or as we pursue the fleeting ephemeral beauty of this world that cannot satisfy the soul. The power transitory goods have for enticing us away from the Ultimate Good lies precisely in the fact that they are genuine goods. Because of our fallen state, we do not approach God directly, but through the good things of creation. For example, the sense of wonder and awe we feel when contemplating objects of beauty prepares our hearts for the beauty of Christ; the sense of completion we feel when we love and are loved by another prepares our hearts for unity with God; when we experience human forgiveness, understanding compassion and encouragement, these qualities become icons of God’s love for us. The temptation, however, is to treat these things of creation (which, though good, are still transient goods) as if they are ultimate ends themselves rather than means towards the One who is Ultimate Good.”
During this season of Lent, I have thought more than once about the spiritual value of struggle. The Church would not have given us an entire season devoted to struggling if it were not appropriate to view struggle in a positive light.
Not everyone agrees that struggle is good. In my Touchstone article The Cross of Least Resistance, I quoted a number of influential evangelical leaders who taught that the presence of struggle in a person’s spiritual life is a sure sign that something is wrong. This present article will not attempt to expose the hermeneutical and exegetical errors in the opinions of these false teachers (for that, see here and here and here). Instead, I want to look at the question of struggle from the perspective of cultural anthropology. But first, why cultural anthropology?
King’s College London
When I started my doctoral work at King’s College London, I was a Calvinist. When I finished my doctoral work, I was not. My transition away from Calvinism was largely a result of reading the primary sources, looking at what Calvin himself wrote as opposed to simply reading the writings of Calvinists. Since contemporary reformed thinkers tend to present a sanitized version of Calvin’s thought, it can be a real eye-opener to spend some time in his own writings.
In Part 3 of the 5-part series I wrote for Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy on why I stopped being a Calvinist, I explored the existential problem that arises from the split teleology inherent in Calvinist metaphysics and their fragmentation of God’s will into competing modalities.
Reformed theology generally affirms that with respect to God’s revealed will, the telos or goal of each and every individual includes eternal union with Him, but with respect to His hidden will, the telos of certain individuals includes eternal disunion with Him. This means that for everyone that isn’t saved, there is a dual telos, for in one sense God’s desired end for such people is salvation, but in another sense it is damnation.
One of the problems I raised against this model in Part 3 of my series is a purely personal or existential problem I encountered when wrestling with this framework.
Imagine someone set out to reinvent the wheel but got it all wrong. That’s the position that reformed theologians find themselves in. However, due to lack of historical consciousness, they usually don’t realize they are trying to reinvent the wheel. But the truth is that the Sixth Ecumenical Council (680-681) provided a framework for understanding the relationship between the human and the divine with a subtlety and sophistication that rendered unnecessary nearly all subsequent Calvinist metaphysics.
There are important theological differences and emphases between the East and the West, and most of the time these differences are articulated it is done in a haphazard polemical and historically irresponsible way. But it is possible to articulate these differences accurately and with proper nuance. I was reminded of that last year when I listened to a podcast where Hank Hanegraaff interviewed Dr. Nathan Jacobs on the sophistication of the early church fathers. Jacobs is extremely well-read in the fathers of both the West and the East and is able to explain their different orientations in way that is more helpful than what I have encountered anywhere else. If you are Eastern Orthodox and wanting to give your Protestant friends a good overview of Orthodox theology, this podcast would be great to share.
You can listed to the podcast below. (And, by the way, this is not an invitation for those who hate Hank Hanegraaff to send me angry emails.)
Listen to “Sophistication of Early Church Fathers with Dr. Nathan Jacobs” on Spreaker.