The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Three – Theology]

For part one, see A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now
For part two, see From Scripture to scripture: De-Divinizing Scripture

Part Three: Into the Heart of the Storm

The next major change I envision pertains to our core Christian theology: we will roll back the “permeative” theological tradition – i.e. the theology of deification, sanctification, or incarnation.

This is a huge change, and needs considerable explanation. But this will be at the revolutionary heart of Reformation 2.0, so bear with me.

What is the Permeative Tradition?

The permeative theological tradition is so pervasive that even professional theologians often do not realize that it is “a” position, or that there might be an alternative.

Permeative theologies think of God’s actions in the world as quasi-physical energies or forces that spread and “permeate” throughout the cosmos and human nature. Salvation is understood as a gradual process in which one is progressively infused with these divine energies/grace. In this view, the whole point of God’s actions is to slowly assimilate the world to God through the gradual working of God’s energies to transform the world into the divine. Generally the cosmos is conceived as a hierarchical spectrum of being, in which creation is meant to progress ever further towards the higher, more spiritual realms where the world finds it truest reality/being. The ethical life of humanity is also understood as on a spectrum, where sin has a quantitative character which can be gradually – and quite truly – purged and cured. The idea of a graded, gradual ascent is critical: one is always struggling to move up through higher levels of knowledge and ethical realization to realize one’s (true) divine life.

Key metaphors in this tradition are participation, synergy, growth and transfiguration. “Imitation” also figures prominently, as does medicinal and “educational” language: we are slowly healed of sin/mortality through the activity of grace, and we “train” ourselves for greater divinity. Grace in this paradigm is always an energy which empowers us (and can generally be spoken of quantitatively). Salvation is described as “deification”, theosis, holiness, or sanctification. Hugely important is the notion that humanity is created “according to the image and likeness of God”, as there needs to be an almost physical, natural connection between God and humans: humans are, and are to become ever more, “like gods”.

One of the most popular expressions of this tradition – although I suspect its articulation is mostly modern (Hegelian?) – is the tendency to speak about the church and salvation in terms of “incarnation”. Such theology, a “fleshy” version of permeative theology, understands salvation as a kind of “spreading” of Jesus’ incarnation through and into people and creation, especially through the structures of the church. Carefully aligned with modern sacramental theologies that see God as primarily present through the physical rituals of the church – and in the church as a concrete institution/society – this type of theology sees the Christian life in terms of gradual participation in and realization of Christ’s incarnation. In effect, we “develop” and continue the incarnation of Christ through our physical participation in the political/social/ritual life of the church, and through our own spiritual exercises/therapy. Christ’s incarnation is thus a kind of seed or leaven for our incarnations, for the church’s incarnation, and even for a “cosmic” incarnation of Christ in every aspect of the world. The church realizes its deification through – literally – “incarnating” Christ.

Right. So what is the alternative?

The opposite of the permeative tradition may be termed the “disjunctive tradition”.

Here the emphasis is not on our primordial ontological connection to the divine, or on our progressive journey towards (ever greater) divinity. Rather, the disjunctive tradition starts with the radical divide or disjunction between us and God, manifested by our entrapment in our completely overwhelming and incurable sin (i.e. even our virtue is sin). In light of this disjunction, this tradition proclaims that our salvation is a sheer act of mercy and love on God’s part and God’s part alone. Our “participation” plays no role in salvation, and there is nothing gradual about salvation – there is no process, no training. Salvation is completely punctiliar, a one-off event of our being beloved and saved on account of Jesus’ actions and Jesus’ actions alone. Piety and spirituality are thus not about developing our virtue, or about our spiritual “advancement”, but about constantly focusing and refocusing on God’s mercy and actions – on God’s “process” and holiness. Piety shifts from human exercise/training (askesis) to exclusive trust and hope in God’s actions.

Grace, in this tradition, is not an energy or power but the complete gift of salvation itself. Salvation is not gradually “infused”, synergistically, as we grow in knowledge and virtue, but is simply imputed – i.e. assigned to us even though we in fact show no knowledge, virtue or capacity for synergy. The miracle of salvation is not the miracle of us being “like God”, or of our newly-reactivated capacity for holiness. The miracle of salvation is that God has saved us even though we are not like God, we are not holy, and can’t play any role in our salvation. We are lost, and God finds us.

There is thus no question of “spectrums” of divinity, or degrees of holiness, in disjunctive theology. Sin is total and pervasive – a kind of deep stain or impurity. All of our faculties are in ruins: mind, body, will. In the permeative tradition, sin is a surface stain that can gradually be removed by enough “scrubbing” with God’s grace-energy – especially by employing our “higher” intellectual faculties, which are less stained, or maybe even divine. In the disjunctive tradition, the stain is totally impervious to anything humans can do (with or without divine aid). Our “higher” faculties? They can’t help – if anything, they are inclined to even more insidious sin. No: sin is healed only by our letting go and trusting God to heal it – without our agency, participation, or synergy at all, including any “transformed” or “inspired” agency. The metaphor of gradual healing or ascent is thus entirely inappropriate for salvation. We are not sick, and gradually becoming less sick. We are dead, and God makes us alive. We are not dim bulbs that need some more energy. We are shattered and burnt out. More energy just makes us a fire hazard.

The disjunctive tradition – as far as salvation goes – is utterly black-and-white. And that’s the point. We’re totally wrecked by sin; but God then has total mercy on us. We’re radically other than God; and yet God adopts us as children. Salvation is alien to us – from outside of us and alien to our very nature – but then given to us. So there is no room for hedges like “we can admit that God must activate or initiate our salvation, but then we participate”. No. Jesus does it all. Jesus was enough. Similarly, there is no room for interpreting humanity as being, primarily and by definition, “made in God’s image” or divine, so that we become more human by becoming more divine (a subtle dodge). Neither is there room for arguing that the real gift of salvation is our very agency, or reinvigorated free will. No: these notions as simply subtler versions of our customary human self-idolatry: placing ourselves on God’s throne. They in fact prove humanity’s utter slavery to sin, since these “divine-sounding” thoughts are still a refusal to simply let God act as God. They are a refusal to accept that gift of salvation is so radical that it doesn’t  even depend upon our acceptance of it! More, they contradict the radicalness of God’s love and the Good News,  because they state that we need to become god to be loved by God. No: God loves us as we are. We are simultaneously saved and sinners. Literally.

So, what about the incarnation?

For the disjunctive theologian, the incarnation stops with Jesus.

The incarnation does not “spread”. Jesus fulfills everything in his incarnation. Jesus defeats sin in himself. The point of the incarnation is not to enable our “incarnation(s)”, to serve as a kind of leaven in the dough of humanity, or to establish some type of metaphysical “sympathy” or connection between God and humans – as if Jesus was a kind of physical conduit or connector through which God-energy flows into us. It’s almost the opposite: it’s God, as a human, doing what we, as humans, exactly cannot do, and cannot be “enabled” to do. Christ’s incarnation is thus a totally singular event, accomplished outside of us, for us, without our participation. Jesus’ incarnation is the complete and final “incarnation event”. The incarnation is thus, in a sense, the confirmation of our total inability to be divine, because the incarnation confirms that no human can be a holy and just human – only God can be! We can’t become truly divine, and we can’t rise from the dead – so God does it for us.

It is the very essence of human sin – and not, as we often think, of human virtue or of our “being made in divine image” – to respond to the incarnation by drawing our eyes away from God’s incarnation and back towards ourselves. It is actually because we are sinful that we imagine that we can now “incarnate” God as Jesus did or somehow complete, effect, imitate, or continue God’s incarnation. The disjunctive theologian thus tries to remain focused on recognizing the particularity and uniqueness of what God has done for us in Jesus, and rejoicing in the Good News that God’s incarnation has worked our salvation. The goal is to keep redirecting our eyes back to Jesus. Our relationship to the incarnation is thus not one of participation, but one of trust that Jesus’ incarnation has worked everything and done everything, and that this is simply a completed, total gift given to us. The effect is so brilliant, so bright, so complete, that our “participating” in it would be completely beside the point. We simply observe it, and wonder at this great gift. If we still want to somehow speak about salvation in terms of our “adopting” the incarnation, this can only be understood – in Reformation 1.0 terms – as by imputation, not infusion.

So the incarnation is not the beginning of some huge ecclesial/sacramental “incarnational” system which we participate in. Rather, it is the total, joyous, grateful ending of any attempt to participate in the divine, because we just watched God do all the “participating” in front of our very eyes. The ancient quest to become like God is over – since God became like us.

The incarnation therefore simultaneously confirms our total inability to participate in our salvation – because God has to do it – as well as God’s complete love of us in that very weakness. So it’s a radical, singular act of God, which in its singularity manifests God’s total and profound mercy. That’s what the incarnation is about.

Now, sanctification, moral progress, the development of the spiritual life, the imitation of Jesus, etc., all still exist in the disjunctive theologian’s world. But they are not understood as playing any role in salvation. That’s the key. The disjunctive tradition can talk about following Jesus, experiencing God’s actions, feeling God’s presence, being made holy by the Spirit, and so on. In fact, it strongly confirms the importance of this type of holiness for our this-worldly life, and for our neighbours. We know and trust that God acts even in this messed up and sinful world, and we try to participate in this action. We are inspired to take ethical stands. We strive to conform ourselves ever more to Jesus. But we never put our faith in these things. We never attach the Gospel to them. We always understand that our perception, experience and practice of these things are fallible, changing, and deceptive. The stain of sin is deep, penetrating into our grandest ideals, experiences and projects. So we always maintain a certain detachment, a certain suspicion towards our actions and holiness, our “participation”, reserving our ultimate hope, trust and belief for one thing only: the Gospel of salvation through grace alone, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, accomplished by him, for me once and for all. In the end, everything else is dross and ash.

For the disjunctive theologian, the entire task of theology, then, is to constantly and correctly (i.e. absolutely, in a black-and-white manner) distinguish salvation proper (or “justification” in the old Reformation lingo), which is the act of God alone, from sanctification, which is our sinful and faltering attempts to live out this salvation – but which are in no way themselves salvific. This distinction is the ultimate criterion of orthodoxy. Any attempt to blur this distinction – however subtly – is ipso facto error.

Next week: Why the permeative tradition needs a re-think

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