John Henry Newman on original sin

My theology students are currently studying theological anthropology. Here is a breathtaking excerpt from John Henry Newman’s spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua (1865), on original sin, a doctrine he establishes as “fact” by reflecting on the moral ambiguity and intellectual incoherence of the world:

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world,” — all this is a vision to dizzy and appal; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.

What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. [. . .] If there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.


Litany of Penitence

When I attended an Ash Wednesday service at my local parish, the celebrant led the people in the Book of Common Prayer’s “Litany of Penitence,” which I have personalized for devotional use during Lent.

Most holy and merciful Father:
I confess to you,
and to the whole communion of saints
in heaven and on earth,
that I have sinned by my own fault
in thought, word, and deed;
by what I have done, and by what I have left undone.

I have not loved you with my whole heart, and mind, and
strength. I have not loved my neighbors as myself. I
have not forgiven others, as I have been forgiven.
Have mercy on me, Lord.

I have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served me.
I have not been true to the mind of Christ. I have grieved
your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on me, Lord.

I confess to you, Lord, all my past unfaithfulness: the
pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of my life,
I confess to you, Lord.

My self-indulgent appetites and ways, and my exploitation
of other people,
I confess to you, Lord.

My anger at my own frustration, and my envy of those
more fortunate than myself,
I confess to you, Lord.

My intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and
my dishonesty in daily life and work,
I confess to you, Lord.

My negligence in prayer and worship, and my failure to
commend the faith that is in me,
I confess to you, Lord.

Accept my repentance, Lord, for the wrongs I have done:
for my blindness to human need and suffering, and
indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept my repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward my
neighbors, and for my prejudice and contempt toward those
who differ from me,
Accept my repentance, Lord.

For my waste and pollution of your creation, and my lack of
concern for those who come after me,
Accept my repentance, Lord.

Restore me, good Lord, and let your anger depart from me;
Favorably hear me, for your mercy is great.

Accomplish in me the work of your salvation,
That I may show forth your glory in the world.

By the cross and passion of your Son my Lord,
Bring me with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.

Dwell incessantly on the Cross

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,
but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling
block to Jews and folly to Gentiles. (1 Cor. 1:22-23)

Lent is almost upon us. For my theology class, students read Robert Webber’s chapter on Lent in Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year. He uses an arresting epigraph from John Chrysostom (AD 347-407):

Although we praise our common Lord for all kinds of reasons, we praise and glorify him above all for the cross. [Paul] passes over everything else that Christ did for our advantage and consolation and dwells incessantly on the cross. The proof of God’s love for us, he says, is that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Then in the following sentence he gives us the highest ground for hope: If, when we were alienated from God, we were reconciled to him by the death of his Son, how much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life!

Generally speaking, Protestants tend to be Easter Christians, emphasizing the untenanted cross, while Catholics tend to be Good Friday Christians, emphasizing the crucifix. Orthodox Christianity holds both to be true. There is no Easter rejoicing without Good Friday sorrow, no resurrection without death. Chrysostom’s quotation reinforces why I chose the motto of this blog — Optimum est semper in cruce meditari [“How wholesome it is, always, to meditate on the Cross of Christ”] — from St. Bonaventure’s Good Friday sermon.

Should we explain evil?

Should we explain evil? Some have tried.

  • Immaturity: Irenaeus of Lyons said evil originates from the immature stage of humans at creation. He wrote: “Humanity was a child; and its mind was not yet fully mature; and thus humanity was easily led astray by the deceiver.”
  • Necessary evil: Origen and Calvin said evil is necessary for God’s purposes. Origen wrote: “God does not create evil; still, he does not prevent it when it is shown by others, although he could do so. But he uses both evil and those who show it for necessary purposes. For through those in whom there is evil, he brings distinction and testing to those who strive for the glory of virtue. Virtue, if unopposed, would not shine out nor become more glorious by being tested. Virtue is not virtue if it be untested and unexamined.” Following this trajectory, Calvin wrote: “There is no random power or agency or motion in God’s creatures, who are so governed by the secret counsel of God, that nothing happens [including, presumably, evil] except that which he has knowingly and willingly decreed.”
  • Privation theory of evil: Augustine of Hippo and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio said evil originates from a defective movement of the human will. Augustine wrote: “The movement of turning away, which we admit is sin, is a defective movement; and defect comes from nothing.” Following this trajectory, Bonaventure wrote: “Sin is not any kind of essence but a defect and corruption by which the mode, species and order of the created will are corrupted. Hence the corruption of sin is opposed to good itself. It has no existence except in the good.”

Of the views above, I reject immaturity because God “created man [and woman] in his own image,” “blessed them,” and pronounced everything that he made “very good” (Gen. 1:26-31). I also reject necessary evil because it calls into question the power, justice, and benevolence of God. God has no business with evil, owing to his holiness. Therefore, I am the most sympathetic to the privation theory of evil because it holds that evil is not a positive entity, although it is weak to address the psychological and phenomenological affects of evil. Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart makes some important qualifications to this theory:

Christian thought has traditionally, of necessity, defined evil as a privation of the good, possessing no essence or nature of its own, a purely parasitic corruption of reality; hence it can have no positive role to play in God’s determination of Himself or purpose for His creatures (even if by economy God can bring good from evil); it can in no way supply any imagined deficiency in God’s or creation’s goodness. Being infinitely sufficient in Himself, God has no need of a passage through sin and death to manifest His glory in His creatures or to join them perfectly to Himself. This is why it is misleading (however soothing it may be) to say that the drama of fall and redemption will make the final state of things more glorious than it might otherwise have been. No less metaphysically incoherent — though immeasurably more vile — is the suggestion that God requires suffering and death to reveal certain of his attributes (capricious cruelty, perhaps? morbid indifference? a twisted sense of humor?). It is precisely sin, suffering, and death that blind us to God’s true nature.

Hart goes on to reject theodicy, which is a theoretical justification of God’s goodness in the presence of evil in the world. John Milton famously undertakes the project of theodicy in his epic poem Paradise Lost:

What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support
That to the height of this great argument
I may assert eternal providence
And justify the ways of God to men.

Can any finite creature justify the ways of an infinite God to men? What the Lord declares to the prophet Isaiah sounds like a resounding “No”:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts. (55:8-9)

Why are we tempted by theodicy? I suspect it is to console ourselves with what is inconsolable, to explain what is inexplicable. Theodicy, it seems, is a fool’s errand. Our challenge is to endure the senselessness of evil with faith, hope, and love.

In December 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami caused terrible ruin and loss of life in many coastal regions of southwest Asia. Reflecting on this event, Hart gives me  permission to stop trying to explain why evil may exist and instead love what God loves and hate what God hates (Prov. 6:16-19; Prov. 8:13; Ps. 97:10). What follows is some of the most inspired theological writing that I have ever read because it rings of truth:

I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation and visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity. […]

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

This is a principled refusal to explain evil.

How shall we become spiritual?

Living in age when being “spiritual” is trendy and “religious” is old-fashioned, we may care to ask: How shall we become spiritual? I welcome the perspicacious answer from the Cappadocian theologian, Basil the Great (330-79): a person becomes spiritual through the indwelling of the Spirit. Once this occurs, we can experience the manifold power of the Spirit, which Basil memorably enumerates below:

Souls in which the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the Spirit, themselves become spiritual and send forth their grace to others. From here comes [1] foreknowledge of the future, [2] understanding of mysteries, [3] apprehension of what is hidden, [4] the sharing of the gifts of grace, [5] heavenly citizenship, [6] a place in the chorus of angels, [7] joy without end, [8] abiding in God, [9] being made like God and—the greatest of them all—[10] being made God.

Imagine, the Spirit is the guarantor of my passport to Heaven, even reserving a spot in the chorus of angels that praises God for eternity. Imagine, the Spirit ensures that I possess “joy without end,” in contrast to happiness with an expiration date. Imagine, the Spirit not only makes me like God, as western Christians understand with the process of the sanctification, but goes even further and makes me God, as eastern Christians understand with the process of deification. No, I will not be identical to God, but I will conform to the image of Christ so much that my union with Him is seamless. I shall be “a little Christ.” Riffing on St. Athanasius, Lewis says the point of the incarnation is “the Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God,” and none of this is possible without the indwelling of the Spirit. Amazing stuff!

“Who are you, where are you?”

Choose LifeDuring Advent and Lent, I have developed a habit of reading a book that will focus me on the season of the Christian year. For Advent 2018 and Lent 2019 I picked up Choose Life: Christmas and Easter Sermons in Canterbury Cathedral by Rowan Williams, who is the greatest living theologian in my estimation. This is the first collection of sermons I have ever read, and I already plan on returning to it because of their power to edify. Here is an arresting excerpt from his sermon, “The Word of Life, the Words of Prayer” (Christmas 2011), which explains why the book is entitled Choose Life:

It’s been well said that the first question we hear in the Bible is not humanity’s question to God but God’s question to us, God walking in the cool of the evening in the Garden of Eden, looking for Adam and Eve who are trying to hide from him. ‘Adam, where are you?’ (Genesis 3.9). The life of Jesus is that question translated into an actual human life, into the conversations and encounters of a flesh-and-blood humans being like all others – except that when people meet him they will say, like the woman who talks with him at the well of Samaria, ‘Here is a man who told me everything I ever did’ (John 4.29). Very near the heart of Christian faith and practice is this encounter with God’s question, ‘Who are you, where are you?’ Are you on the side of the life that lives in Jesus, the life of grace and truth, of unstinting generosity and unsparing honesty, the only life that gives life to others? Or are you on your own side, on the side of disconnection, rivalry, the hoarding of gifts, the obsession with control? To answer that you’re on the side of life doesn’t mean for a moment that you can now relax into a fuzzy philosophy of ‘life-affirming’ comfort. On the contrary: it means you are willing to face everything within you that is cheap, fearful, untruthful and evasive, and let the light shine on it. Like Peter in the very last chapter of John’s gospel, we can only say that we are trying to love the truth that is in Jesus, even as we acknowledge all we have done that is contrary to his spirit. And we say this because we trust that we are loved by this unfathomable mystery who comes to us in the shape of a newborn child, ‘full of grace and truth.’

Is the Christ-life given through impartation or imputation?

In my theology class, we recently finished C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, which I have read a few times in my life. To reflect more deeply that work, I consulted Reading C. S. Lewis: A Commentary by Wesley A. Kort, a professor emeritus of religion at Duke University. Since Lewis is reluctant to use much theological jargon in his minimalist account of Christianity, Kort lifts the curtain on the ideas that inform Lewis’ view of atonement. First, Lewis mentions three theories of atonement, favoring the moral theory and curiously omitting penal substitution, which evangelicals give pride of place in their understanding of the Cross. Second, Lewis holds that Christ imparts the “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4) more than imputes it, which runs counter to the Protestant emphasis on God’s judicial declaration of righteousness. Third, Lewis advances an inclusivist position on salvation rather than exclusivist, which entails a rejection of the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement. All this reinforces that Lewis’ centrist style of traditional Christianity makes him a peculiar candidate for canonization by conservative Protestants.

Kort writes:

The doctrine of atonement, that in and by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ human relations with God are restored, is a central Christian principle. Despite its centrality, however, it does not explain how this change occurs. Lewis makes a characteristic distinction between the principle and various theories about how and why it is consequential. It may be helpful to think of the various applications of the principle of atonement as versions of one of three options: those that direct the effects of Christ’s life and death toward God, those that direct those effects toward Satan, and those that direct those effects toward human beings. The first of these has its most famous spokesperson in St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). He argued, to simplify a bit, that Christ’s death was a sacrifice to God that satisfied God’s demand for justice. The second option, directed toward Satan, is usually associated with the church father Origen (185-253) and suggested by the language of Mark 10:45, which describes the death of Christ as a ransom. On this theory, this is a price paid not to God but to Satan who, because Adam and Eve had sinned, had gained a claim on human souls. The third option, often called a moral theory of atonement, is directed toward humans, and Peter Abelard (1079-1144) offers a good example. The death of Christ, because it is an act of self-surrender and obedience, has power to cause humans to act similarly. Lewis varies in his loyalties among these three options. Here he seems to favor the third: the remedy for sin lies in the ability and willingness to lay aside claims for oneself, and one can do this by participating in the death of Christ. That participation takes three forms: baptism, belief, and Holy Communion.

We should note that Lewis stresses in his description of atonement what is often called “impartation” rather than “imputation.” That is, the alteration in human life is not simply declared; it is imparted. Sacraments and beliefs have the consequence of spreading “the Christ-life to us.” They are “conductors of the new life.” This imparted life enters persons and begins to change them in such a way that they are increasingly able to undergo the kind of voluntary and obedient death that Christ himself accepted. Christians actually become the body of Christ in the world, reenacting or actualizing his death and experiencing the new life that it brings.

Lewis ends by looking at a difficult question, the doctrine of limited atonement. Are the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection confined to those who explicitly are or become Christian? Lewis argues that, while the new relation to God is made possibly only by Christ, it is not clear that people must know that in order to be affected by it. On the other hand, Lewis is not a universalist, as was George MacDonald, a Christian author he greatly admired. However, he was inclusive. His earlier statements about truth in other religions prepare the ground for this move. Not only, one can infer, do other religions possess truths concerning human morality and the existence of deities: there is also soteriological truth in other religions, that is, truth having to do with overcoming evil and its consequences in and for human life. [1]

[1] Lewis is quite clear and consistent on this point: “Of course it should be pointed out that, though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life. And it should (in my judgment) be made clear that we are not pronouncing all other religions to be totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all religions is consummated and perfected. But, on the other hand, I think we must attack wherever we meet it the nonsensical idea that mutually exclusive propositions about God can both be true.” C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. 

Elsewhere in the commentary on Mere Christianity, Kort further emphasizes the distinction between impartation and imputation:

On the matter of a person’s relation to God, Lewis prefers, as we already have seen, impartation to imputation. That is, he affirms that in a relation with God something actually is given or imparted to the believer. What is given is God’s own life, what earlier he called Zoe. That is, a person has a relation to God that is somehow continuous with the relation that God has within God’s own personal life. Lewis calls this impartation a “good infection.” He differs from those Christians who think that God’s relation to people is more a matter of declaration, of a status imputed to them.

Reader of Bensonian: What is your opinion about impartation versus imputation? Are these views mutually exclusive? Or, can both be true? Leave a comment, if you are so inclined.

Staying alert to place and time

In The Pastor: A Memoir, Eugene Peterson memorably writes about his vocation, which combines the pastoral ministry and poetic office. Mindfulness about the conditions of space (topo) and time (kairos) are just as important, he says, as mindfulness about the holy mysteries:

I am a pastor. My work has to do with God and souls — immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. But I carry out this work in conditions — place and time — that I see and measure wherever I find myself, whatever time it is. There is no avoiding the conditions. I want to be mindful of the conditions. I want to be as mindful of the conditions as I am of the holy mysteries.

Place. But not just any place, not just a location marked on a road map, but on a topo, a topographic map — with named mountains and rivers, identified wildflowers and forests, elevation above sea level and annual rainfall. I do all my work on this ground. I do not levitate. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” Get to know this place.

Time. But not just time in general, abstracted to a geometric grid on a calendar or numbers on a clock face, but what the Greeks named kairos, pregnancy time, being present to the Presence. I never know what is coming next; “Watch therefore.”

I don’t want to end up a bureaucrat in the time-management business for God or a librarian cataloguing timeless truths. Salvation is kicking in the womb of creation right now, any time now. Pay attention. Be ready: “The time [kairos] is fulfilled . . . ” Repent. Believe.

Staying alert to these place and time conditions — this topo, this kairos — of my life as a pastor, turned out to be more demanding that I thought it would be. But Montana gave a grounding for taking in the terrain and texture of the topo. And John of Patmos showed up in New York City at the right time; the city was a midwife to assist in the birthing, at my come-to-term pregnancy, my kairos, as pastor.

How do you mature a spiritual life?

merlin_145720086_cc7f672d-fe1f-4d68-8a7e-ee667db364fd-popup.jpgI am sad. One of our great contemporary Christian writers has died. Eugene Peterson (1932-2018) served as the pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church (Bel Air, Maryland) and wrote over 30 books, including The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, The Pastor: A Memoir, and five volumes of “conversations” in spiritual theology, notably Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology and Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. Consider the ministry lessons from his life.

To remember the man, I watched a 10-minute documentary featuring Pastor Peterson and U2 lead singer, Bono, and listened to an excellent interview by Krista Tippett, the host of On Being, a public radio show and podcast. This excerpt is worth highlighting:

MS. TIPPETT: Once you wrote, “People ask, ‘How do you mature a spiritual life?’” And you said the one thing you do is you eliminate the word “spiritual.” It’s your life that’s being matured. It’s not part of your life.


MS. TIPPETT: But the word “spiritual,” much more than when you first became a pastor, is everywhere now.


MS. TIPPETT: And I want to know how you hear that, respond to it, what you think of it.

MR. PETERSON: I think it’s cheap. You’re taking something, and putting a name on it, “spiritual,” which means it’s defined. The whole world is spiritual and it’s — and the word “spirit” is wind. It’s breath. Well, people are breathing all over the place. They’re all spiritual beings, but they — if you have a name for it, you can compartmentalize it. And that just wrecks havoc with the whole thing. Spirituality is — and that’s why I don’t like the word, because it’s so easy to just say, “Well, he’s such a spiritual person, she’s such a spiritual person.” Well, nonsense. You are too.

And I guess that’s where I think the church has a place, which is maybe more important than it’s ever been. But it’s — done well, there’s no spirituality that you can define.

MS. TIPPETT: Because it is in everything you do?

MR. PETERSON: That’s right. And if you don’t recognize that that’s possible, you just subtract a whole part of your life. And so, I think that’s — those of us who are teachers, preachers, pastors, we don’t do people any good by trying to make them more spiritual.

Once saved, always saved?

I grew up hearing the formula “once saved, always saved,” which originates from either Free Grace theology or the Calvinist doctrine on the perseverance of the saints. Does this view bear the weight of scripture and experience? Are we converted once and for all—or always converting, backsliding, and reverting? Salvation, as I understand it from the Bible, involves three tenses: I trust that I am saved (Eph. 2:8-9), I trust that I am being saved (Phil. 2:12), and I trust that I will be saved (Rom. 13:11; cf. 1 Cor. 3:15; 5:5).

C. S. Lewis describes a view that seems more Lutheran than Calvinist in Mere Christianity, which maintains that salvation can be lost at any time before death when our fate is sealed for eternity (see “Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration,” article xi, paragraph 42). To make this point, Lewis compares the natural life and the Christ-life:

Your natural life is derived from your parents; that does not mean it will stay there if you do nothing about it. You can lose it by neglect, or you can drive it away by committing suicide. You have to feed it and look after it: but always remember you are not making it, you are only keeping up a life you got from someone else. In the same way a Christian can lose the Christ-life which has been put into him, and he has to make efforts to keep it. But even the best Christian that ever lived is not acting on his own steam—he is only nourishing or protecting a life he could never have acquired by his own efforts. And that has practical consequences. As long as the natural life is in your body, it will do a lot towards repairing that body. Cut it, and up to a point it will heal, as a dead body would not. A live body is not one that never gets hurt, but one that can to some extent repair itself. In the same way a Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble—because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ Himself carried out.