Monday, July 9, 2012

Dulling the Dichotomies: Antidotes to Antinomies in Paul

1.         The Seemingly Schizo Human Status Quo

Christians have always looked to the Bible for comfort and guidance. But more than a few passages taken in isolation might not seem particularly user-friendly for such purposes. Some examples:[i]

… all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:9-12; the litany continues for seven more verses).

I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me (Rom 7:9-11).
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate ….For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing …. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom 7:14, 15, 18-19, 21-24)
… you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (1 Cor 3:3)

But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough (2 Cor 11:3-4).

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do (Gal 5:17).

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ! … Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil (Eph 4:17-20; 5:15-16).

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming (Col 3:5-6).

This is only a partial list. Such pessimistic and quasi-condemnatory riffs are frequent in Paul. They are also not absent from other biblical writers. And they bristle with stated or implied dichotomies: sin and righteousness; condemnation and exoneration; death and life; sin and faith; law and grace; evil and good; old self and new self; old creation and new creation; ignorance and enlightenment; flesh and Spirit; darkness and light; folly and wisdom; earthly and heavenly; wrath and reconciliation.

Are such passages really apt to help troubled people in their confusion, sense of guilt, weariness of soul, and other burdens? If so, under what conditions? To what extent if at all are such motifs and the passages that express them really fruitful for counseling when an overwhelming implication seems to be apparently ontological human guilt, pervasive ongoing human failure, and ubiquitous metaphysical malevolence, sinister forces at work in and through humans?

It will be argued below that while Paul, in passages like those above, often deals in dichotomies, he more fundamentally dulls them by even more fundamental components of his outlook. We can sharpen his sinister-sounding stress by selective and partial quotation. Fixating on certain formulations we can be tempted to hopelessness or passivity in the face of life's challenges. We may decide to circumvent such Scripture passages as too negative for those we seek to assist, encourage, and perhaps even cure. Or we may decide to stress happier sounding passages and leave the likes of those above to the side. How many clients would notice? How many would demur? A Joel Osteen approach to counseling might be highly marketable, if it in fact is not already a mainstream strategy to stimulate cash flow at various levels of professional practice.  But such strategies would be unwise. For the same writings that press and peeve us, or tempt us to meanness by taking their seeming naked negativity too far, are alive with promise for offsetting what they diagnosis and disparage. Key to their optimal interpretation and application is to discern their place within a larger mosaic. We need to reason from what is known, which in this case is the bigger picture, toward what is debatable, which in this case are dichotomous and much-disputed biblical motifs and the texts used to support them.

2.         Buoyed by Biography
A first order of business is to be clear that the Pauline pronouncements above are not the totality of what he says about these things. Despite these grim analyses of all persons including himself,[ii] and despite adversity and suffering that few of us may have experienced, Paul found in the Christian message resources enabling him to flourish, not free from discouragement and pain[iii] but functional rather than despairing as he faced adversities. Even as the lion's mouth came to seem more imminent than the Lord’s return in glory (2 Tim 4:17), he retained confidence in his personal destiny. He preserved his vision of a bright future for the church, as the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus) testify. This implied a redemptive vision for the world at large—however bleak things may seem, God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).  In this we are reminded of persons in more recent times who faced travail and even crisis from both within and without, yet found resources in transcendence to overcome: Viktor Frankl, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Schneider.[iv] The stories of the first two need no rehearsal here; they saw evil and bore the brunt of it—they could heartily affirm all the negative things Paul says about the human condition as a result—but they somehow laid hold of divine resources sufficient to fill them with a sense of meaning and hope and the courage to act in caring ways rather than curl up in numb paralysis or lash out in revenge.

Paul Schneider's story is not so well known. He was the first Protestant pastor martyred by the Nazis, in Buchenwald in 1939. I first learned of him through my research into the theologian Adolf Schlatter, who helped lead Schneider from the liberalism he was taught in the German university to a personal sense of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. As the result of his explicitly faith-based resistance to the Nazis,

Paul Schneider was incarcerated in Buchenwald, near Weimar, on November 27, 1937, just a few months after the camp opened. Among the labor overseers, Pastor Schneider watched out for his fellow inmates. After being sentenced to solitary confinement, he preached the “Good News” from the window of his prison cell. He “earned” the new accommodations when he refused to remove his beret in tribute to Hitler on the Führer’s birthday, April 20, 1938 and in tribute of the swastika flag. He explained his behaviour by saying "I can not salute this criminal symbol". He also refused, as he had done earlier, the Hitler salute, saying that "one can only expect salvation (Heil) from the Lord and not from a human". From his cell, Schneider accused his captors and encouraged his fellow inmates. On one occasion on Easter Sunday, when thousands of prisoners were assembled for mustering, despite being severely handicapped by previous torture he climbed to the cell window and shouted: "Comrades, hear me. Here speaks Pastor Schneider. Here there is torture and murder. Thus says the Lord: I am the resurrection and the life!" His speech was interrupted by his tormentors. As others had pleaded years earlier, the man who mopped the floors in the solitary confinement building begged Schneider, “Please stop provoking the SS against you… They will beat you to death if you continue preaching from your cell window”.
On July 18, 1939, Paul Schneider was murdered with a lethal injection of strophanthin in the camp infirmary. Camp officials notified Margarete Schneider of her husband’s death and she made the long journey from Dickenschied to retrieve his body in a sealed coffin. Despite Gestapo surveillance, hundreds of people and around two hundred fellow pastors attended Pastor Schneider’s funeral, including many members of the Confessing Church. One of the pastors preached at the grave side, “May God grant that the witness of your shepherd, our brother, remain with you and continue to impact on future generations and that it remain vital and bear fruit in the entire Christian Church”.[v]
Schneider's dying witness exudes the same conviction as Paul in his final known literary statement, his second epistle to Timothy: "The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen" (2 Tim 4:18). Like Jesus forgave the thief on the cross, Paul in the face of his own execution affirmed the glory of a God who overcomes evil as he rescues sinners like Paul from the midst of it and transfuses them with heavenly hope.

While some might call a life ending in arrest and capital punishment a tragedy, followers of Jesus know that Paul and more recent Christians like Bonhoeffer and Schneider had it right: the human condition is at times shown to be unspeakably bleak, but there is a message that mediates sanity and hope in the midst of it all. What are some elements of this message? What convictions informed Paul so that his dour assessments of human nature—“the old self” in its profound ignominy—did not destroy but if anything enhanced his consciousness of divine redemptive survival resources?

3.         Providence
A plausible grasp of "providence" can be gleaned from the Westminster Larger Catechism: "God's works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory."[vi] Paul certainly believed in a divine pattern of action in the world that corresponds to that definition. For one thing, the OT Scriptures that Paul hallowed[vii] view God in this way. Ezra declined to ask the Persian king for protection because, he declared, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him” (Ezra 8:22). Or again, the many references to God as king over a kingdom in the OT envision the one creator God of all as the one who steadfastly rules over all. This is a God who despite “old nature” realities is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Ex 34:6).[viii]

Given such a God, who in turn had in Paul's lifetime fleshed out his identity in the person and work of Christ, Paul can say with confidence despite the human condition: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28). He tells the somewhat faithless Corinthians, "God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord" (1 Cor. 1:9). Like Jesus who said, "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered" (Luke 12:6-7), Paul was convinced that people and particularly followers of Jesus could count on God to bring their faith in gospel promises to a redemptive outcome: "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). For Paul this was not just a projection for others to embrace but his own personal conviction as well, as he wrote not long before his death: "I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me" (2 Tim. 1:12).

The point is that while Paul often speaks in deflating terms about humans, and these are bedrock and unwavering assertions, humans' status is less bedrock than God's, for his reality alone is ontological and determinative for all creation. God "works all things according to the counsel of his will" (Eph. 1:11). And in God good things lie ahead,[ix] as he expressed memorably, just before a great and richly deserved judgment,[x] regarding his longer-term intentions: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope" (Jer. 29:11). There are therefore positive prospects for creation and humans within it, despite the bleak and nasty dimensions that Paul and other writers document and decry which are dominant in us.

This hope at least in some form is not only for those who receive God's saving grace through faith in Christ; as Paul tells non-believers at Lystra, there is a sense in which among all peoples in all times God "he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). Paul extends this outlook at Athens: God who is "Lord of heaven and earth" made people "that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we are indeed his offspring'" (Acts 17:24, 27-28).

The reality of Providence has implications for all people in all places and times. Man may well be a dirty rotten sinner, but every single “old self” inhabits a world where God's benevolent will ultimately triumphs, not man's despicable designs. This fact offsets Paul's negative anthropological statements, casting them in a more nuanced light. To set forth that light in terms of Paul's outlook and teaching in detail is beyond the scope of a conference paper. James Dunn's rendition of this, e.g., runs to well over 700 pages, a very hefty book.[xi] As an analytic key to unlock Paul's apostolic counsel as it plays out under his providential view of things, we note this widely regarded Pauline summary statement: "So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:13).[xii] Let us consider each of these three pillars of Paul's conviction in turn in their implications for “old nature/new nature” issues.

4.         Faith
"Faith" can be regarded as synonymous with religion. In that sense it is no obscure or controversial thing but a universal human phenomenon. "Faith" is certainly central in Paul's rhetoric and teaching. Since the noun pistis (faith) and its cognate verb pisteuō (to believe, to have faith) occur dozens of times in Paul's letters, the importance of "faith" in Paul may be regarded as established.

But what is meant by "faith"? Theologians have observed that in biblical parlance it is a word with two foci. The dominant sense, perhaps, in the evangelical world is what is termed fides qua creditur, which we may translate "the faith by which it is believed." This is personal faith, "my" faith. Viktor Frankl commended "faith" in the sense of personal religious conviction. But this was not Christian faith in particular, and the existence of such a term reminds us that if there are in Paul resources for soul care and psychological flourishing, "faith" in this generic and purely experiential sense, while necessary, is not sufficient for laying hold of the full measure of what Paul knew and preached to address “old nature” issues.

Paul commended a certain person by whom God had revealed himself in a saving way, namely Jesus Christ. And he presented Christ as having acted savingly by dying and rising again, as when he writes, "We preach Christ crucified" (1 Cor. 1:23), or when he speaks of "Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification" (Rom. 4:24-25). There needed to be faith in this for salvation to occur; but there needed to be faith in this. "This" points to the second focus of faith, one I believe often overlooked or downplayed in the current climate: fides quae creditur, the faith which is believed, "the" faith in terms of its substance, content, and claims. The Apostles Creed is an example of a statement of this faith, as is the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism. Viewed in this way, when we speak of Pauline faith, we are not talking about generic religious belief as a universal phenomenon of human existence, although it is, but of the characteristic claims associated with the apostolic leaders in the early church and in the Scriptures that emerged from their circles.

To be in line with God's providential work in the world, for Paul, called for penitent hearing of the message of what God had done in Jesus: "faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). When the human faculty of religious devotion, human believing, lays hold of Christ and the particulars of his saving person, work, and call, the human condition is subject to radical alteration by Christ. Numerous passages associated with Paul can be understood as affirming fides quae and not merely fides qua, although translations may or may not opt for a fides quae rendering. We are probably seeing "the faith," e.g., in Acts 13:8: "But Elymas the magician … opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith." The proconsul had received the particulars of Paul's message, and this is what Elymas opposes. Or consider Acts 14:22, near the end of Paul's first missionary journey, when he sums up what he has learned and now preaches about the gospel; Paul went about "strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22; cf. 16:5). Pauline references that probably stress the fides quae include Gal. 1:23; 3:14, 23; 6:10; Eph. 3:12, 17; 4:5; 6:16; Phil. 1:27; Col. 1:23; 2:7; 2 Thess. 3:2; 1 Tim. 3:9; 4:1, 6; etc. Such passages are epitomized in 1 Tim. 5:8: "But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever." In view here is not denial of religious conviction in general but of particulars that "the faith" enjoins on someone facing this situation.

Whatever Paul may say about humans and their sordid nature (laying aside the fact that he must share the Bible's basically high view of humanity as the crown of God's creation [see, e.g., Ps. 8], or he wouldn't have devoted his life to ministering to them), he commends the hearing of a message by which faith comes. Through that faith comes likewise an entrée to growing grasp of "the faith" that captures the heart and mind as it saves the soul. I have observed that many people with fervent faith stumble because their faith has false components; their fides qua does not line up with the fides quae. Or the fides quae is so sparsely represented in their fides qua that God's ministry to them and presence with them is humanly speaking sadly limited. A prayer item in a recent missionary letter from the Philippines may illustrate: "We covet your prayers concerning a man who invites our team to his house for a Bible study but does nothing but oppose God's word."[xiii] In Paul's setting there were likewise those with "a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge" (Rom. 10:2). The result can be things like frustration, confusion, misguided behavior, despair, sinful practices in God's very name, and perhaps even religious expression that is not Christian at all despite practitioner claims. This is quite apart from the still more common problem of people knowing what to do, and having real Christian commitment, but simply lacking strength of character to do it, a major theme in, e.g., Rom. 7.

5.         Hope
A second component in Paul's providential outlook is hope. Like faith, this word is prominent in Paul, the verb occurring ca. two dozen times, the noun ca. three dozen times. Either the noun or the verb (and usually both) occurs in every Pauline letter but 2 Timothy. The presence of hope in the covenantal community, in Paul's message, and in his own personal life temper his negative statements about humanity in its “old nature” dimensions in significant ways.

For Paul hope is an ancient feature of the life of God's chosen people.[xiv] At one point he tells his life story like this (underlining added):

“My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee. And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king!"[xv]

"Hope" occurs three times, all referring to the confident expectation of God's people in his promises. In large part because of this, a Jewish people still existed in Paul's day, despite the successive and often destructive impositions of Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Egyptian, Syrian, and finally Roman powers on Jewish soil and affairs for over half a millennium. Because of the God who created the world and called forth a people in Abraham, there is hope, however discouraging things may currently seem at the anthropological level. (And as Paul in the above passage fights for his life against Jews for the sake of the honor of the King of the Jews, human recalcitrance and degradation of a high order are on open display.) The God of Israel and the church is "the God of hope" (Rom. 15:13). This aspect of Paul's hope-consciousness is seen elsewhere in Acts (23:6; 24:15; 28:20).

Hope is a core element not only in corporate and personal Jewish conviction going back to Abraham (cf. Rom. 4:18): it is also a significant aspect of Paul's message. God's grace mediated by the gospel generates rejoicing "in hope of the glory of God" (Rom. 5:2). Life in the gospel is not easy, but "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love[xvi] has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Rom. 5:3-5; underlining added). Apart from the gospel this hope in its fullness is absent (Eph. 2:12); people are without God and without hope. But with gospel faith come "eternal comfort and good hope through grace" from the Son and the Father (2 Thess. 2:16). There is an assurance of a rich inheritance in store as the result of reception of the Christian message, as Paul writes to the Colossians concerning "the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel" (Col. 1:5). Hope is a primary gift of the gospel and can in fact refer to Christ himself (Col. 1:27; 1 Tim. 1:1), who is the chief benefit and benefactor of the gospel.

Hope is one of the secrets of Paul's confidence and resilience over many tumultuous years of arduous Christian service. The futility of the state of the world is offset by God's own "hope" that redemption lay ahead (Rom. 8:20). "Hope" in the sense of confident expectation of what cannot yet be fully glimpsed is one of the glories of Christian confession and daily life; it is of the essence of what it means for condemned sinners to be rescued from perdition: "In this hope we were saved" (Rom. 8:24). It is a basis, or perhaps the sphere, of Christian joy (Rom. 12:12). It is mediated by the Scriptures (Rom. 15:4), which for Paul announce the gospel more generally (Rom. 1:2; 16:20). It is a primary source of Christian fellowship and unity: "There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call" (Eph. 4:4). Beyond all these pointers to the present enjoyment of hope, there is hope in its future aspect, as, e.g., Paul writes to Titus:

… in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began (1:2).

… waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (2:13).

… so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (3:7).

Some churches may still sing the hymn line, "and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace." When one studies Paul's references to hope, that is what happens to his disparaging anthropological characterizations like the “old self.” They are not less true, incisive, and unflattering. But they are relativized by the grandeur of God's presence in hope and the expectation of hope mediated by gospel grace. It is true that without saving knowledge of God in Christ, the nations lack such hope. And so Paul warns against the Gentile mode of living that such "God-less" living produces (Eph. 4:17-20, cited in the opening section above). But in the same Ephesian epistle hope is pervasive (Eph. 1:8; 4:4). The sharp pronouncement of human depravity is dulled by the hope that gospel grace mediates.[xvii]

6.         Love
A third component in Paul's providential outlook is love. The verb agapaō (to love) occurs some three dozen times in Paul's writing and the noun agapē over 70 times. Cognate words like agapētos ("beloved," a word rooted in God's loving election of his people) and words connoting aspects of divine love (like philadelphia, mutual love in the church; see Rom. 12:10; 1 Thess. 4:9) are also to be found. We have already noted that Paul ranks it higher, in some sense, than even faith and hope.

Why is love supreme for Paul?

For one thing, there is no reason to suppose Paul would disagree with John's assertion that "God is love" (1 John 4:8), which has a near correlate in Paul's "God of love" (2 Cor. 13:11). "Love" is descriptive of God in ways that "faith" or "hope" or other terms are not and cannot be. Love is God's overarching character trait as he has revealed it in the redemptive activity culminating in his Son (cf. Eph. 2:4). Paul hypes love because it is how God by his own will and work unites believers inseparably with him (Rom. 8:35, 39). It builds up rather than puffs up (1 Cor. 8:1). It is a primary motivating force in Christian living (2 Cor. 5:14). It is the means by which faith works (Gal. 5:6). It is the first-named fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). A providential view of things is a theocentric view, and for Paul, the prominent word on God’s calling card is “love.”

For another thing, Paul speaks to the question of why he elevates love in the passage where he calls it "the greatest of these" (1 Cor. 13:13). Love is the communicable attribute of God that has the most profound and ennobling effect of all on human character and activity in the practical setting of everyday life. Imagine counseling a person, or being married to a person, of whom the following could be said:

She is patient and kind. She does not envy or boast. She is not arrogant or rude. She does not insist on her own way. She is not irritable or resentful. She does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. She bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. She never falters or quits being the loving person she is.[xviii]

Well, that person could probably counsel us, and we may suspect that someone so sterling would not choose the likes of us to marry. This thought exercise suggests that Paul extols love because it is the aspect of God which makes us most like him and creates the zone in which we can enjoy the closest fellowship with him, the highest conformity to his will, and the most intense communion with others who are likewise walking with him in love.

Paul's faith in a living God of love whose saving message creates a fellowship of love among people being transformed by God's love—this overwhelms his negative views on humans in fundamental ways. When combined with faith and hope, we see why Paul, precisely as he writes to the wayward Corinthians, so often spirals up to pinnacles of doxological expression and theological profundity. It is almost like Christ arriving at his most perfect expression of the Father's love on the Good Friday his enemies conspired so spiritedly to do him in. Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more. The Corinthians' negatives called forth from the inspired apostle not bitter recriminations, detailed denunciation, or whining despair but elevation of the aspects of God who in the outworking of his will calls forth and grants faith, hope, and love to his people though his Son.

7.         Implications for Counselors.
Midsummer 2010 witnessed the furor of Shirley Sherrod, US Agriculture employee, being forced to resign over misconstrual of taped remarks. In that story's aftermath a bigger picture emerged. Now over 60 years old, when she was a teenage girl in the South white men murdered her father. As one journalist told the story:

She was 17 when her father was killed, in 1965. After that, one night, a cross was burned on their lawn. Her mother had a gun, and black men from throughout the county came and surrounded the white men who surrounded the house. Shirley was terrified and hid in a back room, praying. That night something changed. "I made the decision that I would stay and work." She wouldn't leave the South but change it.

What motivated that decision? To quote Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal,[xix] Sherrod admitted in the speech that initially got her in trouble that 45 years ago she would not have been able to say what she can say now. "I've come a long way. I knew that I couldn't live with hate, you know. As my mother has said to so many, 'If we had tried to live with hate in my heart, we probably be dead now.'" Sherrod went on to say in that NAACP meeting that it was "sad" that the room was not "full of whites and blacks." She quoted Toni Morrison: We have to get to a point where "race exists but it doesn't matter."

And now my main point, in Noonan's words:

Here [Sherrod] addressed the youthful members of her audience: "Young people, I want you to know when you are true to what God wants you to do, the path just opens up, and things just come to you. God is good, I can tell you that."

I am not suggesting that Sherrod is an apostle. But I would point to that statement as redolent of the providential view of Paul that so significantly tempers and informs his disparaging statements regarding the human condition. Sherrod had tasted the bitter side of life, but she retained faith in better things because of God despite the very real “old nature” realities she encountered. Theological conviction helped outweigh the experience of human and in this case white depravity.

"Total depravity" is not a bad summary of Paul's view of people. Nor was this baseless idle theory or mean-spirited theologizing. It is what the OT teaches.[xx] It seems to have been what Paul glimpsed when he looked within himself. And it is what Paul, in this respect like Sherrod, personally experienced. Even more analogously like Jesus, and certainly for Jesus' sake, Paul bore the brunt of human hatred—of him, of Jews, of Gentiles, of Jesus, of the gospel, of God as Paul preached him—on numerous occasions (see 2 Cor. 11:23-33; cf. 1 Thess. 2:14-16). Yet he did not lapse into a religious psychology that is essentially a pathology. He kept his insights into sin, evil, and death in appropriate bounds by a world vision that did not blind him to these things but rather subordinated them to aspects of God and his work that made it unnecessary ever to regard those things as the last word or sole ultimate datum in analyzing or reflecting on the human condition.

Just as pastors need to strive to make gospel good tidings the main takeaway of their preaching, without in any way downplaying sin and evil and struggle and the need to repent, so counselors do well to learn all they can about human nature and behavior from Scripture, experience, research, history, and any other means—but then go on to deploy those insights in ways that do not cancel out providence and the supremacy of God in the faith, hope, and love flowing from Jesus' cross and resurrection and presence with his people. This can be done within the context of explicitly Christian counseling, Christian-to-Christian. Or we can think of a non-religious therapeutic setting where the counselor is nevertheless informed inwardly by distinctly Christian insights and lets those insights shape her therapy strategies and practice in the best possible ways.

My colleague Richard Winter has written of a recent interesting development … found in what is called "positive psychology." This is a corrective balance to a hundred years of "negative psychology" which has focused on abuse, trauma, illness and pathology. Martin Seligman, following Maslow and others, is promoting research on positive qualities that "promote happiness and well-being, as well as character strengths such as optimism, kindness, resilience, persistence and gratitude … what used to be called 'the virtues.'"[xxi]

Discussion above may be regarded as a contribution to such "positive psychology," in that it affirms the reality of human psychological malaise documented in Scripture, and reflected in the dark side of dichotomies like “old self/new self,” but reminds of the countervailing stress found in Scripture on God's goodness and work of redemption. Are there better ways for counselors to appropriate a fuller measure of both aspects too and mediate this to clients?

Winter has also stated, "The Bible is clear that we need to develop a realistic sense of both our dignity and our depravity, resting fundamentally on God's view of us rather than on our view of ourselves or on other people's view of us."[xxii]  This is the God, be it noted, who justifies the ungodly and who while we were yet sinners demonstrated his highest love toward us.[xxiii] There is a wonderful complexity here, full recognition of guilt alongside robust affirmation of grace. It challenges all Christians in vocations involving care and nature of the human to move beyond imbalanced dichotomies toward a stasis in which the divine end of polarities never fails to receive its full and final due. An initial impediment here is the truth that we can seldom move others much beyond spheres we have attained, and it may be easier to spot, treat, and traffic in negatives than to identify, inhabit, and credibly commend the higher terrain that the apostolic writers glimpsed and invite their readers to embrace.

Robert Yarbrough
Covenant Theological Seminary

[i] Scripture citations are ESV unless otherwise noted.
[ii] Note Paul's "I am chief of sinners" assertions like 1 Tim. 1:13, 15-16; 1 Cor. 15:9; cf. Gal. 1:23. The earliest of these, from Galatians, reflects Paul’s self-consciousness some two decades after his conversion.
[iii] Recall, e.g., depiction of his often wretched lot as an apostle: 1 Cor. 4:9-13, with the memorable coinage "scum of the earth"; 2 Cor. 4:7-12. See also Rom. 8:36, often overlooked as descriptive of a lamentable aspect of the Christian life.
[iv] Many more could be added to the list, especially from recent generations where the church has suffered such mass and bitter persecution as in the former Soviet bloc, China, Korea, the Middle East (where in many quarters the church has been ground down to almost nothing), and African nations like Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, parts of Nigeria, and elsewhere.
[vi] Answer to question 18.
[vii] See 2 Tim. 3:16, or Romans, in which Paul cites the OT dozens of times and always authoritatively. This was Jesus' practice as well: see John Wenham, Christ and the Bible (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994).
[viii] The same conviction is voiced in Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:8; cf. Nahum 1:3.
[ix] The benefit is never purely future; assurance regarding the future ministers a sense of God's presence in the present.
[x] I.e., the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem ca. 586 BC.
[xi] The Theology of the Apostle Paul (Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1998).
[xii] These three items appear together in Paul also in 1 Thess. 1:3; 5:8.
[xiii] "Central Presbyterian Information Central" [Clayton, MO], July 18, 2010.
[xiv] Cf. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 716: "Paul's faith remained in large measure the faith and religion of his fathers."
[xv] Acts 26:4-7.
[xvi] On love see next section.
[xvii] Pauline scholars would go on to say a great deal here about Paul's apocalyptic consciousness. See, e.g. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 726: "Not only personal history, but also all human history, as Paul now perceived it, hung suspended between the midpoint of Christ's death and resurrection and the end point of Christ's parousia." This is a primary background for what we have placed in the foreground above. This may raise the question of how much such apocalyptic conviction is required to foster the sense of hope Paul commends.
[xviii] An adaptation, of course, of 1 Cor. 13:4-8.
[xix] "The Power of Redemption," July 22, 2010.
[xx] Recall that the bulk of the negative passage cited in section one above from Rom. 3 is simply quotation of the Psalter.
[xxi] Richard Winter, "The Search for Truth in Psychology and Counseling," All for Jesus, ed. Robert Peterson and Sean Lucas (Ross-Shire, UK: Christian Focus, 2006), p. 231, citing Paul Vitz, "Psychology in Recovery," First Things 151 (2005), p. 19.
[xxii] Ibid.
[xxiii] See Rom. 5:6, 8.

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