Linguistic Decetism – Part 3

by | Sep 2, 2022

Linguistic Docetism – Part 3

From the argumentation from previous parts there are now two very serious problems: 1) the Jesus Christ of history has become less accessible to the ordinary layman and 2) various alternative, existential christs have emerged in that vacuum. The Church is full of them. And they are full of competing theologies that go along with these different christs. The unity of the Church has been fractured into hundreds of irreconcilable catholic orthodoxies. Just as the Roman Church was once roundly criticized for forbidding access to the Bible, which resulted in gross ignorance and superstition in the laity, so now the Protestants have come to the very same place. They have functionally forbidden “private interpretation” of the Scriptures that challenges the current establishment, systematic theology, and this prohibition has resulted in gross ignorance of the New Testament and has produced many superstitious cults that will not listen to reason. It has also produced a trenchant anti-intellectualism and an unhealthy suspicion of the scientific method itself. How could this be? Is this a unique, grotesque cultural phenomena that can never be undone and never be reformed and never be resolved?

No. This is simply the nature of the beast. Once the word of God has been spoken to man, he will try to institutionalize that word by means of theological commentary. Creeds and confessions arise. Theological systems and extensive catechisms arise. They become traditions and they are then passed from generation to generation. All this is good so far. But the word of God claims that it is living and effectual and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.  This is why we must continually be translating the New Testament and our theologies into the ever-changing idioms of men – not that the word changes; culture does. Technology does. And human language does.

Imagine if the New Testament had been left in Latin and no translations into the ordinary languages of men were ever made. Christ would have been completely unintelligible by now. And what of the literary processes of the men who wrote of him? They would be completely inaccessible, because they wrote in Greek not Latin. Once the New Testament has been translated into another language, by one man or by committee, many of the literary relationships between the original authors will necessarily be lost.

Traditions, whether they be translations or theological commentaries upon those translations, often start off with the best intentions, as we said. But unless they remain open to continued research and discussion and analysis and refinement, they become dead. And you can’t enshrine something living in something that is dead. You cannot put new wine into old wineskins. If the wine is continually new, the wineskins must be continually renewed or the wine will be lost.

But there is a darker side to this phenomenon. Sometimes the wineskins of tradition are intentionally not renewed and the new wine is intentionally lost. Although the Bible claims that God will renew the truth, generation after generation,  no matter what men might do, it also claims that this subversive clash between the traditions of men and the word of God will be a recurring cultural phenomenon within the religious establishment. And this is why we find Jesus excoriating the religious establishment of his time for setting aside the word of God and substituting the traditions of men.  And this isn’t an isolated phenomenon. It happens over and over again. In fact, the very word tradition (paradosis) is never used in a positive context in the Gospels. In his corpus, John makes it clear that there will always be alternative christs emerging to try to deceive the people of God. And in the end, a great typological beast comes out of the earth that looks like the Lamb of God, but speaks like a dragon.

The first time I saw this was very early on in my research, not when I set out to solve some abstract linguistic problem, but when I was trying to get to the bottom of why I did not have a convincing argument for my own forgiveness. This seemed very strange to me because I was an Evangelical, and one of the hallmarks of the Evangelical tradition was its confident sense of forgiveness. The theological justification for my forgiveness, then, hinged upon the theory of Penal Substitution, which maintained that the whole point of Jesus’ suffering on the cross was as a substitute – as a literal payment for my sins – in terms of punishment and pain – that I should have endured. Therefore, God’s perfect economic justice is satisfied and I am free from the consequences of my sins – as long as I accept this substitutionary sacrifice in payment of my debt.

I knew that I didn’t have a convincing argument for Penal Substitution, because when I argued with theological “liberals” (who denied many of the fundamental tenets of Christianity) about the importance of the blood sacrifice of Christ, I couldn’t make my argument stick. Not even with myself. When I looked into this, I realized that the main reason that I couldn’t make my argument stick was because it was built by systematic theologians almost entirely (or so it was supposed) upon the theology of St. Paul, supplemented with a few ideas imported (very roughly) from the argument of the book of Hebrews.

But there were two big problems with this. Firstly, Paul’s main argument is not about being justified by sacrifice; it is about being justified by belief. And his main example for this was Abraham, who was justified by belief, completely apart from any knowledge of a Prometheus-like sacrifice  of the son of God to pay the debt for the sins of men. And he likewise claims that righteousness was imputed to David too, not because of the sacrifice of Christ in the future or even before the foundation of the world, but because David, too, believed God. Not only was righteousness imputed to him – his iniquities were forgiven and his sins were covered.  Only once  does Paul connect our forgiveness with the blood of Christ, but only in a general sense, as a synecdoche, in which a part stands for the whole. Therefore the idea of Penal Substitution cannot stand upon the Pauline corpus alone.

Secondly, the idea importations from Hebrews, which we know was not written by St. Paul, are completely illegal, from both a literary and a theological standpoint. At first, I didn’t realize this because I also believed in the quasi-dictation theory of the New Testament, in which the writers were hardly aware of what they were saying in a systematic way; therefore, our job as theologians was to approach the New Testament as a stream of divine consciousness, irrespective of author – a kind of theological toybox, from which we could take out parts one by one and assemble them into a systematic theology as we were able, regardless of the author.

Some adamantly maintained that Hebrews was written by Paul, which made this process less problematic, but even Luther knew that Hebrews was not written by Paul. I therefore realized that the reason that I had no confidence in my forgiveness was because it was built upon the Penal Substitution theory that turned out to be a system that did not derive from Paul, or from Hebrews, but from a theological system that was cobbled together by the men of my own tradition from contextless sentences in the New Testament. In fact, the pressure was so great to squeeze this theology out of Paul, that the translators of the King James Bible  changed a key word in the argument of Paul at Romans 5:11 And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.

After I learned Greek, many years later, I realized that Paul was saying no such thing. The word was not “atonement” or anything having to do with the Jewish idea of atonement. It was a secular word – “reconciliation” (katallage) which means pretty much the same thing that it does in our language. There is no emphasis on who is right and who is wrong, there is just the cessation of hostilities between two parties, as in marriage counselling, for example. In fact, the theology of St. Paul is priest-less; that is, he never associates the work of Christ with the word for priest.  Hebrews most certainly does, (but in an unusual way) and this accounted for why the men of my tradition had mechanically attempted to graft the theology of Hebrews upon the Pauline theological corpus. I was utterly shocked by this. But why did they do this? What was the motive? …