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Thursday, February 15, 2018

'12 Rules for Life' Considered, Part 1

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson has been the #1 bestseller on Amazon for days now (weeks?). It is a popular-level application of many of his ideas put forth in his previous tome Maps of Meaning. It consists of meditations on a list of principles pared down from a longer list of “rules” he posted on a website called Quora a long time ago. Having been thrown into the limelight after opposing some tyrannical compelled-speech legislation in Canada, Dr. Peterson’s broader teachings (freely available in hours of lectures and interviews on YouTube, for starters) on evolutionary and developmental psychology, consciousness, morality, Western individualism, psychology of religion, and archetypal imagery, have intoxicated an entire generation of Westerners (particularly young men) who have apparently been disillusioned and fed up with the ideological bankruptcy of postmodernism and the nihilistic non-starter that is ethical relativism. Peterson means, partially, through his work, to point his audience toward a path of objective Meaning in life by encouraging individual growth, speaking truth to bring order out of surrounding chaos, fighting against malevolence (both within and without), and re-evaluating the wisdom of hastily abandoning the traditional values of Western culture.

Ultimately, Peterson fails to sufficiently ground his claims of finding objective meaning or transcendent value in the path of individual growth and the allegedly noble fight against chaos and evil in the world. This is no surprise since he does not subject his philosophical or anthropological thought to the self-revelation of the Triune God found in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as authoritative revelation. He considers himself a “Christian” in some sense, and respects the biblical text as an emergent collection of quasi-divine human wisdom and psychological self-reflection beyond any one individual human being’s conscious wisdom; therefore his teachings have many points of formal agreement with a truly biblical and historically Christian perspective. His years of clinical experience have also provided him with a unique quality of insight into human nature, directly studied. However, when the epistemic foundation is changed, each other fact in the system is twisted either a lot or a little.

All that said, I still think Peterson is worth a listen and/or a read for any Christian believer who is relatively theologically mature and able to read well “with a comb.” Much of his social critique is of the sort that is sorely needed in American political discourse today. He sees right through the often self-righteous, hypocritical, and myopic slogans of the far-Left regarding “tolerance” and cries for equality of economic outcome, etc.; but he is no less harsh toward those of the “alt-Right” who play right along with the Left’s game of identity politics, just from the other side—wild conspiracy theorizing, quasi-white-nationalism, and all. His proposed positive solutions for much of our social and psychological plight—voluntarily undertaking the “burden of Being” with all its attendant suffering, “putting your own house in order first,” speaking truth (or at least not lying so much), etc.—have many strong traditional Christian resonances, but sit on top of a disconcerting pile of presuppositional capitulations to neo-Darwinism, Greek stoicism, and Jungian psychology, the latter stemming from an alarming degree of occult influence (as a recent American Vision article pointed out).

As I began to read 12 Rules, I thought it would be profitable personally to write a little bit about each chapter (nowhere near anything like a comprehensive review). So I thought I would share on my theological blog some of my (hopefully biblically faithful) formal agreements with the contents of each chapter, as well as some critique. Given the antithesis (see Gen. 3:15), there can be no true principial agreement between unbelieving thought and believing thought (in the biblical sense of “belief”), but due to common grace and human inconsistency, especially on the part of the unbeliever who cannot live consistently in God’s world with his own anti-Christian professed beliefs about the Bible or the real Lordship of Jesus Christ, people often speak and live better than they know or understand, at a formal level. One might say they almost “prophesy” like Caiaphas did, at times (see John 11:49-53).

With that verbose introduction, let me give some of my reactions or thoughts about the first chapter (more to come, if I can manage to put forth the effort).

Rule 1: Stand up Straight with Your Shoulders Back

In this chapter, Peterson humorously sketches the social lives of lobsters in terms of their dominance hierarchies and corresponding nervous system processes. In short, when a lobster is defeated in a dominance contest, its posture changes radically, and it “loses” future contests radically disproportionately considering contests won or lost in the past. The reverse is also true. The change of posture and winning/losing future confrontations is driven by certain changes in neurotransmitter production. Peterson notes that human beings have nervous systems that are very similar to that of the humble lobster, at least in many respects. Since lobsters (or some form of their predecessors) have been around for millions and millions of years, he argues, social dominance hierarchies are not mere “cultural constructions” for us any more than they are for lobsters; they are emergent, unavoidable, biological facts. That’s the "social theory" payout for the chapter.

Psychologically and existentially, though, Peterson’s advice in this chapter is to “stand up straight with your shoulders back” because the neurological process works the other way, as well: when you straighten up your posture, your brain reacts by producing more serotonin and less octopamine—kind of a “fake it till you make it” approach, in a way. As a result, socially, you stand a better chance—people will be more likely to assume you are a competent, formidable person and treat you as such (“or at least they will not immediately conclude the reverse” p. 28).

Ignoring for the moment the evolutionary theory under-girding it all, there is something to be said for Peterson’s conclusions in this chapter. We are embodied beings, whether we are sufficiently accustomed to thinking this way or not (even the etymology of “embodied” insinuates that the “real ‘I’” has been “put in” a body, rather than being personally constituted, in part, by a physical body). And there is significant interplay not only between our brains and the rest of our body, but the whole of our body and the non-physical aspect of our mind or “soul.” When the cause is just—a large discussion in itself, to which we must return for another chapter—it is appropriate for a human being to “assert” themselves with strength and resolution in the world, and all else being equal, this happens most successfully when someone can express strength physically in certain ways.

The difficulty, from a Christian perspective, comes if some of Peterson’s exhortations end up being taken too far by themselves, or taken in abstraction from certain biblical ethical injunctions (perhaps Peterson himself wouldn’t agree with many such applications). He says, “To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life…shouldering the cross that marks the X, the place where you and Being intersect so terribly” (p. 27). Even apart from Peterson’s mythologizing denigration of the cross as a mere archetype or mere symbol of voluntary undertaking of the suffering of life (a consistent idea throughout his teachings), this advice is dangerous in general if separated from an insistence on conscious, child-like dependence on Yahweh for shouldering the difficulty that makes up so much of life. To be sure, a person who trusts in the living God to shepherd him or her through this earthly life will generally stand a little taller in the face of adversity, chock full of more serotonin than the despondent doubter. Very possibly his or her “…conversations will flow better, with fewer awkward pauses.” They may very well be “…more likely to meet people, interact with them, and impress them”, etc. (p. 28). But let’s put first things first. Man’s only real strength is whatever his Creator grants him—no more, no less—and acknowledgment of that fact is generally a prerequisite to availing himself of any significant amount of such strength. Man’s “position” is also most importantly determined in the heavenly counsel, not the earthly.

Moreover, when Peterson says, “Speak your mind. Put your desires forward, as if you had a right to them—at least the same right as others” (p. 28), it is at best a vague generality about how not to be unnecessarily trampled on by domineering personalities. Certainly some people could benefit from such a correction in their social approach. However, whether someone in fact has a right to any given desire depends entirely on the ethical value of that desire. In view of the Christian virtues of self-denial, self-sacrificial service, and deference to the good of one’s neighbor (not intentional martyrdom or bringing harm on oneself if it’s not necessary), the number of desires one should consider holding onto as legitimate “rights” in interpersonal relationships shrinks quite a bit. As Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him about greatness in the kingdom of God (right after one of Jesus’ plain predictions of His own crucifixion!), the least and most servant-like among His people will be counted greatest in due time. Paul traces Jesus’ voluntary emptying of His divine prerogatives for the sake of redemption, in the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2:5-11, ending with Jesus’ exaltation (as a man!) to the right hand of the Father. God exalts the humble and opposes the proud, as James tells us. In the approximate words of N. T. Wright in various lectures, Jesus taught His disciples essentially that “the pagan Gentiles do power one way; we’re now going to do it the other way.” He means the way of the cross.

Now there is a bit of a paradox in this way of thinking, because at the end of the day, Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of God, given all authority in heaven and earth, and is currently in the business of asserting His authority over all men, through the proclamation of the Church. Therefore, believing this, His representatives (first the apostles and prophets, now especially pastors and missionaries, but in a way all Christians) must speak with boldness. Christians must assert “their cause” in the world, with steel spines, but only because (and only to the degree that) their cause is Christ’s cause. We argue for the rights of the Church in the world, for example, not because it happens to be our group unified by mere human purposes, but because the Church is the bride of Christ and the bearer of the only thing that can (and will) save the world: the truth of the gospel and its covenantal rites and ordinances.

So: a coworker desires a spot closer to the CEO at the dinner table at the end-of-year soiree; a Christian arguably ought to defer to his coworker’s desire (after all, as Jesus pointed out and embodied, you can only be invited “upward” if you place yourself low to start out with in such a situation—not so if you grab for the “right-hand” position of your own accord). Alternatively: a “secular Satanist” group wants to erect a dishonoring portrayal of Christ in a public place to satirize Christianity or the Church, and argues for their right to do so on legal grounds of freedom of speech and religious expression; a Christian rightly asserts the crown rights of Jesus Christ over public life (even above functioning Constitutional principles if necessary), argues the fundamental incoherence of pluralism, and proclaims the real prospect of divine judgment against blasphemers, inviting them to repentance and faith instead.

We are not highly evolved collections of cells that should try and out-compete each other for position, survival, and propagation of DNA into the future like lobsters do. However, we are also not souls trapped in unimportant and unfortunate shells called “bodies” that have no dealings with other human beings in social hierarchies. We are body-soul image bearers of God, simultaneously inconceivably dignified and utterly dependent in every aspect of our being. And we live in community, reflecting God’s Trinitarian character. We must assert ourselves in the world in a sense, to be sure, but only for the divine cause (cf. Gen. 1:28; Matt. 28:18-20), which is a cause of humble servant-love. And we only press forward in reliance on transcendent divine power, not on mere human strength. At the last all things (all created things) shall be subjected to Man (by God), even angels; but only after Man has remained a little lower for a while (Ps. 8). Christ was our forerunner in this regard, as the Last Adam (Heb. 2:5-9; Rom. 5:12-21).

Peterson needs these transcendent, real categories, revealed in the historia salutis and in Scripture as something more than myths or archetypes, to justify, sharpen, and ethically qualify his socio-psycho-existential reasoning for his basic exhortation in this chapter. “Stand up straight and take on the world like a dominant lobster” needs a biblical “how,” “when,” and most importantly, a deeper “why.”

Monday, August 7, 2017

No Shadows at Calvary

The atoning death of Jesus Christ is a theologically rich and complex subject. While a humble child can receive Christ and all His benefits through a simple faith in the gospel, a thousand lifetimes of reflection could not exhaust the mystery of the cross. How could it be otherwise in the case of this "foolishness of God" which is "wiser than men" (1 Cor. 1:25)? Throughout the last two millennia, the Church has grown in fits and starts in its understanding and articulation of the divine meaning of Calvary, which is to be expected (Eph. 4:13). In the West, especially since Anselm and his development of the "satisfaction theory" of the atonement, the sharpest debates about the atonement have centered around whether and how the cross represented a "penal substitution" whereby Christ substituted Himself for sinners and paid the just penalty for their sins with His own blood.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, there were a number of dramatic caricatures of penal substitutionary atonement theory criticizing it as "cosmic child abuse" and the like, which drew sharp criticism from orthodox Protestant theologians in response. In more recent times certain prominent Protestant theologians have revived an interest in other "theories" or models, (maybe better, "aspects") of the atonement--models which have been more central in Eastern Christianity and even in earlier Catholic theology. They do not reject wholesale every notion of penal substitution as a legitimate component of the biblical picture of the atonement of Christ, but, impressed by certain features of some of the criticisms launched against it in the 20th century especially, have tried to "clean it up" to evade those criticisms. In my opinion, the results have been mixed.

On one hand, there has been an admirable effort to correct unnecessary and confusing abstraction in some of our customary articulations of the cross as a penal substitution. The cross is rightly situated in the concrete context of the story of Israel, historically, and the biblical covenants, theologically (not to separate or even too sharply distinguish the two). Further, the meaning of the cross is necessarily shaped and informed by the earthly ministry of Jesus more than has often been understood or appreciated in Protestant orthodoxy. The cross is not something disconnected from or merely tacked onto the end of Jesus' kingdom-establishing teaching and healing activities. Still further, the cross is not the end of the story; the resurrection of Jesus (and His ascension, and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost) is just as constitutive of our salvation (even the forensic aspect of it in our justification) as the cross is. In the book of Acts the resurrection is the central apostolic declaration, as the proof of Jesus' universal Lordship. Still further, the cosmic spiritual achievement of the cross as a defeat of death and Satan and all the dark powers (the Christus Victor model or aspect of the atonement) has gained renewed attention in recent works. This is commendable, for the biblical narrative of redemption begins with this theme (Gen. 3:15), and it is directly connected to--rather than pitted against--penal substitution in the New Testament (Col. 2:13-15).

On the other hand, some of the renewed attention to the wider biblical narrative as informing the atonement of Christ has ironically led to some abstractions about the person of Christ Himself as contemplated on the cross. To unpack what I mean, let me first explain what some theologians are saying about the nature of Christ's "penal substitution" for His people.

There are differences between the theologians I have in mind, but there is one common thread that is concerning. Partially in their zeal to avoid some of the harsh criticisms against penal substitution (which paint it as a pagan picture of an unjustly wrathful and bloodthirsty Father toward His innocent Son), and partially in their zeal to re-establish the resurrection as an essential component of the gospel of the Lordship of Christ, they deny that the Father ever in any sense reckoned Jesus as sinful or "condemned" Him on the cross. They affirm that the Father sovereignly directed the events such that Jesus would be delivered over (Acts 2:23; 4:27, 28) for the sake of His people. They affirm that God condemned Sin (construed as a quasi-personal, reigning power in Romans 5-8) in the flesh of Jesus (Rom. 8:3). But as for Jesus Himself, far from ever being condemned by His well-pleased Father--like He was by the mobs of sinful humanity--He was justified, i.e. vindicated by His Father, by virtue of His resurrection. God did not participate in the "legal fiction" of the chief priests in charging Jesus with sin (Mk. 15:3, 4).

On the surface, it sounds promising. Jesus never sinned, so how could a just God ever impute sin to Him? And Jesus certainly was vindicated by God in His resurrection (1 Tim. 3:16), the exact opposite verdict of condemnation. Jesus willingly gave His life as a ransom for sinners, silent before His accusers according to the Father's plan and command, and subjected Himself to the violence of the powers of darkness embodied in the Babylonian aristocracy of Jerusalem and the Beastly tyranny of Rome. He was "abandoned" by the Father (Matt. 27:46; Ps. 22:1) for the sake of redemption, but perhaps we can never say He was "accused" by the Father. Maybe we have been off track after all even speaking of the Father "condemning" Jesus.

However, this nuancing of penal substitution contains a number of implicit theological shortcomings. It implies a near-denial of the Incarnation in its fullest, orthodox significance. It ironically casts a shadow on the justice of God with regard to the death of Christ. And it neglects a sufficiently robust baptismal theology (ironically given other writings of one theologian in particular I have in mind). Let's consider each of these charges in turn.

To appeal to the wording of Romans 8:3, "He condemned sin in the flesh" to justify the denial of the divine imputation of sin to Christ is to miss the point of the verse, but more alarmingly, it borders on denying the Christological doctrine of enyhypostasis as it bears on atonement theology (I will unpack this in a moment). It is of course true that "Sin" in the cosmic sense (Rom. 5:12, 13, 20, 21; 6:7, 10-12, 14, 16-18, 20, 22, 23; 7:8-13) was the target of God's condemnation at the cross (Rom. 8:3). But it is utterly impossible to abstract this verdict of condemnation from the person of Jesus. After all, it wasn't some abstraction of "Sin" that (note the impersonal relative pronoun) was scourged, was crowned with thorns, was crucified, bled, and died for the salvation of the world. It was the (God-)man, Christ Jesus Who (note the personal relative pronoun) suffered and died in the place of sinners. Nor can the revisionist presentation be rescued by highlighting the phrase "in the flesh" in Romans 8:3 as if Jesus' body could be broken as a sacrifice for sin in abstraction from the personal Logos united with a true human nature. The doctrine of enhypostasis states that Jesus' human nature gained true personal subsistence in (only in, per the twin doctrine of anhypostasis) union with the divine Logos. So when the man Jesus of Nazareth physically died on the cross under the weight of sin, the Person of the Son of God died ("improperly" speaking, as we inadequately but necessarily put it), "according to" His human nature ("properly" speaking).

Notice from the Athanasian Creed, in the second half about the Incarnation of Christ:

"Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting (Perfectus Deus, perfectus homo: ex anima rationali et humana carne subsistens)..."

"One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person..." (Unus omnino, non confusione substantiae, sed unitate personae)

"Who suffered for our salvation... (Qui passus est pro salute nostra...)" (The qui is itself an ambiguous pronoun but in this context is obviously personal).

So it is absolutely true that on the cross God condemned the tyrannical power that is "Sin," but the way He did this is by seeing to it (Is. 53:10) that the Person of His Son died on a tree (which signifies divine accursedness according to Deut. 21:23). "Sin" and "Flesh" were definitively judged on Calvary when the man Jesus gave His last breath, and that means when the Son of God--He, the God-man--was put to death. This leads into the next point of critique.

Now that we have reminded ourselves that it was the Person of Jesus who endured the suffering and death of the cross at the hands of violent men, under the sovereign direction of the Father, we need to ask ourselves whether the Father would have ever been just to bring about the cursed death of Christ apart from a divine imputation of sin to Him. God is a just and impartial Judge, as the Scriptures make abundantly clear. In fact, the justice and vindication of God in all of His judgments is an even more prominent theme in the book of Romans than the justification of sinners! He does and can do no wrong. This implies that according to His just (image-covenantal, not "arbitrary" in a nominalistic sense) standards, no righteous man will ever perish under ultimate divine curse, and no wicked man will ever attain blessed eternal life. But of course we believe that God does justify the ungodly by faith in Christ (Rom. 4:5a). And the reason this doesn't violate the principle of Proverbs 17:15 (that the justification of the wicked and condemnation of the righteous are alike an "abomination" to Yahweh) is that God bases the verdict of justification on the imputation of righteousness (Rom. 4:5b). To avoid the Roman Catholic charge of "legal fiction" at this level of reckoning we need to go deeper toward the ultimate foundation, but we will do so under the final point of critique. For now it is enough to see that, on the side of the justification of sinful human beings, God is righteous to justify them only insofar as He first reckons them righteous, or "imputes" righteousness to them.

Conversely, then, it is evident that God was only righteous or just to direct redemptive history to the end of the death of His Son, which was a death under ultimate, eschatological divine cursing (cf. Rom. 1:16-18 as background to Rom. 3:21ff), insofar as He reckoned Him a sinner. For the Father to justly "crush" the Son (Is. 53:10), He had to "[cause] the iniquity of us all to fall on Him" (Is. 53:6), not simply in the sense of laying the consequences of our iniquity on Him, but by imputing our iniquity to Him. As with the justification of sinners, we need to discuss further the deep sacramental and covenantal basis for this dynamic, or it will not be clear how the Father is any more just to impute sin to a sinless man than He would be to condemn a man apart from the imputation of sin. We also need to be careful to say that the Father was in fact intensely pleased with His Son's obedient going to the cross in the very same moment as divine wrath was poured out upon the Him in the place of His people. And the Father did impute perfect obedience to Him as well, and publicly vindicated ("justified") Him in His resurrection. This is because Christ had to bear the dual sanctions of the covenant in order to complete His mission as the Last Adam.

Therefore in the attempt to vindicate God by denying that He in any sense "condemned" Jesus, the actual death of Jesus according to the "hand" and "purpose" of God (Acts 4:28) ends up casting an even darker shadow on the justice of the Father. I say "darker" because while it is possible, as we will discuss below, for God to justly impute righteousness to the wicked or to impute sin to the Righteous One, it is in every way impossible for Him to justly sentence a righteous person to eschatological death apart from the imputation of sin. So how can it be? How could the Father have justly imputed sin to the Righteous One, His holy Son?

To answer this question is to aim the third point of critique at the revisionists I have in mind: their baptismal theology, at least as it applies to Christ, is functionally deficient. Within the mainline Protestant tradition, whether Lutheran, Reformed, or Anglican (if they will indulge my designation of them as "Protestant"), the sacrament of baptism is viewed--with differences in the details--as a true means of grace bound up with union with Christ. Union with Christ is the foundation of most (and Reformed would say all) the saving benefits of Christ. Therefore baptism is in at least some sense "saving" (cf. 1 Pet. 3:21) in that it involves (Reformed say "signifies" and "seals" but our confessions themselves go further than that, as well) our identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection life. The penal substitution revisionists I have in mind agree with a traditional high sacramentology of Protestant orthodoxy, and have in some works, ironically, even pressed the idea of baptismal efficacy beyond what many confessional Protestants would be comfortable with. Keeping the devil unbound in the details for now, it is certainly hard to deny that the New Testament speaks of water baptism as one ordinary instrument (cf. Rom. 6:4) whereby God unites a person to Jesus Christ--a union which involves (I'm being purposely vague about the precise relationship) that person's being reckoned righteous and justified in Christ (cf. also 1 Cor. 6:11). But what about Jesus' baptism?

What was signified, sealed, and dare I say, accomplished, in the baptism of Jesus? If I say, as a good Reformed theologian, that baptism is an effectual means of salvation by the working of the Spirit, together with a divine Word, for such as to whom salvation belongs, through faith...what was it that Jesus' baptism effected for Him as the Spirit came upon Him, the Father's voice was heard from heaven, and He trusted in His Father's plan for Him? The answer is that it was nothing less than sacramental (i.e. covenantal) identification with sinners. After all, the baptism of John was unto repentance. Of what did Jesus of Nazareth need to repent? For whose trespasses did He pray for forgiveness when He prayed the "Lord's prayer" (which He almost certainly did pray)? First, it was for the trespasses of Israel, His kinsmen according to the flesh. And through His identification with Israel, it was also for the trespasses of the world, according to the priestly-nation principle of Exodus 19:6 latent in Romans 3:19.

In willingly identifying Himself, baptismally, with the sinful (and indeed apostate and exiled) nation of Israel, Jesus identified with the whole of Adamic humanity in the "flesh" (cf. Hos. 6:7). In Reformed federal theology there is a sense in which He identified in a particular way with the elect of God for the sake of atonement (Rom. 8:31-34). But the main point here is that just as we (ordinarily) identify with Christ and His righteousness through baptism (and faith), and are on that basis, i.e. the basis of Christ-for-us, accounted righteous and therefore justified; so Jesus was identified with sinners through His own baptism in the Jordan, and was on that basis reckoned a sinner and condemned on Calvary, without the smallest shadow being cast on the justice of God. "...Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness..." (Mt. 3:15, my emphasis).

In conclusion, while we must indeed be careful to keep the atonement of Christ in the proper contexts of Israel's history, the covenantal dynamics between God and His people (and between the members of the Trinity, for that matter), the cosmic war of Yahweh against "Sin," the flesh, and the powers of darkness, and a holistic narration of the historia salutis that gives due credit to the resurrection, we must also take into account the full implications of the Incarnation, the uncompromising justice of God in all His judgments, and Jesus' baptism, for the meaning of the cross. When we do so, we will find that while there are certain "shorthand" expressions and slogans about penal substitution that are unhelpful and may skew biblical truth, there is ultimately no escaping the glorious, divine scandal that is the cross--the scandal that just is the "demonstration of [God's] righteousness" (Rom. 3:26).

At the wonderful, tragic, mysterious tree
On that beautiful, scandalous night you and me
Were atoned by His blood and forever washed white
On that beautiful, scandalous night