Monday, March 21, 2011

The Relationship of the Legal to the Ontological: Matthew Lee Anderson on Universalism

NOTE:
This post has been altered since I put it up. By "altered" I mean I corrected an embarrassing mistake on my part. I misread Matthew Lee Anderson's sentence as if it meant the exact opposite of what he meant and a reader kindly called my attention to it. I have changed the paragraph below after the quote from Matthew: "The Great Divorce isn’t necessarily incompatible with a doctrine of hell that is grounded in penal substitution." I read it as a single negative instead of a double negative as if the "in" in "incompatible" were not there. Sorry Matthew. It isn't Matthew who has trouble reconciling penal substitution with Lewis' Augustinian view of hell, it is a broad swath of Evangelicalism in general. My point is valid except that it does not apply to Matthew.
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Matthew Lee Anderson is a very good thinker and in his post on Rob Bell's book, Love Wins, he has a paragraph (actually two paragraphs) that jumped out at me as especially insightful and, at the same time, especially revealing. He has both stated and illustrated what seems to me to be the single most important and also most profound problem in contemporary Evangelical theology. Here are the two paragraphs:
  • One of Protestant theology’s central tasks in the 21st century is to articulate the relationship between the legal and the ontological. Focusing on the former to the exclusion of the latter–which Protestants wary of Lewis’ doctrine of hell are always in danger of doing–will lead to an attenuated understanding of the ways in which our doctrines of heaven and hell play out in our lives.The Great Divorce isn’t necessarily incompatible with a doctrine of hell that is grounded in penal substitution. And Protestants interested in the latter would do well to work out the ontology.
  • Because fundamentally, Bell–er, Lewis, Dante, Augustine–are all right that God will give us what we want. Of course, none of us want the good nearly as much as we might claim.
Let me comment on this passage sentence by sentence. I really think there is a great deal of substance here.

"One of Protestant theology’s central tasks in the 21st century is to articulate the relationship between the legal and the ontological." This is exactly right, although one wants to add that this has been true through out the history of Christian theology. In the middle of the last century the Biblical Theology Movement fell apart because of a misguided attempt to differentiate between the "Hebrew Mind" and the "Greek Mind" and this distinction soon degenerated into a reprise of Harnack's Hellenization thesis with the implicit justification of the Liberal Protestant reduction of theology to ethics and the immanentizing of the eschaton. The 20th century rejection of metaphysics took many forms - from the "functional Christology" my NT professor, Richard Longenecker, was always refuting, to the Nietzschean, postmodern program of deconstruction, to the attempt by Liberation Theology to ride the horse of history until it dropped of exhaustion.

"Focusing on the former to the exclusion of the latter–which Protestants wary of Lewis’ doctrine of hell are always in danger of doing–will lead to an attenuated understanding of the ways in which our doctrines of heaven and hell play out in our lives." Protestants have lived for a century in reaction against the de-ontologizing of the Christian Faith by Liberals and there is nothing wrong with being a right-wing reactionary that a little historical perspective can't fix. The problem is our lacking of historical awareness; we have not done historical theology seriously enough. So we end up unconsciously assuming the anti-metaphysical (or better anti-sacramental) stance of late modernity without realizing what we are doing. We are suspicious of Lewis because we are used to liberals trying to deny sin, guilt, justification and salvation as forgiveness of sin. But because we start from a modern, non-sacramental metaphysical position, we cannot integrate the legal and the ontological, which makes us suspicious of any account of salvation that is not first and foremost juridical.

"The Great Divorce isn’t necessarily incompatible with a doctrine of hell that is grounded in penal substitution." The reason Anderson has to say this is because many Evangelicals think of the doctrine of hell solely in terms of moral punishment for sin and not in terms of ontological deprivation. We should not be suspicious that an Augustinian account of eternal punishment will vitiate a strong doctrine of penal substitution because the ontological and the moral are not separate, unrelated silos. Rather, they are affected by one another. [The preceding paragraph is different from the original post. See the note at the top.]

"And Protestants interested in the latter would do well to work out the ontology." I heartily agree with this statement. But when the ontology is worked out, the final result will not be the rejection of penal substitution or even the demotion of penal substitution to a marginal position in the overall doctrine of the atonement; rather, I think its ontological significance will be recovered. Within a sacramental ontology, I think, there is a need for an account of how goodness and justice meet each other in the nature of God and in the creation that reflects His glory. Hans Boersma's recent book, Heavenly Participation: the Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, is a step in the right direction. I hope the book I am currently writing will make a modest contribution to the same goal. Very little work has been done on the question of re-thinking the doctrine of the atonement in the light of a recovered sacramental ontology. One thinks of T. F. Torrance as the exception that proves the rule, but his theology has not been engaged with sufficient vigor by Evangelicals yet.

"Because fundamentally, Bell–er, Lewis, Dante, Augustine–are all right that God will give us what we want. Of course, none of us want the good nearly as much as we might claim." Exactly. The problem of disordered desires requires not merely a re-ordering of desires, which is after all an ontological problem, it also requires forgiveness for sins done in the past and until the desires of our sinful hearts are completely healed and made perfect it requires on-going forgiveness. So the legal and the ontological work together and may even have some secret, inward connection. Is it possible that we become good by being loved? Is it possible that our weak desires are enflamed by the the seductive, attractive eros of God for His fallen creatures? Is irresistible grace at least partly the means of sanctification, not just justification? Is not forgiveness transformative?

Here all I can do is throw out a few cryptic remarks and hints. But I think Matthew Lee Anderson is talking about the important issues, as usual.

4 comments:

markwark said...

Craig, I'm confused. You say the statement, ""The Great Divorce isn’t necessarily incompatible with a doctrine of hell that is grounded in penal substitution." is wrong. You then say, "I do not think that penal substitution and a doctrine of hell consisting of God giving man what he wants are incompatible." . Those two statements seem to me to be equivalent. What am I missing?

Craig Carter said...

Marwark,
Thanks for calling attention to this glaring mistake on my part. I have now altered the post and added a mea culpa. I simply misread Matthew's statement to mean the opposite of what it says. You are right that we are saying the same thing.

markwark said...

OK, it wasn't me, then. As soon as someone starts using words like 'ontology' I gets a little timid and unsure.

Thanks, by the way, for your work on this blog. It's one of my favorites.

Gordonhackman said...

Thanks for this post. While I would not necessarily have thought about matters in the same categories or terms as articulated by you and Matthew Anderson, I have often thought that there is no necessary conflict between what Lewis' potrays in The Great Divorce and a more traditional understanding of hell.

I've always felt the trouble is the failure by many people to recognize The Great Divorce as an allegory that is attempting to show us something about the damned, rather than articulating a complete doctrine of hell.

I don't know if you saw my second comment to you below concerning the Martin Bashir interview, but I wrote my own post concerning universalism. I took up my own suggestion and attempted to articulate an approach from the perspective of Dorothy Sayers claim that the dogma is the drama that makes the faith worth embracing. Here is a link if you want to read it: http://gordonhackman.blogspot.com/2011/03/rob-bell-dorothy-sayers-and-hell.html