Academic journal article Theological Studies

Phenomenology of Redemption? or Theory of Sanctification?

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Phenomenology of Redemption? or Theory of Sanctification?

Article excerpt

PHENOMENOLOGY OF REDEMPTION? (1) The question mark points to the particular challenge of this article. It attempts to bring together two genres of discourse that normally have little to do with each other: the traditional language of theology and the technical languages of the social and natural sciences. Behind this attempt is the general observation that no genuinely human problem or issue can be adequately treated without attending to the myriad complexities that both enrich and bedevil all areas of human life. Thus, the crossing of boundaries that accompanies interdisciplinary research and conversation, however susceptible to superficiality, is necessary. This is especially true when dealing with the mystery of redemption commonly referred to as the atonement. (2)

Paul, writing to the Romans, seems to have been at least implicitly aware of this (in modern terms) crossing of boundaries when he penned the verses that mark the transition from the more doctrinal to the more pastoral part of his letter to the Romans:

I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies (parastesai ta somata humon) as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship (ton logiken latreian). Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect (Rom 12:1-2).

Immediately obvious to those familiar with both the cultic language of the Bible (3) and the technical language of the philosophers (4) is that Paul is here combining--confusing, his critics might say--things that, in terms of intellectual respectability, are quite different and need to be kept apart. Paul, from his location in Hellenistic Judaism, is not only using the sacrificial ritual language of Second Temple Judaism centered on the very physical, material offerings in the Jerusalem temple; he is also using, in the same breath, the already impressively developed language and concepts of Greek religious philosophy that was aware of the uselessness of trying to offer anything material to a spiritual deity. With his typical boldness regarding human expectations when speaking of life in Christ, and within the few words of one sentence, Paul combines both of these ways of thinking and speaking. First, by the mercies of God is a vivid, anthropomorphic image referring, literally, to the bowels of God. It is not something a respectable philosopher would say, but it is the kind of language one might expect from a Jew familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. So too with the words offer your bodies as a living sacrifice. But right away, even within the context of Jewish religious language and cultic practice, one begins to feel uneasy over these words. Offer our bodies? That stretches Paul's readers to the limit of what they might accept, but once he adds as a living sacrifice, he is pulling them far beyond that. For although holy and pleasing to God is the kind of reassuring language often found in the Septuagint to refer to properly offered sacrifices that are acceptable to God, the mention of bodies as living sacrifices, with its human-sacrifice associations, has left many readers uncomfortably close to a conceptual no-man's land. Then, the coup de grace: your spiritual worship, unmistakably using the logike-thusia language of spiritualized Greek religious philosophy, abruptly dumps us into the middle of that no-man's land. (5)

What is going on here? First of all, Paul is doing something that he characteristically does when speaking of the mystery of life in Christ: for example, when he mixes organic images from plant life with static images from buildings in order to emphasize that Christian life is both organic and structural: we are both "God's field" and "God's building" (1 Cot 3:9). Nor is Christ just the head of the body that is the Church, he is also (see the deutero-Pauline Eph 2:20-22) the cornerstone and capstone (and seemingly both at the same time) of the building that is the church. …

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