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An Outline of New Testament Spirituality
By Prosper Grech
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Copyright © 2011 Prosper Grech
All right reserved.
Chapter One Deliverance: From What? By Whom?
We are all attached to life and well-being and continually menaced by various evils: sickness, violence, loss of liberty, disasters, sadness, and finally, death. Even our happiest moments are blurred by a lingering subconscious anxiety. This is our undeniable existential situation. Any answer to the questions posed in the title of this chapter assumes our anthropological, cosmological, and theological nature. That this is not the best of worlds in which humanity exists is obvious. But why is it so? What can be done to render existence more acceptable?
An agnostic would say that these are queries to which there is no answer, so let's just make the best of it for tomorrow we will die. Siddhartha Gautama, however, understood the problem of suffering as being the foundation of Buddhism, and would say that because all evils arise from desire, the extinction of all desires leads to beatitude, or nirvana. In spite of its difficulty, he would say this is entirely within our capabilities and requires no recourse to any transcendent being. Hinduism also takes the problem seriously and seeks a resolution in the meditation of the Self (atman) as identical with the Transcendent Self (Brahman). In China, both Confucianism and Taoism base their ethics on the reaction to the evils within society at large. Primitive animistic religions are so beset with the problem of evil that witch-doctors act as their priests; and second-century Gnosticism, with its Platonic worldview, identified matter created by a demigod as being the source of all evil.
If these questions occupy such an important place in world religions and philosophies and give rise to such a multitude of "spiritualities," then what answer does the Bible give to such problems as the nature of humankind, the goodness of the world, the why of suffering, and the way out?
Scripture defines the human being in relation to God. We read that each human is God's creature: "Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness....' So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them: 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth'" (Gen. 1:26-28). Adam's dominion over the earth and its creatures defines his being as an image and likeness of God himself: he can only subdue the earth if he shares in God's wisdom and in his freedom. He is neither part of God nor independent of him; like all other creatures he is brought into being from nothingness, which diminishes nothing of his dignity but prompts the psalmist to exclaim: "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor" (Ps. 8:3-5). This is an anthropology based on faith in one God, the Creator, who made us in his own image and likeness to be able to enter into dialogue with him. Such a concept of the human being was not the fruit of philosophical reasoning or drawn from experience; in fact any consideration drawn from the ups and downs of daily living would hardly measure up to a quasi-divine being. Qohelet vividly describes the skepticism and cynicism into which we are all tempted to fall if we base our philosophy of life only on the contradictions of our ordinary contingencies.
The Bible is very realistic about our existential situation. The book of Job asks how to reconcile God's justice with the suffering of the righteous and ends by declaring our inability to penetrate this mystery (Job 42:1-6) without offering any way out except Job's confession of his ignorance of God's transcendent designs. The historical books too, notwithstanding their insistence on the call of the patriarchs, Moses, and the election of Israel, underline the slavery in Egypt, the raids of foreign peoples in the book of Judges, the exiles and other evils that befell Israel and Judah. Psalms 90 and 103 sum up humans' plight in a few verses: "The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away" (90:10); "As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more" (103:15-16). Yet these existential ills of humanity are not recounted for their own sake, but only as a contrast to God's saving love; God is the ultimate redeemer.
The New Testament is no less aware of the sufferings of human beings. Jesus' healings and exorcisms, his mission to the poor, his pity on sinners, and the eschatological tone of his sayings express his concern regarding humanity's plight. He is the one who brings God's deliverance to humans.
There is no need to prolong the list of miseries; we are all well aware of them. They all pose the eternal problem of how we reconcile our faith in one good, just, merciful, and all-powerful God with suffering and death. The account of the creation in Genesis 1 ends with the apodictic statement: "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good" (1:31). Does this make sense or must we presume that something has gone wrong in the course of history?
The biblical writer known as the Jahwist offers his answer in his narrative of the formation of Adam from the dust of the earth, made alive by God's breath, and his subsequent rebellion, constantly reiterated by his descendents until the hardening of heart touches rock bottom (Gen. 2–11). These narratives are "mythical" or "symbolical" in the sense that they never happened and yet happen continually. Yet though mythical and symbolical, the narratives are not therefore unhistorical, as alienation from God did have a historical beginning. Describing its origin by means of symbolical narratives enhances rather than diminishes the richness of theological significance. An exhaustive explanation of these chapters is outside the scope of this book, but we can try to decipher some of these symbols and translate them into comprehensible theological language.
In Genesis 2:4-6 the writer tells us that in the beginning, the earth was barren and treeless because there was no one to cultivate it. Man is created from the dust of this unfruitful earth, endowed with God's spirit of life (2:7), meaning matter and spirit, and placed in a luxuriant garden planted on purpose by God (2:8-14). The abundance of waters and the mention of gold and precious stones associated with Eden symbolize the amenities and richness of this environment as the Creator's gift to humankind and its state of beatitude intended by God. The symbols in Genesis 2 recall the state of chaos and darkness of the newly created universe described in chapter 1 and of the area of light segregated by God in which to build his world, with Adam as its master and carer (1:2, 28-29). Humankind's dominion, however, is not absolute; the prohibition to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:17) signifies humankind's subjection to the will of God in matters of right and wrong.
Adam "named" all the animals, indicating his superiority and dominion over them (2:19-20) but they could not act as consorts. Eve's formation out of a rib, the place closest to Adam's heart, is a parable about the attraction between male and female, and their intention to be reunited in marriage as a single personality (2:18-25).
Enter the serpent (3:1-7), with his crafty insinuations to subvert the order of creation and engender death. Wisdom 2:23 makes it clear that the serpent was none other than the devil, himself formerly part of God's good creation, but who, blinded by envy, rebelled against his Creator and now urges humans to reject their submission to God, declare their independence, and decide for themselves what is good or evil for them, thus thwarting God's pretense to subjugate them.
Woman and man eat of the forbidden fruit, trustingly expecting A marvelous metamorphosis into godhead, only to discover that they are naked (3:2-7): this is one of the most bitter paradoxes in all literatures. The author had already informed us that the couple was naked, but felt no shame, because, as later Jewish literature reflected, they had been clothed with God's glory; their present deprivation, recalled by Paul in Romans 3:23, opens their eyes to the nothingness of humankind when isolated from God. Their shame and mutual accusations are due to their sense of guilt (Gen. 3:8-13).
Now comes the punishment (3:14-19): no more amenities for males in a fruitful garden, they will have to struggle against the soil to earn a slice of bread, and after a life of toil man will return to the dust from which he was formed. Women are punished in their femininity: their greatest hour, that of childbearing, will be an hour of suffering, and their natural instinct towards the male will only lead them to subjection. The serpent's punishment, apart from the etiological explanation of his crouching in and feeding on dust in verse 14, is best quoted in full: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel" (v. 15). This is a little apocalypse, the key to understanding the constant conflict within history between good and evil. Woman's offspring, humankind, is doomed to fall because of the wound in its heel, but in the end it is humans who will have the final victory by crushing the serpent's head. Revelation 12:9 takes up this motif to interpret Christ as that offspring who will finally cast down the "ancient serpent," Satan.
Then follows the expulsion from paradise (3:22-24): as paradise is not a "place" but a state of friendship and union with the Creator, expulsion means that God "hides his face from humans" (cf. Deut. 31:17; 32:20), depriving them of God's presence, so that humans, left alone but yearning for reunion, can only "grope for" God (Acts 17:27) in the hope of finding him.
The story of "original sin" does not end in Genesis 3, but continues through chapters 4 to 11. The social and moral consequences of humans' break with God are symbolized in the narratives about Cain and Abel (4:1-16): fratricide and internecine struggle, with the wicked wandering away ever further from God's presence; Lamech marries two wives in whose presence he boasts of his murders (4:19-24); Tubal-cain is responsible for the forging of weapons (4:22); sexual promiscuity provokes the deluge (6:1-13), and finally, Adam's ambition to rise to the stature of God repeats itself in the construction of the tower of Babel (ch. 11). Human behavior rolls down to rock bottom; if God does not intervene in some way or other the serpent will have the upper hand. St. Paul sums this up in Romans 5:12, 18, 21: "Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.... Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.... just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."
The consequences of this initial breakaway from God, "the fountain of life" (Ps. 36:9) are multiple. Paul informs us that through Adam's transgression sin entered this world. There is some difference between the biblical and the theological sense of sin. We usually understand by this word what the Bible calls a transgression, that is, an act or thought contrary to God's law that renders us guilty before him. Moreover, the theologian distinguishes between the "original sin" initially committed by Adam and the "original sin" inherited by us all. This latter is usually explained as the lack of sanctifying grace in which we are born, because we belong to a humanity deprived of God's friendship, just as the descendants of a noble forefather who has been deprived of his title because of some crime or other themselves lack the title through no fault of their own; or like the forced sufferings of the citizens of a country whose dictatorial leader declares it to be at war. The biblical sense of sin does include that of transgression, but it usually denotes that compelling power which drives us to evil and to rebellion; the rabbis called this inclination to evil the yetzer ha-ra, which only the law could overcome. God's warning to Cain makes this clear: "Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it" (Gen. 4:7), and Paul's dramatic description in Romans 7 of the struggle within the human being between the desire to do good and the enslaving power of sin is even more dramatic. The internal freedom of the human being is constantly at stake in his present existential state.
As Adam had been warned, sin engenders death, and this term, too, is not univocal. It certainly denotes bodily death, the return to dust, against which the first man had been warned. Biological death, however, is a consequence of spiritual death, occurring through the soul's separation from the Fount of Life; but death also has a cosmic meaning, perhaps best understood as a power that continually threatens the order of creation itself. Humans are caught up in this strife between life and death. When we confess that Christ's resurrection overcame death we do not mean simply that he rose again personally, but that he has eschatologically vanquished the cosmic dominion of death, as Revelation 20:13-15 explains. Paul too, speaking of the resurrection, exclaims: "'Death has been swallowed up in victory.' 'Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?'" (1 Cor. 15:54-55).
A third power which constantly limits our freedom is "the world" — not the cosmos which had been declared "very good" at the beginning of creation, but that complex of errors, prejudices, vices, customs, and attitudes within our societies that determine our decisions and render it so difficult, if not impossible, for us to exist, to emerge, to be ourselves and follow the truth wherever it may lead. This is the usual sense of the word in the Johannine writings; Jesus encourages his disciples when he proclaims: "Take courage; I have conquered the world!" (John 16:33).
The "world" is "blind" because it cannot perceive the truth. John's detailed narrative of the healing of the man born blind in John 9 presents the Pharisees as an example of blindness and ends with Jesus' reproof: "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains" (9:41). Apart from physical lack of sight, blindness here means the ignorance and pride that renders us sightless even in the presence of clear evidence.
Another negative factor that must be purified is "the flesh." "Spirit" and "flesh" are not simply to be equated with "soul" and "body"; the biblical meaning of "flesh" is the whole person, body and soul, under the aspect of weakness, so even such incorporeal sins as pride and hatred belong to the realm of the flesh. "Spirit," on the other hand, is divine power strengthening humans to walk in the way of righteousness. Isaiah 31:3 warns the Israelites against relying on the military help of the Egyptian cavalry, whose horses are "flesh, and not spirit"; that is, place your trust in God, not in anything human. Paul associates flesh with the law and with sin when he says: "We know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 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 within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it" (Rom. 7:14-15, 18). This means that while the law certainly presents an ideal to be followed and our intellect perceives its goodness, the power of sin subdues us in our weakness, and, in spite of our good will, we follow the promptings of "the flesh." Yet God has equipped us for this challenge too: "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death" (Rom. 8:2).
Excerpted from An Outline of New Testament Spirituality by Prosper Grech Copyright © 2011 by Prosper Grech. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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