See also “Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism, Part 2” by the author.
Sacramental Realism is a dogma which cannot be established from Scripture; in fact, is baldly in opposition to the New Testament presentation of spiritual efficacy, not through ritual act, nor through priestly mediation, but through receipt of Holy Spirit Baptism, as at Pentecost and continuing thereafter. Sacramentalists point to the wedding at Cana (John 2) and the miraculous multiplication of loaves associated with the Sermon on the Mount (John 6). But significantly there was no bread at Cana, no wine included on the Mount, no ceremonial act taking place at either location, no “institution” of a ritual or sacrament, nor connection with spiritual efficacy; moreover, all of these events took place prior to the Last Supper and to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
In fact, Christ’s statements in John 6 strikingly contradict the concept of spiritual efficacy in bread. Crowds continued to follow him for days after the miracle, asking him for more “bread from heaven,” by which they meant manna. Jesus reminded them, “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and are dead” (6:58). No physical bread, even “from heaven,” is truly spiritual or eternal, and neither God’s presence, nor blessing, nor salvation are inherently associated with it.
The “breaking of bread from house to house” mentioned in Acts cannot be proven to describe any ceremony, but simple “table fellowship” common to both Jews and Gentiles. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 describes the confusion in Corinth of a fellowship meal with the Lord’s Supper, the former having degenerated into self-indulgent feasting on the part of some, devoid of true fellowship, and the latter similarly failing to include the responsibility of the believer to remember and identify himself with Christ’s sacrifice by “examining himself” in that light (see also 2 Cor. 13:5). He writes,
1 Corinthians 11:20 When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. 21 For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. 22 What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? ….
The idea of Sacramentalism is absent in Church history until it began to be developed by Cyprian (early 3rd century) and Athanasius (3rd-4th century), along with Sacerdotalism. The Didache (dated late 1st century) includes a recitation of the Eucharist ceremony of the time, which notably does not include any form of sacrament. Nor does the famous letter by Pliny to Emperor Trajan mention a sacrament, rather a fellowship meal afterward, in another location. Irenaeus and Tertullian spoke in seemingly realistic terms of the Communion elements relative to the body of Christ, but were actually contrasting the reality of Christ’s crucifixion, and his physical body, to the Docetism (denial of a physical Incarnation of Christ) of the Gnostics whom they opposed.
Yet committed Sacramentalists—if there be any other kind—just like Martin Luther, insist on a literal interpretation of “Take, eat, this is my body” at all costs. The passages in question are these:
Mark 14:22 And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. 23 And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. 24 And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.
Matthew 26:26 And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. 27 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; 28 For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
Luke 22:19 And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. 20 Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you
1 Corinthians 11:24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till he come.
Note, among other details, that in two of the passages, Jesus specifically describes the purpose of the action to be “in remembrance of me” (in bold above); and further, that only in those same passages is it implied that the ceremony is to be repeated. Since the Last Supper is clearly a reflection of the Passover ceremony, with many parallels, the natural inference of the ceremony itself must be that it is to replace traditional observance of the Passover memorial, which is once a year. Yet there is no restriction of frequency stated, and it is commonly considered that new Christians in their enthusiasm soon began to gladly practice the observance of the Lord’s Supper, often, perhaps even before every meal (as Jews blessed their bread and many of us to this day say “Grace”). In the case of frequent and even casual observance, however, the act could hardly be imagined to have been officiated over by a priest and to have any salvific spiritual efficacy, as sacramentalists imagine.
Still sacramentalists insist on taking the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper literally as Christ’s body and blood, representing the “institution” of a sacrament, and being continually “for the remission of sins”—instead of being the afore-mentioned “remembrance,” and allowing the elements to be used figuratively to point to a greater, eschatological reality, which was yet to be fully realized, in Christ’s actual death on the cross for our sins.
There are many instances of figurative language in the New Testament and in Christ’s sayings. In the famous “I am” sayings, Jesus describes himself figuratively as the voice, the Light of the World, the door, the good shepherd, the road or path, and the vine, as well as the Bread of Life. There is none but arbitrary, dogmatic reasons to take “This is my body” any more literally than these statements.
In conclusion, let us examine an even closer, figurative parallel. Just as Jesus said, “Take, eat,” he elsewhere commanded, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24; par. Mark 8:34, 10:21; Luke 9:23). With the exception of a few ascetic fanatics in Church history, few have imagined that Jesus meant us to regard “Take up your cross” literally, as opposed to figuratively, by which it represents a greater reality—which certainly begs the question of the arbitrary insistence of sacramentalists upon taking with supreme literalness this one particular and debatable instance.
Copyright © 2015 Paul A. Hughes
An Internet search on this subject reveals that widespread disinformation about what the Bible actually says is being disseminated by advocates, most often non-experts, such that an unbiased exegetical review is made necessary.
God’s Intent in Creation
From the start, Scripture describes God’s intent in terms of procreation, in which not only humans but animals naturally pair up, male with female.
Genesis 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
Genesis 5:1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; 2 Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.
Genesis 3:16 Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
Natural Pairing Continued for Procreation
As Noah received commandments regarding the Ark, species or “families” (“kind”), including humans, were still perceived in terms of complementary pairs of animals, one of each gender, able to produce offspring.
Genesis 6:18 But with thee will I establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons’ wives with thee. 19 And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female. 20 Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive.
Genesis 7:15 And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life. 16 And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him: and the LORD shut him in.
Christ’s Teaching on God’s Original Intent for Marriage
In speaking of marriage and divorce, Jesus framed the subject in terms of God’s original intent: one man and one woman, for life.
Matthew 19:3 (parallel Mark 10:2-9.) The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? 4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? 6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. 7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? 8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
Sexual Conduct Established by Law
The Law of Moses codified acceptable behavior in order to establish God’s people as a Godly nation, his representatives among Pagans, outlining rules of conduct and punishments for transgressions. Some of the most grievous infractions included sorcery, necromancy, adultery, prostitution, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality. Scholars theorize that male homosexual prostitutes were sometimes referred to as “dogs,” possibly including Revelation 22:15 and Philippians 3:2 (which obviously do not refer literally to canines).
Leviticus 18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. 23 Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion. 24 Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: 25 And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants. 26 Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you: 27 (For all these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled;) 28 That the land spew not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spewed out the nations that were before you. 29 For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations, even the souls that commit them shall be cut off from among their people. 30 Therefore shall ye keep mine ordinance, that ye commit not any one of these abominable customs, which were committed before you, and that ye defile not yourselves therein: I am the LORD your God.
Leviticus 20:13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
Deuteronomy 23:17 There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel. 18 Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the LORD thy God for any vow: for even both these are abomination unto the LORD thy God.
Revelation 22:15 For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.
Philippians 3:2 Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision.
Sexual Conduct Laws Periodically Enforced and Idolatry Banished
Homosexuality recurred within Israel in spite of the Law, due to lax enforcement and the outside influence of Pagan peoples, sometimes prompting reforming kings of Israel to crack down on this behavior.
1 Kings 14:24 And there were also sodomites in the land: and they did according to all the abominations of the nations which the LORD cast out before the children of Israel.
1 Kings 15:12 And he took away the sodomites out of the land, and removed all the idols that his fathers had made.
2 Kings 23:7 And he brake down the houses of the sodomites, that were by the house of the LORD, where the women wove hangings for the grove [Pagan shrine].
Two Notorious Instances of Intended Homosexual Rape and Their Outcome
Neither of these attempts were successful, as such, the first averted by divine intervention, the second unfortunately leading to a woman’s death so brutal that the offending tribe, Benjamin, was nearly annihilated by the other tribes in retribution. (It is hard today to understand how the laws of the time regarding hospitality could be so compelling that a householder would protect a guest even at the expense of his own womenfolk, but such seems to be the case.) The Hebrew term “know” (YADA) is used not only in terms of cognizance but also to describe intimate relations, e.g., “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived . . .” (Genesis 4:1).
Genesis 19:4 But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter: 5 And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them. 6 And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him, 7 And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. 8 Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof. 9 And they said, Stand back. And they said again, This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs be a judge: now will we deal worse with thee, than with them.
Judges 19:22 Now as they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, certain sons of Belial, beset the house round about, and beat at the door, and spake to the master of the house, the old man, saying, Bring forth the man that came into thine house, that we may know him. 23 And the man, the master of the house, went out unto them, and said unto them, Nay, my brethren, nay, I pray you, do not so wickedly; seeing that this man is come into mine house, do not this folly. 24 Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine; them I will bring out now, and humble ye them, and do with them what seemeth good unto you: but unto this man do not so vile a thing. 25 But the men would not hearken to him: so the man took his concubine, and brought her forth unto them; and they knew her, and abused her all the night until the morning: and when the day began to spring, they let her go. 26 Then came the woman in the dawning of the day, and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her lord was, till it was light. 27 And her lord rose up in the morning, and opened the doors of the house, and went out to go his way: and, behold, the woman his concubine was fallen down at the door of the house, and her hands were upon the threshold. 28 And he said unto her, Up, and let us be going. But none answered.
Sodom and Gomorrah became a Byword for Sexual Sin and Its Judgment
More than that, comparison to Sodom and Gomorrah became a metaphor for any place whose people are deserving of God’s especial wrath (the list below is not exhaustive).
Isaiah 13:19 And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.
Jeremiah 23:14 I have seen also in the prophets of Jerusalem an horrible thing: they commit adultery, and walk in lies: they strengthen also the hands of evildoers, that none doth return from his wickedness: they are all of them unto me as Sodom, and the inhabitants thereof as Gomorrah.
Jude 1:7 Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.
2 Peter 2:6 And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an example unto those that after should live ungodly;
According to Jesus, Sodom and Gomorrah Have but One Mitigating Virtue
Since those cities and certain others had not known God, heard the Gospel, or received God’s witness, their punishment would not be as great as those who hear the Gospel and still reject Jesus Christ.
Matthew 10:14 (par. Mark 6:11) And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. 15 Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.
Luke 10:12 (par. Matthew 11:23-24) But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city. 13 Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment, than for you. 15 And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted to heaven, shalt be thrust down to hell. 16 He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you despiseth me; and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me.
“They Are without Excuse,” Romans 1:26-32
Paul the Apostle was born in Tarsus of Cilicia and traveled widely in the Greco-Roman world, hence was well-versed in the activities of Pagan cultures and uniquely qualfied to evaluate them. Here Paul clearly singles out Lesbianism as well as male Homosexuality as behaviors for which “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (Rom 1:18), and for which, since “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made . . . they are without excuse” (1:20).
Romans 1:26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: 27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. 28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; 29 Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, 30 Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31 Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: 32 Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.
Persons Involved in Certain Behaviors “Shall Not Inherit the Kingdom,” 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
The words that are challenged by advocates are “effeminate” (fr. μαλακός, malakos) and “abusers of themselves with mankind” (fr. ἀρσενοκοίτης, arsenokoitēs).
1 Corinthians 6:9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.
The advocates are correct that malakos means “soft” and does not always refer to persons. In Matthew 11:8 (par. Luke 7:25), Jesus asks rhetorically in regard to John the Baptist, “What went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment?” and indeed malakos is used of things such as clothing that are delicate or “dainty.” Here Jesus expresses irony, since John was known to have worn camel’s hair and a leather belt, a marked contrast to dainty clothing.
So far, one might surmise that Paul is saying that people who wear delicate clothing are sinners. But in contemporary literature, as well as Paul’s usage, “dainty” becomes a substantive for persons who dress in a feminized manner, and in fact it is the term of choice for men who take on the feminized, passive, submissive role in a homosexual encounter or relationship (also a catamite or “beloved” in a pederastic relationship). Any doubt that such is the case is dispelled by the word that follows.
Arsenokoitēs is, according to Bauer’s Lexicon and other sources, a compound of arsēn, “male,” and koitē, “bed.” In addition to the obvious connotation of the combination of these terms, in contemporary Greek as in modern English, a reference to “bed” served as a euphemism for sexual activity. It was the arsenokoitēs who undertook the active or dominant role in the homosexual act. Polycarp (A.D. 80–167) echoed Paul’s sentiments in the same words, saying,
Polycarp 5:3 …. For it is a good thing to refrain from lusts in the world, for every lust warreth against the Spirit, and neither whoremongers nor effeminate persons nor defilers of themselves with men shall inherit the kingdom of God, neither they that do untoward things. ….
“Such Were Some of You”
Paul reminds the Corinthians that “such were some of you” (1 Corinthians 6:11), until their repentance and conversion, having afterward laid aside participation in all such activities. While it remains that “the soul that sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4, 20) and “the recompense of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), Jesus ushered in a new era of grace and deferred (rather than immediate and final) judgment for sin. In John 8:3 ff., Jesus forced those who had arrested a woman caught in the act of adultery, intent on her execution, to acknowledge that they had all sinned and needed grace themselves. In Matthew 5:27 ff. he asserted that entertaining sinful thoughts makes people as guilty as following through with sinful acts; or more specifically, a man who lusted after a woman had “already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Hence one concludes, first, that everyone is tempted, which is not in itself a sin, but one must “flee” from it (1 Corinthians 6:18, 2 Timothy 2:22) rather than entertaining it; and second, that conquering temptation through faith, with a will, anyone can be saved and restored to communion with God. Jesus bestowed forgiveness upon the adulterous woman for past sins, but admonished her to “Go, and sin no more.” Likewise, Jesus told a certain man, “Sin no more, lest something worse come upon you” (John 5:14).
John 8:3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, 4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? 6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. 7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. 8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. 9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. 10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? 11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
Matthew 5:27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: 28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. 29 And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. 30 And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. 31 It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: 32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
Law Is Necessary for the Lawless, 1 Timothy 1:9-10
Arsenokoitēs appears again as “them that defile themselves with mankind,” situated just after pornē (“whoremonger,” “fornicator”).
1 Timothy 1:9 Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, 10 For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;
Parallel Lists of Condemned Activities
Paul provides other parallel lists of grievous sins to be abandoned, but which do not include the specific terms for homosexual activity described above. Note that all sexual activity outside the bounds of lawful matrimony is classed as adultery, fornication, or some more specific variation.
Galatians 5:19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, 20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, 21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. 24 And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. 26 Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.
Ephesians 5:5 For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.
Copyright © 2015 Paul A. Hughes
The following is a preview excerpted from Chapter 2, entitled, “. . . Was the Logos,” of the upcoming book, The Fullness That Fills: The Unifying Principle of Biblical Revelation by Paul A. Hughes, M.Div.
In his Gospel, John uses the common Greek concept of the Logos (λόγος), “Word,” to introduce aspects of the Messiah concept to Hellenistic readers.
It is no coincidence that John’s Gospel begins with the same words that initiate Genesis, “In the beginning.” The God who spoke forth the creative Word by which the worlds were made expresses himself not only in Creation but also in his eternal Plan. At the center of this Plan God placed a self-generating and self-determining (“free-will”) creature, i.e., Man, who represents the height of God’s Creation. Man, as the height of God’s self-expressive acts of creation flowing out of his very nature, further presupposes redemption of such a creature who seems predisposed to fall. Connecting the dots, the instrument of redemption from this fall, from the beginning, is a Savior not only commissioned for the task but possessing the divine potency and status to redeem God’s creation. Who would possess status on the level of God’s stature except a participant in, indeed an associate member of the Godhead? John is saying to the Greeks and Hellenistic Jews that this Logos for whom they have been looking, and to whom in their philosophy they have perhaps already related the Messiah, is none other than the one immediately preceded by John the Baptist, preached by him, and by whom was baptized—and who now has become Savior of the world.
Here, this preview omits the following headings:
- “The Personification of Wisdom”
- “‘Son of Man” and ‘Son of God'”
- “‘Firstborn’ and ‘Only-Begotten'”
- “Hellenistic and Rabbinic Speculations”
- “The Logos and the Prologue of John”
“And God Was the Logos“
Therefore, approaching the Prologue of John without a “doubtful mind” toward its origins, let us examine its content in regard to its overall contribution and application to the present study, meanwhile attempting to dispel any misapprehensions or myths.
The Prologue begins as a transparently intentional reflection of Genesis 1. Its first words, en archē, are identical with the Septuagint rendering, along with other verbal correspondences, including its simple modes of verbal expression. The correspondence to the Hebrew original, b’reshith, “in the beginning,” is no less striking. Robinson further notes in detail the verbal correspondences between John 1:1 and 1 John 1:1 f.1 The latter begins with ho ēn ap’ archēs, “that which was from the beginning,” referring not directly to “the Word of Life” (seemingly a personification of Eternal Life in the form of Christ, its giver), but indirectly, by way of that which had been observed of him by the Apostles during his Incarnation. That the Word was (existed) in the beginning obviously signifies preexistence, but by itself neither justifies nor denies the Arian view that Christ was created along with the rest of Creation, or was created, chronologically, first. The Imperfect Tense of the verb “was” does not simply express past action but carries about as much of a continuous sense as is typical of the Present Tense, or at least expresses duration. It is not punctiliar (the opposite of durative), as is the Aorist Tense, expressing action that occurred then ceased at a point in time; nor does it, as in the Perfect Tense, emphasize the action as completed. B. F. Westcott writes, “The ‘being’ of the Word is thus necessarily carried beyond the limits of time, though the pre-existence of the Word is not definitely stated”; hence “was” describes “a continuous state. The imperfect tense suggests in this relation, as far as human language can do so, the notion of absolute, supra-temporal, existence.”2 According to Johnston, “In the beginning the Logos already was, and then at a point of time all things came into being through Him. Thus eternal existence seems to be implied, though not directly asserted.”3 “The former is a ‘being,’ the latter a ‘becoming.'”4 Stevens agrees,
The Word was at the beginning; he existed before the world came into being. It is true that John does not employ the words eternal or eternity in the connection, but we hold that this idea is involved in the logical relation between the terms was and in the beginning. When John speaks of that which comes into existence he uses both a different word and a different tense [panta di’ auton egeneto, etc., 1:8]. All things came into being, but at the beginning of all things, he was.5
More provocative, if only by way of implication, is Christ’s statement of John 8:58, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Oepke purports that in John, “ideas of pre-existence develop almost imperceptibly from the underlying general conception.”6 Let it suffice for now to presume that if Christ is, in his person, the self-expression of God, there was no conceivable time in the past, ad infinitum, that God did not in some way express himself. John Calvin objects to those who “reduce Christ to the common order of the world,” by accounting him to be a created being, giving “insult not only to the Son of God, but to his eternal Father, whom they deprive of his wisdom,” and follows Augustine of Hippo in deprecating “those who conceive of any point of time when he went before his Wisdom,” who thus “deprive him of his glory.”7
Both verses 1 and 2 state that the Logos was pros ton theon, most often translated “with God.” However, pros in this construction overwhelmingly means “toward.”8 T. K. Abbott prefers “with a view to,” perhaps “looking to,” either of which carries much the same thought as “toward.”9 Coupled with the example of pros ton patera (“toward the Father”) in 1 John 1:2, and in contrast to meta tou patros . . . (“with/after the Father,” etc.) in the following verse, Meyer is on solid ground to infer from our passage “the existence of the Logos in God in respect of intercourse.”10 A. T. Robertson states that “The idea seems to be ‘facing,'” comparing pros to German gegen, and suggesting the meaning in John 1:1, “face to face with God.”11 The fact that it is Logos who is the subject and God the object of the preposition seems significant: one conceives the Logos being disposed toward, attentive to, even beholden toward God, whereas God is the focus of that concern. Stevens explains that the choice of the preposition pros over para “emphasizes a direction or tendency of life. The moral movement of his life is centred in God, and ever goes out toward God.” John’s purpose was “to show how the Son is fitted to reveal God to mankind, and it is his essential and eternal relation to the Father which would constitute the ground of that fitness.”12
The phrase commonly translated, “the Word was God,” represents perhaps the stickiest exegetical problem of all, bearing as it does on the fundamental nature of the Godhead in regard to the Trinity. Its meaning hinges upon a deceptively simple but rigid syntactic and semantic construction, including the internal order of its words, such that the depth of its meaning lies beyond the competence of “armchair” interpreters. (Indeed, it has suffered at the hands of many purported “scholars.”) The phrase does not read, “the Word was the God” (ho logos ēn ho theos), which would seem to particularize and equate both God and the Word, but “God was the Word” (theos ēn ho logos). To equate the person of God with the person of the Logos, Meyer notes, is contradicted by pros ton theon in verses 1 and 2, which already distinguishes two persons. Theos “can only be the predicate, not the subject,” so that “The predicate is placed before the subject emphatically (comp. iv. 24 [pneuma ho theos), so that] the progress of the thought [is], ‘He was with God, and (not at all a Person of an inferior nature, but) possessed of a divine nature . . . .'” Thus “John neither desires to indicate, on the one hand, identity of Person with the Father; nor yet, on the other, any lower nature than that which God Himself possesses,” even though the subordination of the Son to the Father is maintained.13 Calvin concurs:
We have already said that the Son of God is thus placed above the world and above all the creatures, and is declared to have existed before all ages. But at the same time this mode of expression attributes to him a distinct personality from the Father; for it would have been absurd in the Evangelist to say that the Speech was always with God, if he had not some kind of subsistence peculiar to himself in God.14
Johnston moreover notes that John uses theos and not ho theos, such that “the thought is rather of the nature of the Logos than of His personality.”15 By virtue of this very strict grammatical construction, John maintains the distinction between God and the Logos and, at the same time, “an identity of essence.”16
From his exalted position beside God, the Logos participated in the creation of all things. As the Word, by which God spoke forth, “Let there be light,” etc., the Logos was not just the personification of a divine faculty, as was Wisdom, but the instrument by which God’s purpose was accomplished. “God is the Creator in the absolute sense, but the Logos is the co-efficient agent of God in creating, sustaining, and governing the world,” wrote Stevens; “All things were created by (dia) him, and for (eis) him,” (Col. 1:16, see also Heb. 1:2).17 (Literally, John 1:3 begins, “All things through (dia) him became,” etc.) That there was nothing done without the presence or instrumentality of the Logos speaks not only of his presence throughout, but his own exclusive status as firstborn and only-begotten. It must also be suggested that this statement further supports his preexistence to Creation since, were he part of “all things,” he could hardly be said to have created himself.
Moreover, John writes panta and not ta panta, the latter suggesting “in a mass” or in “totality”; rather, “each separate thing is the handiwork of the Divine Logos.”18 As shall become clear during the course of this study, original Creation was just the precursor, foundation, or firstfruit of the fullness which is ever bestowed by God on his created beings, and ultimately through Christ on his Church. “And of his fullness we have all received, and grace for grace” (John 1:16).19
“In Him Life Was”
“In him life was,” en autō zōē ēn, “and the life was the light of men,” kai hē zōē ēn to phōs tōn anthropōn. John uses the same Imperfect Tense verb, “was,” used in verses 1 and 2, to express not only a durative state of being full of life, but also in terms of Christ constantly bestowing, through his life, light upon Mankind (and through his light, in turn, life upon Mankind). Robertson describes the sense of the Imperfect as “a sort of moving panorama, a ‘moving-picture show.'”20 Add to this the Present (and durative) sense of “shines” in the following verse, and one may presume that to John, the past endowment of life invested in the Logos endured and was still shining in his own time and beyond.21 Bernard exclaims, “Jn. does not say ‘the Light SHONE,’ but ‘the Light SHINES.'”22
The equation Life = the Light of Men in verse 4 may be explained in terms of John 8:12: Christ as Light of the World conveys the light of the truth of the Gospel, able to bring life to those who follow him (see also 9:5). In 3:14 ff., Christ has provided for Eternal Life, but those who choose evil hate and reject the light. Those who fail to walk in the light stumble (11:9 f.), hence should do their walking while they have the light (12:35 f.). Since Christ lights the world, Men need not walk in darkness (12:46). Eternal Life stems from knowing God and Christ (17:3, et al.). “Life was that which existed in Him, of which He was full,” writes Meyer.23
Men should walk in the light because God is light (1 Jn. 1:5 ff.). Not only does Life = the Light of Men, but John maintains a strict dichotomy (or dualism) between darkness = sin, versus light = goodness and truth. “Light and darkness in the prologue, and in the Gospel elsewhere, are not abstract metaphysical conceptions, but ethical conceptions,” concludes Stevens. “Darkness is sin, and light is goodness.”24
In verses 7 and 8, Light is personified, obviously as a metaphor for the One who gives light, in terms of spiritual, arguably even intellectual enlightenment (“If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” Jn. 8:31 f.). John the Baptist had only represented God’s light in a metaphorical sense (Jn. 5:35) as one who conveyed the “light” of Gospel truth consciously and intellectually (i.e., the message); but in doing so, he refers to the One and Only who is himself the personification of that truth (Jn. 1:6 ff., see also 1:15, 26 ff.), as well as of the Eternal Life which that truth conveys. Just as “In the beginning,” echoes Genesis 1:1, references to Jesus as “that Light” in John 1:4 ff. echo the creation of light in Genesis 1:3.25
The next few verses proceed in logical, not chronological order. (Some interpreters delay consideration of the Incarnation until verse 14, whereas verses 10 and 11, “He was in the world,” etc., obviously refer to Christ’s Incarnation, as well.) John’s point is the acceptance or rejection by “his own” versus “as many as”—those believing and accepting him—being granted the gift of “power” (exousia, “authority,” “right,” “ability,” not dunamis, “power,” “might,” “ability”)26 to acquire sonship through believing.
Both the concepts light and sonship through new birth (“born of God,” Jn. 1:13) are paralleled by Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus in John chapter 3 as he marvels that a “teacher of Israel” could remain ignorant of spiritual rebirth. Christ speaks of the things “which we know” and “which we have seen,” amounting to the light of the Gospel which has been received, and equivalent to those “heavenly things” which cannot be understood except by way of faith in the Son of Man, who “came down from heaven” (3:10, 12 f.).27 Yet the choice is Man’s, to “hate the light” and avoid it in an attempt to evade conviction, or to “do truth” and “come to the light” to display works of God wrought through faith (3:20 f.). The “light” has nevertheless been provided if Man will accept it. Johnston considers that “every man” refers to “Not all men in the mass, but every individual receives his own share of the Logos-light.”28 “But the Light, while it is the prerogative of men, is the possession of all men. If it is limited to men, it is not limited to any one section of humanity. The Light is diffused everywhere. It shineth in the darkness.”29 Johnston concludes,
The separation of the world from God is not the result of any inherent law of the universe, but the result of sin, the moral choice of human free will. The divine order of the universe is that in which the Logos-life and the Logos-light should everywhere be present and potent. But it is in the power of man’s free will, as we shall see in vv. 10, ii, to violate and oppose this divine order. The activity of the Logos is thwarted, though it is not defeated, by the sinfulness and selfishness of man. Sin is a deliberate shutting out of the Logos-light, and a remaining in the darkness and isolation of self.30
The above thoughts perhaps help interpret “the light of men” (Jn. 1:4) and “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (1:9). Everyone has been provided with a measure of light, but not all receive it, and not all light is “true light.” As Jesus said,
The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness. Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not darkness. If thy whole body therefore be full of light, having no part dark, the whole shall be full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth give thee light (Lk. 11:34–36).
For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind. And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also? Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth (Jn. 9:39–41).
“And the Logos was made flesh, and dwelt (“tabernacled”) among us” (Jn. 1:13).
“Tabernacle” (skēnē or skēnōma) literally means “tent” or similar structure, the implication being that of a temporary, short-term, or perhaps unsubstantial dwelling. The word is used in the Septuagint to describe the original “tent of witness/testimony” (as Ex. 38:21) or “tent of the congregation” (as Ex. 39:32), but was sometimes applied later to the temples that replaced it, even a future heavenly one. Still “tabernacle” is differentiated from a temple referred to as a “house” (as 1 Chr. 6:32), and God declared his intention, up till the establishment of David’s kingdom under Solomon, to have no permanent dwelling place (1 Chr. 17:3 ff.), further implying the transitory nature of tabernacles. At the Transfiguration, Peter suggested that they erect tabernacles for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, respectively (Mt. 17:4 and parallels), probably thinking more in terms of temporary resting places, by way of hospitality, than shrines (for which substantiality would seem more appropriate, but which would also be problematic in terms of Jewish religious prohibitions against idolatry and competition with the Jerusalem Temple). The idea of a tabernacle became a metaphor for the mortal body, with emphasis on the transient nature of human existence and a preference for future immortality (2 Cor. 5:1 ff., 2 Peter 1:13 f.). Meyer notes that the tabernacle was the place where God’s shekinah was revealed, which in his mind is reflected in John’s statement, “we beheld his glory” (Jn. 1:14).31
After another use of the Imperfect Tense (“He was in the world,” 1:10), the last segment of the Prologue now presents us with a spate of Aorist Tense verbs. Zerwick and Grosvenor account “tabernacled” in verse 14 to be either an inceptive (also called ingressive) use of the aorist, i.e., he “took up his abode (incarnation)”; or a constative (global) use, i.e., he “dwelt among us (earthly life).”32 Robertson classes the same verb a constative aorist, which carries the basic connotation of the Aorist Tense, that of expressing action simply taking place at a point in time (hence, “punctiliar”). “The ‘constative’ aorist,” he explains, “just treats the act as a single whole entirely irrespective of the parts or time involved.” He assigns diverse usages to the other verbs in the passage. “Know” in verse 10, “received” in verse 12, and “became” in verse 14, are ingressive aorist, emphasizing the beginning of the action. Robertson describes “beheld” in verse 14 and “received” in verse 16 as examples of the effective (or resultative) use of the Aorist, in which the conclusion of the action is emphasized.33
Regardless, John’s choice of tense in this passage makes it clear that in his mind, all the action that he describes is accomplished—”done, and done”: hence, by the Word the world became (accomplished). The world did not know him (accomplished). He came unto his own (accomplished), but his own did not receive him (accomplished). But all who received him (accomplished), he gave power (accomplished) to become sons of God (accomplished). From God, those who believe in him were born (accomplished). The Word became flesh (accomplished) and dwelt among us (accomplished). We beheld his glory (accomplished). From his fullness we have all received (accomplished). The Law, Moses gave (accomplished), but grace and truth through Jesus Christ became (accomplished). No one has seen God, but the only-begotten Son declared him (accomplished). Thus John sees Christ’s work, in terms of a new Creation through his Incarnation, to be finished. In Christ’s own words,
My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work (Jn 4:34).
But I have greater witness than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me. And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape (Jn. 5:36 f.).
I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do (Jn. 17:4).
It is finished (Jn. 19:30).
With the words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mt. 3:2 and parallels), the Baptist had launched the New Testament Gospel; and by baptizing Jesus, inaugurated the Church Age, the Age of the Indwelling Spirit. “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17, see also Mk. 1:14 f.). In Christ’s revelation of himself as the Logos, moreover, he has revealed God’s unfathomable grace toward Man. The age is to be that of “grace and truth,” drawing upon the fullness of the risen Christ, and the worship to be “in Spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:23 f.), according to his example and his commandments. For these purposes, God through Christ provided the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, as the resource for spiritual enablement and the continuing bestowal of grace. Hence Paul applies the term charismata (“graces,” “grace things”) to miraculous, spiritual manifestations of grace.
“We became sharers, in the plenitude of divine blessing which came to the world in Christ, and, in consequence, one gift of grace has succeeded another,” Stevens summarizes, with reference to “grace upon grace” (charis anti charitos) in Jn 1:16.34 Contrary to popular conception, the preposition anti does not usually mean “against.” Often it carries the connotation of substitution or exchange, perhaps “equivalence.”35 Compare “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth” (Mt. 5:38), and “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (Rom. 12:17). According to Robertson, its “etymological picture” is “face to face,” suggesting the image of two men carrying a log while facing each other.36 In regard to its use in John 1:16, Zerwick and Grosvenor suggest the “idea of succession rather than substitution, one grace after another, grace upon grace.”37 Robertson does not disagree: “As the days come and go a new supply takes the place of the grace already bestowed as wave follows wave upon the shore. Grace answers (α̉ντὶ) to grace.”38
1 John A. T. Robinson, “The Relation of the Prologue to the Gospel of St John,” New Testament Studies 9 (January 1963):123 f.
2 Brooke Foss Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John: The Greek Text with Introduction and Notes, vol. I (London: John Murray, 1908), p. 5.
3 J. S. Johnston, The Philosophy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study of the Logos-Doctrine: Its Sources and Its Significance (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1909), p. 21.
4 Johnston, p. 27.
5 George B. Stevens, The Johannine Theology: A Study of the Doctrinal Contents of the Gospel and Epistles of the Apostle John (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894), p. 89.
6 Oepke, “Eis,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. II, p. 423. See further on preexistence, F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), pp. 60 ff.
7 John Calvin, Commentary on the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to John, vol. I, trans. William Pringle, The Calvin New Translations, Instituted A. D. 1843 for the Publication of the Works of John Calvin in English (Edinburgh: Printed for the Calvin Translation Society, 1847), pp. 27 f.
8 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), pp. 622 ff.
9 T. K. Abbott, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1916) p. 276 f.
10 Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Gospel of John, Vol. I, 2d ed., trans. William Urwick, trans. rev. and ed. Frederick Crombie, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Part II, ed. William P. Dickson and Frederick Crombie (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1883), p. 67; see also Johnston, p. 23.
11 Robertson, p. 623. The Centenary Translation of the New Testament, trans. Helen Barrett Montgomery (The American Baptist Publication Society, 1924), concurs with “face to face with God.”
12 Stevens, p. 90.
13 Meyer, pp. 67 f.
14 Calvin, p. 28.
15 Johnston, p. 25.
16 Stevens, p. 91.
17 Stevens, p. 93. Dia, “by” or “through,” instead of the locative en, “in,” or the instrumental en, “by.” Eis, normatively translated “into” or “unto,” often conveys purpose or result, e.g., “for the purpose of.”
18 Johnston, p. 28.
19 See Stevens, p. 96.
20 Robertson, p. 883. He notes, pp. 882 f., that the aorist form for “was” (ēn) is identical, but a punctiliar sense hardly fits the passage at hand.
21 Aorist “comprehended” is, in relation to present-tense “shines,” perhaps an example of a “timeless Aorist.” This accords well with Westcott’s earlier description of a “supra-temporal” sense; nevertheless, its normative action would be punctiliar, though sometimes translatable as Present Indicative, see Robertson, pp. 842 f.
22 J. H. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John, The International Critical Commentary, ed. A. H. McNeile, vol. I (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929), p. 5.
23 Meyer, p. 71.
24 Stevens, p. 100.
25 See Peder Borgen, “Logos Was the True Light: Contributions to the Interpretation of the Prologue of John,” Novum Testamentum 14 (April 1972):124.
26 See Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed., trans. and adapted by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, rev. and aug. by F. Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (The Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), under exousia and dunamis, respectively.
27 Verses 11–13 probably refer to Dt. 30:11-14, in which Moses declared that the Hebrews need not wonder about God’s will, and imagine that they need to send a prophet to fetch and inquire into it, since it has already been delivered to them in the Law, if only they believe and obey. To this text Paul refers, Rom. 10:6 ff., specifically in reference to acquiring the righteousness which is by faith—which lately had been declared in the Gospel, but ought to have been understood already from the examples of Abraham and the intent of Moses’ Law. Christ, after this reference, proceeds immediately to cite the example of the brazen serpent of Numbers 21, which demonstrated salvation by faith in response to obedience to God’s command.
28 Johnston, p. 35.
29 Johnston, p. 29.
30 Johnston, p. 32.
31 Meyer, John, p. 89.
32 Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament, rev. (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1981), commentary to the verse cited. On ingressive aorist, see Robertson, p. 829.
33 Robertson, pp. 829, 832, 834.
34 Stevens, p. 96.
35 Robertson, pp. 573 f.
36 Robertson, p. 573.
37 Zerwick and Grosvenor, commentary to the verse cited.
38 Robertson, p. 574.
Copyright ©2015 by Paul A. Hughes
The following is to be added to the original Part 7—Epilogue of my blog series, “Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism,” hence included in Chapter 7 of the resulting print version, Neoplatonist Stew: Or, How Sacramentalism, Mysticism, and Theurgy Corrupted Christian Theology. The paperback print version, with other additions, is now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online booksellers.
Advocates and defenders of John Wesley (1703–1791) are quick to assert that any elements of Neoplatonism and Mysticism within the order of the Anglican Church were well-known and acknowledged, suitably dealt-with, and adequately mitigated. It is moreover suggested that Wesley, if accused of harboring any such influences, hardly introduced them himself. John Cassian, as mentioned in Chapter 6 of Neoplatonist Stew, had introduced Evagrius to the Western Church, and “had physically brought back with him Basil’s Institutes, a work which would serve as a model for western monastic rules, including Benedict’s.” These ideas significantly influenced Thomas á Kempis and later mystics, including the Jansenists and Port-Royalists, “their Augustinian orientation notwithstanding.”1
By the Seventeenth Century, English intellectuals and divines had rediscovered many works of the Eastern Mystics, and began to publish new editions. The “Cambridge Platonists,” in particular, turned away from Aristotle and Scholasticism and renewed interest in Plato.2 Anglicanism, seeking a “middle way” (via media) of compromise between salvation by faith alone and salvation by works, found especially in the works of John Chrysostom a “forgotten strand of theosis,” as Steve McCormick describes it, in the guise of “divine-human participation.”3 But then, Thomas Cranmer, in the time of Henry VIII, had already incorporated Neoplatonic “participation” into the Book of Common Prayer, namely, his homilies “Of Salvation,” “Of the True, Lively and Christian Faith,” and “Of Good Works Annexed Unto Faith.” Together, these comprise the formal expression of Anglican soteriology.4 In 1738, John Wesley abridged Cranmer’s three homilies into “his first doctrinal manifesto.”5
The son of an Anglican rector (local priest), Wesley was steeped in Anglicanism, which he never abandoned. His father, Samuel, particularly enamored of Chrysostom, urged his son to obtain a copy of Chrysostom’s work, On the Priesthood (De sacerdotia), with the words, “Master it: digest it”; and later, “Master St. Chrysostom, our Articles and the form of Ordination.” “If I were to preach in Greek,” Samuel wrote, “St. Chrysostom should be my master.”6 John was further encouraged to study the Church Fathers, especially those of the first three centuries of the Christian era, by John Clayton, an accomplished Patristics scholar.7
Wesley learned from his father to appreciate the ancient pastoral theologians: Chrysostom, Basil, Athanasius and Cyprian (Advice to a Young Clergyman).8
Wesley later recommended the Eastern Fathers, and borrowed heavily from Chrysostom in his own Address to Clergy (1756).9 He wrote, for instance,
Can any who spend several years in those seats of learning, be excused, if they do not add to that of the languages and sciences, the knowledge of the Fathers? The most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with that Spirit by whom “all Scripture was given?” It will be easily perceived, I speak chiefly of those who wrote before the Council of Nice[a]. But who would not likewise desire to have some acquaintance with those that followed them? With St. Chrysostom, Basil, Jerome, [Augustine]; and above all, that man of a broken heart, Ephraim Syrus?10
In his writings and preaching, Wesley “Frequently cited … Basil, Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria, Clement of Rome, Ephraem Syrus, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Origen, Polycarp and (Pseudo-)Macarius.” The latter, Pseudo-Macarius, was to become a significant influence on Wesley’s doctrines: in particular, those of “Prevenient Grace” and “Christian Perfection.” While Wesley at times differs with Macarius in details, clearly “the similarities are much stronger than the differences ….”11
Wesley himself described several of the other early influences on his devotional life as well as his theology:
In the year 1725, being in the twenty-third year of my age, I met with Bishop Taylor’s Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying. In reading several parts of this book, I was exceedingly affected with that part in particular which relates to purity of intention….
In the year 1726, I met with Kempis’s ‘Christian Pattern.’ The nature and extent of inward religion, the religion of the heart, now appeared to me in a stronger light than ever it had done before. I saw, that giving even all my life to God, (supposing it possible to do this and go no farther,) would profit me nothing, unless I gave my heart, yea, all my heart, to him. I saw that ‘simplicity of intention and purity of affection,’ one design in all we speak or do, and one desire, ruling all our tempers, are indeed ‘the wings of the soul,’ without which she can never ascend to the mount of God.
A year or two after, Mr. Law’s ‘Christian Perfection,’ and ‘Serious Call,’ were put into my hands. These convinced me, more than ever, of the absolute impossibility of being half a Christian.12
Over the course of his life, Wesley utilized a great many recent secondary works that applied Eastern principles, and (as we shall see) created others of his own. Kempis he found too pessimistic: “I cannot think, that when God sent us into the world, he had irreversibly decreed, that we should be perpetually miserable in it,”13 yet Wesley largely embraced his concepts of self-abnegation and ascent. William Law had been a mentor to John and his brother Charles.14 Law and Jeremy Taylor were both attempting to construct “patristic primitivist syntheses of the virtuous Christian life, viewing it developmentally.”15 Law had visited the Wesley home on many occasions and had a profound effect on the siblings, such that Charles Wesley suggested much later, “Mr. Law was our John the Baptist.”16 Law was one of the select individuals that John Wesley consulted before committing to his Georgia mission.17
Wesley’s enthusiasm for William Beveridge further exposed him to Chrysostom, the two combining to serve as the apparent origin of his conception of restoring the image of God (ultimately Platonic) by virtue of the “energy of love.”
Wesley found this notion, which is, again, the eastern idea of theosis, of divine-human participation, a characteristic note in the homilies of Chrysostom, and in the liturgy, the homilies, and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England. Wesley was to take that motif of divine-human participation in the via salutis and weave it throughout his ordo salutis [i.e., integrate a Neoplatonic “way of salvation” into his conception of the “order of salvation”].18
Sailing for Georgia aboard the Simmonds, 1735, Wesley busied himself studying the German language, along with devotional reading and his accustomed Christian disciplines. He had managed to procure a library of over sixty volumes, many of them of recent Anglican authorship, but also including Beveridge’s Pandectae, William Cave’s Primitive Christianity, and a large assortment of Eastern liturgical works.19 It was probably Cave’s book that introduced him to Pseudo-Macarius and Ephraim of Syria. Thus Wesley absorbed Neoplatonic ideas “about the stages of divine ascent, holiness of heart, progressive perfection, and the affective manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.”20
During a particularly severe storm at sea, he was highly impressed by the calmness displayed by the Moravians on board. He had already studied the mystic work, Theologica Germanica.21 Arriving in Georgia, he was similarly impressed by Rev. Spangenberg, of Savannah, but hedged when the Moravian asked him, “Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” to which Wesley weakly replied, “I know He is the Saviour of the world,” and “I hope He has died to save me.”22 In spite of his Christian disciplines, Wesley had been all full of doubts all through the voyage. Later still, he wrote in his journal,
It is now two years and almost four months since I left my native country in order to teach the Georgian Indians the nature of Christianity. But what have I learned myself in the meantime? Why (what I the least of all suspected), that I, who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God.23
During the subsequent debacle in Georgia, Wesley obtained a Moravian hymnal, and spent three to five hours a day translating and adapting, in all, thirty-three German hymns, according to his own purposes and inclinations. Among these was the Gerhard Tersteegen hymn, rendered in English, “Thou Hidden Love of God, Whose Height,” one of four by Tersteegen that he translated, and the one most often published thereafter in English hymnals.24 One commentator suggests that “this hymn might be seen as one of the clearest reflections of Wesley’s own spiritual yearning….”25 (Yearning appears to be a common indicator of mystic propensities and appeal.) Meanwhile, Wesley also took the opportunity to experiment with new forms of liturgy, which confused and offended his congregation. A local magistrate scolded, “The people … say they are Protestants. But as for you, they cannot tell what religion you are of.”26
The Methodist mission to Georgia was a fiasco. Charles proved a maladroit secretary to General Oglethorpe; John, a tactless pastor, Ingham and Delamotte, ineffectual assistants.27
In 1738, abandoning Georgia under a cloud, Wesley returned to England, where he and Charles almost immediately became involved with the Fetter Lane Moravian group. That May, he had an emotional experience that he counted as his belated conversion, and by September, he was off to visit the German Pietists at Herrnhut.
The representatives of this tradition who influenced Wesley began with the Dominican mysticism of Johann Tauler (1300-1361), and proceeded to the distinctive Reformed spirituality of Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769).”28
Always seeking his own “assurance of faith,” Wesley asked one Arvid Gradin to provide, in writing, his definition of the concept. Gradin’s reply concluded with, “a deliverance from every fleshly desire, and a cessation of all, even inward sins”—it would seem, as it did to Wesley, a confirmation of his own developing view of Perfection.29 “Spiritually bankrupt, without peace and joy or the assurance of salvation, he embraced the Moravian approach to ‘faith alone’ and ‘full salvation.'”30 On the negative side, Wesley found Herrnhut to be in the midst of controversy with the brethren at Halle. The Hallensians regarded the necessity of an extended “penitential struggle” (Bußkampf) leading eventually to a “breakthrough” (Durchbruch) to gain assurance of saving faith, whereas the Herrnhuters had gravitated toward a quick and easy, “affective” acceptance.31 Wesley soon became disenchanted with their polemics and with Count von Zinzendorf, thereafter distancing himself from the Moravians.32 “The English writers,” he wrote, “such as Bishop Beveridge, Bishop Taylor, and Mr. Nelson, a little relieved me from these well-meaning, wrong-headed Germans.”33 Yet he continued to value many of the German Pietist hymns, especially those of Tersteegen.34
Through Wesley, it has been said, Tersteegen’s spirituality has reached millions of English-speaking people. John Nuelson, a German Methodist, granted that Wesley’s dissemination of German hymns had strongly influenced the Methodists’ doctrine of Perfection. With Tersteegen’s ideas came the influence of French Quietists, English Philadelphians, and Berleburg Bible Pietists, along with all the Patristic, mystical, and ascetic works that Tersteegen had translated and edited. He spoke in terms of a Seelengrund (a term garnered from Eckhart and Tauler), an “inward soul” capable of longing for God. This inward soul may possess an “inward inclination” (Grundneigung) able to respond to the “wooing” of Christ’s Prevenient Grace (as Wesley would perceive it), such that it “makes room” (Raum gebe) for God’s presence. From that Seelengrund, Christ purposes “to expand His gracious influence to encompass the cognitive, volitional, affective, and relational aspects of one’s existence,”35 in other words, spiritual formation. Yet Tersteegen, in spite of other Plotinian affinities, discouraged seekers from introspection, that being idolatry; rather to “turn your inward eye from yourself,” fixing one’s gaze on Christ.36 He considered the imputation of righteousness to be instantaneous, but the transformation to Christ-likeness to be progressive (contra Wesley), the goal being to renew in believers the image of Christ (so also Wesley).37
Besides Tersteegen, Pseudo-Macarius and Ephraim of Syria were particular favorites of Wesley, from whom he sought devotional material and theological fodder, mining for ideas and modes of expression. Besides his aforementioned contribution to Prevenient Grace, Macarius further contributed to Wesley’s soteriology (as had Tersteegen)—one point of difference being “that Wesley understood perfection primarily as an identifiable, instantaneously-achieved state, while Macarius emphasized the tenacious entrenchment of sin in even the most mature Christian and the constant need to seek God through prayer.”38 “This great gift of God,” Wesley wrote, “the salvation of our souls, is no other than the image of God fresh stamped on our hearts. It is a ‘renewal of believers in the spirit of their minds, after the likeness of Him that created them.'”39 Certainly Wesley’s views on grace appear to be more closely derived from Macarius and Eastern theology in general than from, as one might expect, Arminius.40 Wesley, one will note, believed that the Fifty Spiritual Homilies were the work of “Macarius of Egypt,” a fourth-century Desert Father, rather than a pseudonymous writer now widely purported to have been a fifth-century Syrian monk, strongly influenced by Gregory of Nyssa.41
Wesley’s exposure to Ephraim of Syria, whom he called “the man of the broken heart,” goes back to his Holy Club days at Oxford. Ephraim taught self-abnegation, contemplation, theosis, and an ante-Nicene view of man yearning to return to an “angelic” original state. Michael Christensen and Randy Maddox suggest that Ephraim’s “luminous eye” figure “is similar to if not the source of Wesley’s doctrine of ‘spiritual senses'” (a concept to which Tersteegen probably also contributed, see above). “Spiritual senses,” to Wesley, include the faculty of perceiving assurance, both of salvation and Perfection.42
Wesley, it is noted, mitigated the theosis of Macarius and Ephraim, emphasizing a divine work of grace through love that he posited in the negation of the power of sin and perfection of human intent. When Wesley edited the Homilies of Macarius for his Christian Library series, he excised references to theosis as well as asceticism.43
In regard to Perfection, Wesley expressed concern to his brother Charles that the latter, by aiming at theosis, was setting the bar of holiness too high to be realistically attainable.44 Wesley, says McCormick, had gradually come to understand soteriology in the anthropological terms of a “Biblical eudaemonism,” by which man seeks holiness because in holiness man is most happy.45 Albert Outler suggests that Wesley repositioned the “ladder” of Perfection, after his own scheme, toward becoming “like” God, but short of becoming a god.46 This effectively “domesticated” or even “democratized” the (Plotinian) ascent that Eastern Mystics had taught, making “perfection” an “attainable goal.”47 In Wesley’s defense, David Bundy insists that he “took much of the [Anglican] synthesis [of Eastern theology] out of the academy, church and cloister and brought it to the people” and “adapted that synthesis in structures of discipline and accountability for laity; and who modeled what he preached.”48 It was “Methodists in America,” Outler asserts, who “contributed to a very considerable confusion by interpreting ‘perfection’ in terms of ‘the second blessing’ or ‘entire sanctification as a state of grace distinct from justification, attainable instantaneously by faith.'”49
Wesley’s writings reflect many more Eastern Mystic influences besides these three. It is widely recognized (not without considerable dispute, in regard to extent as well as provenance), that Wesley based his tract, The Character of a Methodist, and also a published poem, “On Clemens Alexandrinus’s Description of a Perfect Christian” on Clement’s picture of the “Perfect Gnostic” (from Stromateis, Book 7, see also Chapter 6 of Neoplatonist Stew). Bundy suggests that Wesley might have been exposed to Clement’s ideas secondarily through publishing a certain book by Anthony Horneck, and that the poem might rather be attributable to John Gambold.50 But in a letter to Lloyd’s Evening Post, Wesley himself stated, “Five or six and thirty years ago, I much admired the character of a perfect Christian drawn up by Clemens Alexandrinus. Five or six and twenty years ago, a thought came to my mind, of drawing such a character myself, only in a more scriptural manner, and mostly in the very words of Scripture ….”51 Similarly, Wesley “plagiarized” (Bundy’s word) John Williams’ book, A Catechism Truly Representing the Doctrines and Practices of the Church of Rome, with an Answer Thereto, in his work of similar title; and Beveridge’s Sunodikon, sive Pandectae Canonum 55. Apostolorum et Conciliorum Ecclesia Graeca Receptorum “provided grist” for Wesley’s “mill.”52 In fact, the extent of Wesley’s interest in affective Eastern spirituality is demonstrable from many of the books he chose to “extract and abridge” in his fifty-volume A Christian Library collection, first published in 1750.53
Disenchanted with the German Mystics, wary of asceticism and apathy, doubtful of the possibility of theosis, he nevertheless mined them for useful ideas yet shied away from unqualified endorsement. In time, Wesley even broke with his past mentor William Law.54 Around 1734, Law had become an admirer of self-taught Theosophist and Mystic Jakob Böhme, who laid claim to a series of visions. In his evolving circumspection, Wesley seems to follow once again the example of Tersteegen, who turned away, even within his own circles, from potential antinomianism and the “excessive ecstasy that he perceived could degenerate into idolatrous self-edification or even demonic torment.”55 Wesley, however, “nonetheless remained in dialogue with these early mentors, edited and ‘corrected’ them, and recommended them throughout his life.”56
The results of this “programmatic”57 selectivity appears to reveal a considered determination not to publish, for the most part, primary works by Eastern Mystics. Primary works are largely absent within the corpus, for which were substituted secondary works of modern provenance. “Wesley preferred to edit and present the works of the [Anglican] and continental interpreters of the ancient texts rather than to edit and present the ancient texts themselves!” admits Bundy.58 Further, Wesley “reconstructed” mystical works, says Christensen, by replacing implications of theosis in Eastern theology with his own formulation and conception of Perfection, or effectively hiding it.59 For example, when he published twenty-two of Macarius’ Spiritual Homilies in A Christian Library, “Wesley consistently omitted references to ascetic life and to the notion of theosis….”60 As Frank Baker describes his modus operandi, Wesley’s editing “mainly involved choice, striking his pen through passages in printed works, changing the words and phrases, and supplying written links from time to time.”
After considerable hesitation he resolved to leave his human sources uncited, ‘that nothing might divert the mind of the reader’ from the brief notes themselves. He omitted without comment statements with which he did not agree. All his quotations and allusions, however, rephrased as they were in simpler language, honestly sought to represent the essence of his sources.61
The extent of Wesley’s editing and revisionism of such works (for less it cannot justly be called) is clearly demonstrated in the following passage from Macarius that diametrically contradicts Wesley’s doctrine of attainable Perfection:
So this man confesses that he is not perfect or altogether free from sin. He says that the middle wall of partition has been broken through and shattered, and yet, at some point not wholly broken, nor at all times. There are moments when grace kindles up and comforts and refreshes more fully; there are moments when it retreats and clouds over, according as grace itself manages for the man’s advantage. But who is there that has come to the perfect measure at particular seasons, and has tasted and had direct experience of that world? A perfect Christian man, one completely free, I have not yet seen. Although one and another is at rest in grace, and enters into mysteries and revelations and into much sweetness of grace, still sin is yet present within. By reason of the exceeding grace and of the light that is in them, men consider themselves free and perfect; but inexperience deceives them. They are under the influence of grace, but I have never yet seen a man that is free. I myself at times have in part come to that measure, and I have learned to know that it does not constitute a perfect man.62
The “extracted” version of this homily, published by Wesley in A Christian Library, bears little resemblance to the independent translation above, and does not contain this particular passage at all, as such.63 “Wesley, in appropriating the idea of theosis and constructing his doctrine of Christian perfection, found that the Church Fathers required editing.”64
The logical conclusion of these factors is that Wesley effectively obscured, perhaps to himself as well, elements of Neoplatonic Mysticism that contributed to his doctrines of Prevenient Grace and Perfection, in some cases by failing to recognize them for what they were, and in other cases by carefully editing out overt references to the most objectionable concepts. This consequence has unfortunately served, due to Wesley’s abiding popularity and influence, to introduce and establish erroneous views of Sanctification and related issues within a large segment of Christianity, including, via the Holiness Movement, some Perfectionist and Legalistic strains of Pentecostalism.
Even beyond this conclusion, problems associated with Wesley’s exegesis must still be addressed, for which purpose three brief examples will suffice. Wesley uses the term, “the energy of love,” to describe the “divine initiative” of God’s Prevenient Grace, the “divine-human participation” by which man may attain Perfection.65 Wesley engages Galatians 5:6, in particular, as a prooftext for this “energy” terminology. However, any first-year Greek student knows that while energein is indeed the etymological source for the English word, “energy,” the Greek word literally means “work.” Therefore, Theodore Runyon is mistaken in supposing Wesley’s rendition to be “a literal translation” of the text,66 which actually reads, “faith working through love.” Contextually, righteousness rather comes by the instrumentality of faith (Gal 2:16, 3:6, 5:5, et al.), because of love; hence it is faith, not love, that does the work (and arguably faith is cognitive and volitional; not affective, as in the case of many definitions of love). Wesley’s appropriation of the phrase, “energy of love,” as well as the concept, can be traced back, again, to Chrysostom.67
Second, being challenged regarding the statement by James (3:2) that “we all stumble in many things,” Wesley claims that “we” is just a “figure of speech,” that James “could not possibly include himself,” but rather refers “Not [to] apostles, nor true believers,” but to others who will “receive the greater condemnation.”68 These claims are devoid of textual justification; rather, are obvious rationalizations and impositions on the text due to preconceptions (“analogy of faith,” doctrinal construct) that are clearly contradicted by the passage.
Third, in prooftexting from John’s first epistle, by which he argues that a person who has achieved Perfection cannot sin (or does not sin),69 Wesley falls prey to errors common to “armchair” interpreters of that book, in particular: failing to account for the idiosyncrasies and alleged Hebraisms (too complex to detail here) inherent to it, but certainly including John’s propensity for black-and-white dualisms and pointed use of the perfect participle. Most interpreters agree that John is describing those who make a regular practice of sin, or whose activities are by virtue of their unregenerated nature always characterized by sin, in contrast to the Regenerated. Worse, Wesley makes in this same context a claim upon Kingdom promises (Zech 12:8), saying, “The kingdom of heaven is now set up on earth.” Thus he reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of eschatology, since the “fullness of the Kingdom” (including not only future glory but Perfection) will not come about till the Eschaton, the End. Elsewhere, among other examples, Wesley likewise fails to interpret Psalm 103:8, on the ultimate redemption of Israel, and 1 John 3:8, regarding Christ’s complete work in overcoming sin and death, eschatologically.70
In fact, a studied perusal of Wesley’s signature work, A Plain Account on Christian Perfection, on the whole reveals its proofs to amount to an exercise in unenlightened prooftexting—all done, one hopes, in ingenuous simplicity, by reason of the inadequate hermeneutical theory and tools of the day. Nevertheless, one cannot escape the inevitable conclusion that as a result of his long-term quest for personal, affective assurance, Wesley produced a compromise, “designer” religion that, however it might have shaded his exegesis, served his purposes more than it offended his strict British sensibilities.
1 David Bundy, “Christian Virtue: John Wesley and the Alexandrian Tradition,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 26 (1991):142.
2 Mark Goldie, ‘Cambridge Platonists (act. 1630s–1680s),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2013 (http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/theme/94274, accessed March 27, 2014). The Cambridge Platonists might have had fairly direct influence on John Wesley through his father, whose friend was John Norris, see Bundy, p. 142.
3 K. Steve McCormick, “Theosis in Chrysostom and Wesley: An Eastern Paradigm on Faith and Love,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 26 (1991):49-50.
4 Ibid., p. 66, see also 67.
5 Ibid., p. 67.
6 Ibid., p. 50.
7 Albert C. Outler, ed., John Wesley (NY: Oxford University Press, 1964; paperback, 1980), p. 9, and Michael J. Christensen, “Theosis and Sanctification: John Wesley’s Reformulation of a Patristic Doctrine,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31/2 (Fall 1996):75.
8 Christensen, p. 75.
9 McCormick, p. 50, Christensen, p. 74.
10 John Wesley, The Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. John Wesley (NY: J. & J. Harper, 1828), p. 70, also quoted from another source in McCormick, pp. 50-51.
11 Randy L. Maddox, “John Wesley and Eastern Orthodoxy: Influences, Convergences, and Differences,” Asbury Theological Journal 45/2 (1990):30, 31, 35; see also Outler, pp. 9-10, and Christensen, p. 74.
12 Henry Moore, The Life of the Rev. John Wesley, A. M., vol. I (London: Printed for John Kershaw, 1824), p. 161. Regarding “purity of intention,” Runyon writes, “If the intention is right, this is what really counts [to Wesley]. ‘Intention’ was a theme important to him from his 1725 self-dedication onward,” Theodore Runyon, “The New Creation: A Wesleyan Distinctive,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31/2 (Fall 1996):12.
13 Moore., p. 124.
14 Christensen, p. 75.
15 Bundy, p. 141.
16 Moore, p. 107.
17 Ibid., p. 234, see also 190.
18 Ibid., p. 54.
19 Outler, p. 12, Christensen, p. 75.
20 Christensen, pp. 76, 85.
21 Moore, p. 190, Bundy, p. 142.
22 From Chapter 6 of John Telford, The Life of John Wesley (http://Wesley.nnu-edu/?id=88, accessed April 2, 2014). This passage is apparently taken from a printing other than that of 1900, in which this and some other passages do not appear.
23 Ibid., see also McCormick, p. 48.
24 J. Steven O’Malley, “Pietistic Influence on John Wesley: Wesley and Gerhard Tersteegen” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31/2 (Fall 1996):49, 65, 66.
25 O’Malley, p. 57 f.
26 Outler, pp. 12-13, see also Bundy, p. 141.
27 Ibid., p. 11.
28 O’Malley, p. 49.
29 John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, in Wesley and Fletcher, Entire Sanctification Attainable in This Life (London: Charles H. Kelly, 1898), p. 11.
30 Christensen, p. 76.
31 O’Malley, p. 51.
32 Tersteegen had previously questioned von Zinzendorf’s self-interest and possible antinomianism, O’Malley, p. 57.
33 Moore, p. 343.
34 O’Malley, p. 53, see also 57.
35 Ibid., pp. 49, 57-61.
36 Ibid., p. 69, incl. note 77, referring to L. G. Harvey, ed., Tersteegen, Recluse in Demand: Life and Letters, vol. I (Hampton, TN: Harvey & Tait, n.d.), pp. 125, 129.
37 Ibid., p. 65; see also Bundy, p. 153, and Christensen, p. 71, note 1.
38 Maddox, p. 31; on Tersteegen, see also O’Malley, p. 65.
39 Wesley, A Plain Account, p. 25.
40 So Maddox, pp. 31, 35.
41 See Christensen, p. 85; Outler, p. 9, note 26; and a somewhat contrary view in Bundy, p. 139.
42 Christensen, pp. 81, 85, incl. note 19.
43 See Christensen, pp. 76; 85, note 22; and p. 87. For more on the awakening of spiritual senses, in the views of both Macarius and Wesley, see Runyon, p. 14.
44 Letter from John to Charles Wesley, June 27, 1766, cited in Christensen, p. 90.
45 McCormick, p. 53. “God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul, which is continually crying, ‘Whom have I in heaven but Thee’? He is therefore happy in God; yea, always happy…,” Wesley, A Plain Account, p. 13, see also p. 8.
46 Outler, p. 31.
47 Christensen, p. 88, see also p. 80.
48 Bundy, p. 155.
49 Outler, p. 30.
50 Maddox, p. 30; Christensen, pp. 76, 78; Bundy, pp. 139 ff., 149.
51 Bundy, pp.139, 143, 151.
52 Bundy, p. 141.
53 “A Christian Library by John Wesley,” Wesley Center Online (http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/a-christian-library/, accessed April 3, 2014).
54 Christensen, p. 75, Runyon, p. 13, Moore, p. 518.
55 O’Malley, p. 56 f.
56 Christensen, p. 76.
57 Christensen’s term, pp. 74, 80.
58 Bundy, p. 143, see also 142.
59 Christensen, p. 80.
60 Ted Campbell in Christensen, p. 81, note 22.
61 Frank Baker, “John Wesley, Biblical Commentator,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 71 (1989):111 f.
62 Pseudo-Macarius Homily 8:5, in A. J. Mason, Fifty Spiritual Homilies of St. Macarius the Egyptian, Translations of Christian Literature, Series I, gen. ed. W. J. Sparrow-Simpson and W. K. Lowther Clarke (London: SPCK, 1921), pp. 67 f.
63 See A Christian Library, Wesley Center Online (http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/a-christian-library/a-christian-library-volume-1/volume-1-the-homilies-of-macarius/, accessed April 3, 2014).
64 Christensen, p. 88.
65 McCormick, p. 54.
66 Runyon, p. 15.
67 McCormick, p. 102, note 153; McCormick, quoted in Troy W. Martin, “John Wesley’s Exegetical Orientation: East Or West?” Wesleyan Theological Journal 26 (1991):136, note 114; see also Runyon, p. 15, note 30.
68 Wesley, A Plain Account, p. 21.
69 See Ibid., p. 19 f.
70 Ibid., p. 41.
© 2014 Paul A. Hughes
This article is included in an appendix to God’s Laws: Sin, Law, Grace, and Obligation in Pauline Theology (2014), available in paperback from Amazon and other online retailers, and in an abbreviated eBook version at the Apple iBook Store and other eBook sources.
Paul calls all confirmed Christians “saints” (hagioi, “holy ones”) because, regardless of their individual level of spiritual maturity and yet-to-be-redeemed carnal nature, all have entered by faith into the Elect and are marked for future Redemption at Christ’s “Second Coming” (parousia, “appearing”).
Having been “marked” (“sealed”) by the indwelling Holy Spirit, Paul expects new believers to begin allowing that Spirit to motivate their actions. This requires the believer’s voluntary cooperation (1 Cor 14:32, Eph 4:30, 1 Th 5:19). Their actions and life choices should become progressively holy (hagias, “sacred,” “sanctified”), resulting in “Fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22 f.), increasingly reflecting the holiness of the Lord whom they serve. Christians are to progress “from faith to faith,” “from glory to glory,” and “more and more” (Rom 1:17, 2 Cor 3:18, Php 1:9, 1 Th 4:1, 10).
Overcoming the sin nature and achieving sinless perfection is obviously not accomplished in a day. The new believer’s instant, imputed holiness (by grace) points forward to its final, eschatological completion at the Parousia, when believers will all be “changed” (1 Cor 15:50 ff.; Php 3:10 ff., 20 f.; 1 Th 4:14 ff., 5:10). Eschaton refers to the End, and “Eschatology” to the final culmination of God’s Plan.
Unfortunately, not every Christian tradition understands Eschatology. Faced with the dilemma of a persistent carnal, sin nature, many Christians such as John Wesley have sought to appropriate divine power to banish the sin nature immediately, once and for all. Holy living is an admirable goal if pursued humbly (one must never be like the man who wrote a book which he entitled, Humility, and How I Achieved It); but the possibility of “Entire Sanctification” before full, Final Redemption of body as well as soul is ill-conceived upon wishful thinking and misapprehensions of Scripture. Moreover, the concept of ascending to a higher spiritual (or moral) plane through Contemplative Prayer and self-purification–thus transcending human nature–is based largely on a long-held, persistent tradition of Neoplatonic Mysticism, originating in Greek Pagan philosophy. See Neoplatonist Stew here and here, and “Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism.”
Perfectionists rely heavily on prooftexts from Paul’s writings, especially occurrences of the English word “perfect” as well as references to holiness. Greek teleion, often translated “perfect” in the KJV, means “complete” or “mature”; and katartismon means “trained,” “disciplined,” “equipped,” or “prepared.” While holy living is upheld by Paul as the goal for every Christian, the various terminology does not inherently imply an ascent to permanent moral perfection but rather growing in wisdom, in competence to practice holy living, and in knowledge to train, nurture, and edify others.
So what did Paul actually say in regard to his own status of sanctification? Did he lay claim to sinless perfection, to entirely abolishing the sin nature?
1. As mentioned above, all confirmed believers are “holy ones,” by grace. The term “holy” does not refer only to a special elite who have achieved or ascended.
2. Also mentioned above, Christian “perfection” is to be fully realized only at the Eschaton. The following parallel passages, among the favored prooftexts of Perfectionists, actually convey no doctrine of Perfection but express Paul’s simple wish that believers continue to practice love, sound doctrine, and moral living, so that they incur no “blame” (“reproach,” “rebuke”) upon Christ’s sudden return (en te parousia). Note that he makes no direct connection to “praying through” in order to achieve perfection, as Perfectionists do, but to practicing a life of obedient faith and abstinence from sin.
- 1 Th 3:12 And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we do toward you, 13 to the end that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness (hagiosune) before God, even our Father, at the coming (en te parousia) of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his holy ones. 4:1 Furthermore, brethren, we ask you and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as you have received of us how you ought to walk and to please God, so you would abound more and more. 2 For you know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, even your sanctification (hagiasmos, “holiness”), that you should abstain from fornication: 4 That every one of you should know how to possess his own vessel in holiness (hagiasmo) and honor, 5 not in passionate lust, even as the Gentiles who know not God; 6 that no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. 7 For God has not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness (hagiosmo).
- 1 Th 5:23 And the very God of peace sanctify (hagiasai) you wholly (holoteles, “soundly,” “through and through”); and may your spirit and soul and body be found quite (holokleron) blameless at the coming (en te parousia) of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In addition, Paul writes clearly that believers’ full deliverance as children of God awaits Final Redemption:
- Rom 8:19 For the earnest expectation of the creation waits for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was made subject to futility, not willingly, but by the one who subjugates it in hope, 21 because the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. 23 And not only they, but we who have the firstfruits of the Spirit also groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, that is, the redemption of our body.
3. Paul continually worked to subdue his flesh.
- 1 Cor 9:26 I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; I so fight, not as one who beats the air, 27 but I discipline my body, and bring it into subjection, lest by any means, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.
4. Paul worried that he might still “suffer loss” or be “disqualified” due to slackness or moral failure.
- 1 Cor 3:10 … But let every man take heed how he builds upon it…. 13 Every man’s work shall be made manifest, for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is…. 15 If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss, but he himself shall be saved, yet such as by fire.
- 1 Cor 9:27 But I discipline my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.
- See also Heb 2:1, Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip…. 3 How shall we escape, if we neglect such great salvation ….
5. Paul did not claim to have already attained the kingdom or his own righteousness.
- Php 3:8 … that I may win Christ, 9 and be found in him, not having my own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: 10 That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death, 11 if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead; 12 Not as though I had already attained, or have already achieved perfection (teteleiomai): but I follow after, if only I may grasp that for which also I am grasped by Christ Jesus. 13 Brothers, I count not myself to have grasped, but this one thing I do: forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, 14 I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
- 1 Cor 9:15 … it were better for me to die, than that any man should make my glorying void. 16 For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing of which to glory: for necessity is laid upon me. Indeed, woe to me, if I preach not the gospel! 17 For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, stewardship has been entrusted to me.
- 1 Cor 15:9 For I am the least of the apostles, who is not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.
- 2 Cor 3:1 Do we begin again to commend ourselves? …. 5 Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to consider anything as [coming] from ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God;
- Eph 3:7 Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effective working of his power: 8 unto me, who is less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ;
- 1 Tim 1:12 And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has empowered me, because he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; 13 who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious. But I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. 14 And the grace of our Lord was profoundly abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. 15 This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first. 16 Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all patience, for a pattern to those who believe on him to eternal life.
6. Paul emphasized the need to continually mortify or crucify one’s flesh and “reckon” oneself dead to sin, choosing to deny the flesh and live according to the principles of the Gospel.
- Rom 6:1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?… 4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: so that like Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should also walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection, 6 knowing this: that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. 7 For he that is dead is freed from sin. 8 Now if we are dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him, 9 knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dies no more. Death has no more dominion over him. 10 For in that he died, he died unto sin once; but in that he lives, he lives unto God. 11 Likewise reckon also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. 12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that you should obey its desires, 13 nor yield your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin, but yield yourselves to God, as those who are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. 14 For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the law, but under grace.
- Rom 8:4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit…. 13 For if you live after the flesh, you shall die; but if you through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, you shall live.
- Gal 2:17 But if, while we seek to be made righteous (dikaiothenai) by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore the minister of sin? By no means! 18 For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. 19 For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. 20 I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me…. 3:3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect (epiteleisthe, “completely finished”) by the flesh?
- Gal 5:24 And those who are of Christ crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit…. 6:14 But may I never ever boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world was crucified to me, and I to the world. (See also Gal 3:13, 1 Cor 2:8.)
- Col 3:2 Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. 3 For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall you also appear with him in glory. 5 Therefore, mortify your parts which are upon the earth;… (See also Col 2:20 ff.)
- 2 Tim 2:11 It is a faithful saying: For if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him.
7. Paul expressed his own natural inability to do God’s will or transcend his human nature or Original Sin.
- Rom 7:8 But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of lust. For without the law, sin was dead. 9 For I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. 10 And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. 11 For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me…. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For that which I practice I do not comprehend, for I do not do what I wish; but what I hate, that I pursue. 16 If then I do what I do not wish, I consent unto the law that it is good. 17 Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwells no good thing, for to will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good, not. 19 For the good that I wish I do not do: but the evil that I do not wish, that I pursue. 20 Now if I do what I do not wish, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells in me. 21 I find then a law, that when I wish to do good, evil is at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man, 23 but I see another law in my parts, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my parts. 24 O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 25 (I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.) So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.
- 2 Cor 12:5 Of such will I glory, yet of myself I will not glory, but in my weaknesses. 6 For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth; but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he sees me to be, or what he hears of me. 7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8 For this thing I begged the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake, for when I am weak, then I am strong.
- Gal 5:16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires in opposition to the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary the one to the other, so that you cannot do the things that you wish.
8. Paul expressed the need to be actively and continually motivated by the Spirit in order not to sin. Sinlessness could never become an established state of being prior to Final Redemption, but a daily, rational choice, policy, and practice.
- Rom 8:4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit…. 13 For if you live after the flesh, you shall die; but if you through the Spirit mortify the deeds of the body, you shall live. 14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God.
- 2 Cor 1:17 When I therefore thus determined, did I take it lightly? Or the things that I purpose, do I purpose according to the flesh, that with me there should be yes-yes and no-no?
- 2 Cor 10:2 But I beg you, that I may not be bold when I am present with that confidence wherewith I think to be bold against some, who think of us as if we walked according to the flesh. 3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: 4 (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds;)
- Gal 2:17 But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? By no means! 18 For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor…. 20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me…. 3:3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect (epiteleisthe) by the flesh?
- Gal 5:16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires in opposition to to the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other, so that you cannot do the things that you wish. 18 But if you be led by the Spirit, you are not under the law…. 24 And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.
- Col 3:2 Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. 3 For you are dead, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall you also appear with him in glory. 5 Therefore mortify your parts which are on the earth;…
9. Paul was given an infirmity (astheneia, “weakness,” “illness”) to stem potential pride and vanquish self-reliance. It served as a reminder that in spite of profound revelations, he had not and could not transcend the limitations of mortality, nor ascribe to spiritual attainments apart from gifts of grace, i.e., charismata. (To Paul, his authority to preach and teach came by virtue of the revelation he had received, which he described literally as “grace” [charis] which had been “given” to him.)
- 2 Cor 12:1 Boasting is necessary, if not profitable, but I will proceed to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I knew a man in Christ over fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell, or whether out of the body, I cannot tell, God knows), such as was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell, God knows), 4 how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard inexpressible words which it is not lawful for a man to utter. 5 Of such will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in my weaknesses. 6 For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth, but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he sees me to be, or what he hears of me. 7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8 For this thing I begged the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And he said unto me, My grace (charis) is sufficient for you: for my strength is perfected (teleitai) in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake, for when I am weak, then I am strong.
- Rom 12:3 For I say to all who are among you, by the grace (charitos) given (dotheises) unto me, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, just as God has dealt to each a measure of faith….
- Rom 15:15 Yet I have written the more boldly to you on select points, as putting you in mind, because of the grace (charin) that is given (dotheisan) to me of God, 16 that I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God….
- 1 Cor 3:10 According to the grace (charin) of God which is given (dotheisan) unto me, as a wise master-builder, I have laid the foundation, and another builds upon it….
- Gal 2:9 And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace (charin) that was given (dotheisan) unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship….
- Eph 3:2 If ye have heard of the stewardship of the grace (charitos) of God which is given (dotheises) for you, 3 how by revelation he made known unto me the mystery…. 5 which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, 6 that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel, 7 whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift (dorean) of the grace (charitos) of God, given (dotheises) unto me by the effectual working of his power. 8 Unto me, who is less than the least of all saints, was this grace (charis) given (edothe), that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ;
10. It so follows that to Paul it is through charismata, bestowed by grace through Spirit Baptism, that the power of God is manifested in the Church, and Spirit-empowered ministry takes place (not via “praying through” to achieve an elite spiritual state, e.g., apotheosis); moreover, that training in sound doctrine and faithful Christian practice are vital to Christian strength and maturity.
- Rom 12:3 For I say to all who are among you, by the grace (charitos) given (dotheises) unto me, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, just as God has dealt to each a measure of faith…. 6 Having then gifts (charismata) differing according to the grace (charin) that is given (dotheisan) to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; 7 or ministry, let us attend to our ministering, or he that teaches, on teaching….
- 1 Cor 1:4 I thank my God always on your behalf for the grace (chariti) of God which was given (dotheise) you by Jesus Christ, 5 that in everything you were enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge, 6 even as the witness of Christ was confirmed in you, 7 such that you come behind in no gift (charismati), waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who shall also confirm you until the End (telous), that you may be beyond reproach (anegkletous) in the Day [i.e., Parousia, Eschaton] of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- 1 Cor 12:7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given (didotai) to each to profit in common. 8 For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom, to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit…. 18 But now God has set the parts, each of them, in the body, as it has pleased him…. 27 You are the body of Christ and its select parts. 28 And God has set some in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that powers, then gifts (charismata) of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues…. 31 But earnestly seek the best gifts (charismata):
- 1 Cor 14:1 Pursue love, and desire spiritual things, but rather to prophesy. 2 For he that speaks in an unknown tongue does not speak to men,… 3 but he who prophesies speaks to men for edification, exhortation, and comfort. 4 He who speaks in an unknown tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.
- Eph 4:7 But unto every one of us is given (edothe) grace (charis) according to the measure of the gift (doreas) of Christ…. 11 And he gave (edoken) apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers; 12 For the preparation (katartismon) of the saints (hagion)… 13 till we all attain … unto a mature (teleion) man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: 14 That we henceforth be no more children,… 15 But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him…, 16 from whom the whole body well fitted together and compacted by that which every joint supplies, according to the respective task of each part, causes growth of the body, resulting in the edification of itself in love. (See also Col 2:19.)
- 2 Tim 3:14 But you continue in the things which you have learned and have been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them; 15 And that from a child you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be perfect (artios, “fit,” “capable,” “prepared”), thoroughly furnished (exertismenos, “fitted,” “prepared,” perf. participle from the same root as artios) for all good works.
11. At times, Paul still felt the need to take a vow to sanctify himself before God. He did not count himself worthy, or special; nor did he expect to escape judgment for any willful sin, nor the demise and decomposition of the body such as is common to humanity.
- Acts 18:18 And thereafter Paul tarried there yet a good while, and taking leave of the brothers, sailed to Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila, having shorn his head in Cenchrea, for he had made a vow.
- Acts 21:26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them, entered into the temple to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until an offering was offered for every one of them.
- Rom 12:1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living, holy, acceptable sacrifice to God, your rational service.
- Php 2:17 Indeed, if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice, and rejoice together with you all.
- 2 Tim 4:6 For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand.
12. Paul expected new converts and carnal believers to receive Spirit Baptism and live according to the nature and influence of the Spirit in order to serve the Lord and live a victorious Christian life; he did not command them to seek, or expect them to receive, Entire Sanctification as a “Second (or Third or Fourth) Work of Grace.”
- Acts 6:3 Therefore, brothers, single out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom [not “entirely sanctified”], whom we may appoint over this business. (Indeed, I am aware that Paul himself had not yet been converted at this time, but this example demonstrates continuity of principle.)
- Acts 9:17 And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, Jesus, the Lord, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me, that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit [not “entirely sanctified”].
- Acts 13:9 Then Saul, who is also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit [not “entirely sanctified”], set his eyes on him 10 and said, O one full of all subtlety and all mischief, you child of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind….
- Acts 19:2 He said unto them, Have you received the Holy Spirit since you believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Spirit…. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied [not “were entirely sanctified”].
- Acts 11:24 For [Barnabas] was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith [not “entirely sanctified”]: and many people were added unto the Lord.
- Rom 15:15 Yet I have written the more boldly to you on select points, as putting you in mind, because of the grace (charin) that is given (dotheisan) to me of God, 16 that I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, [the Gentiles, as a class] having been [imputed to be] sanctified (hegiasmene, perf. participle of hagiazo, “having been made holy”) by the Holy Spirit. (See also Acts 10:15, 11:9.)
- 2 Cor 13:3 Since you seek a proof of Christ speaking in me, who toward you is not weak, but is mighty in you, 4 for though he was crucified through weakness, yet he lives by the power of God. For we also are weak [not “entirely sanctified”] in him, but we shall live with him by the power of God toward you…. 9 For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong; and this also we wish, even your perfection (katartisin, “completion,” “preparation,” “discipline,” “training”)…. 11 Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect (katartizesthe), be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.
- Eph 5:18 And do not be drunk with wine, wherein is excess, but be filled with the Spirit [not “entirely sanctified”], 19 speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; 20 giving thanks always for all things to God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God….
- Gal 3:2 This only would I learn of you, Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect (epiteleisthe) by the flesh? 4 Have you suffered so many things in vain, if it be yet in vain? 5 Therefore, he that ministers to you the Spirit, and works miracles among you, does he do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith [by grace, not through “entire sanctification”]?
- Gal 3:14 That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith [not through “entire sanctification”].
The questions remain, if there is Entire Sanctification for this life in the New Testament, where can it be found? Moreover, what can Entire Sanctification do that the Spirit has not been promised to do through us, and for us, through faith alone? Clearly, we cannot “earn” miraculous provision through achieving our own innate “goodness,” any more than we can earn salvation; nor can we perform miracles in our own right, by our own strength.
Eph 2:4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 and we being dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised up and seated together with Him [already, eschatologically speaking] in the heavenly realm in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the imminent ages He might show the extraordinary riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith: and that not from you, the gift of God; 9 not from works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his doing, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared in advance, so that we might walk in them.
© 2014 Paul A. Hughes
The following represents summary conclusions, to date, based on available information, evidence, and personal experience, and likely comprises the initial installment in a long-term, ongoing study. It has been included as a chapter in Neoplatonist Stew: Or, How Sacramentalism, Mysticism, and Theurgy Corrupted Christian Theology (2014) by Paul A. Hughes, available in paperback at Amazon and other online retailers. At this writing, it is in process of being published in eBook format, as well.
Mysticizing Pentecostals often claim that Pentecostal spirituality is a form of Mysticism, therefore mystical practice is no threat to and indeed compatible with New Testament-based Pentecostalism.
As a third-generation Pentecostal and trained Bible interpreter, however, I maintain that Mysticism and its practice–e.g., Contemplative Prayer and introspection with the aim of Transcendence and “spiritual formation”–represent a foreign and alternate spirituality to that intended and prescribed by the New Testament. Heretofore, I based this contention largely on the absence of New Testament support for mystical practice, especially in terms of clear didactic statements (i.e., NT believers are neither commanded nor taught to pray contemplatively, to chant mantras or empty the mind of thought); and conversely, on important commands and practices in the New Testament that are often discounted or ignored by Mystics.
A primary example of the New Testament practices often lacking among Mystics is the apostolic emphasis on becoming baptized in the Spirit, to be followed by manifestations of charismatic gifts. Many Mystics apparently deem Spirit Baptism, as described in the New Testament, unnecessary, irrelevant, and even redundant to their mystical practice and emphasis. Some Mystics claim to have transcended these elements of Pentecostal spirituality, identifying them with the “childish things” described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:11. Never mind the essential enablements that Jesus, in the “Paraclete passages” of John 14-16, promised that the Paraclete would provide, as well as Paul’s admonitions to “be filled with the Spirit” and “edify” others through gifts. Mystics seem to leave little for the Holy Spirit to do: they together with God can do it all. They purport to be able to touch God and be changed into Christ’s image through methodologies and “spiritual disciplines” (see more below).
More recently, in response to debates with Mystics and Sacramentalists, and the occasion of a Contemplative Prayer guru being invited to speak at an event surrounding the 2013 General Council of the Assemblies of God, I embarked on further research from the opposite angle–that of Mysticism–beginning with its origins. This resulted in my blog series entitled “Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism,” followed by the book version, Neoplatonist Stew: Or, How Sacramentalism, Mysticism, and Theurgy Corrupted Christian Theology, along with an illustrative companion chart.
My research strongly suggests that the main stream of Mysticism throughout Church history has been the Neoplatonic type that appears to have originated, as such, with the philosopher Ammonius Saccas, passed along through his students. These include the Pagan philosopher Plotinus and the Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria. Building on the Platonic idea that the real world is that of the mind, from which the physical world has fallen, Neoplatonists imagined the possibility of ascending back to an ideal, divine state through contemplation of God, self-introspection, and other mental exercises. These ideas were passed along through the speculative theologies of such major figures as Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and even John Wesley.
Having become familiarized with Mysticism in addition to Pentecostal spirituality, I can now begin to describe differences between the two. Because of many variations in mystic practice and detail, it will be necessary to generalize, to which exception will no doubt be raised by obverse critics. However, exceptions hardly disprove the rule. Things which seldom occur represent exceptions, things which happen occasionally represent episodes, things which happen frequently represent trends, whereas things that are largely and regularly true make up the rule, regarding which one may generalize without justifiable contradiction.
To begin, the Pentecostal experience is not an ascent of a human being to God or attainment of divinity, but a descent in which God deigns to deposit, by measure, part of his nature or person, such that his Spirit cohabits flesh. As such, Spirit Baptism represents a parallel or reflection, if not technically a replication, of the very Incarnation of Christ. Once received, the Holy Spirit is ever-present, and need not be ascended-up-to.
Mystics, going back at least to Plotinus, have suggested that the “spiritual formation” engendered through Contemplative Prayer can enable God to be superimposed over the intellect or personality of the Mystic. That view, however, is contrary to New Testament examples and to Paul’s assertion that “the spirit of the prophet is subject to the prophet” (1 Cor 14:32). It remains that a Spirit-filled believer may “quench” as well as “grieve” the Spirit (1 Th 5:19, Eph 4:30) through, one surmises, willful sin, resistance, or neglect. A long-held tenet among Pentecostals has been that “the Holy Spirit is a gentleman” who will not force himself upon the individual believer or overrule his or her free will. According to Paul the Apostle, the “mental exercise” involved, if so there be, is the believer’s daily as well as immediate moral choice to “reckon” himself “dead to sin” and to “walk by the Spirit,” not “by the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Rom 6:11, 7:5 f., 8:1 ff., 13:14; 2 Cor 1:17, 10:2; Gal 3:3, 5:16, 25). At all times, in the NT view, the believer remains subject to human nature, and can never with carefree permanence rise above it in this life. Watchfulness for one’s soul is always enjoined, such that Paul himself regretted that he could never count himself to have “attained,” nor discount the possibility of being in the end “cast away” (Php 3:11 ff., 1 Cor 9:27).
In Mysticism, one’s human nature can ostensibly be transformed through “spiritual disciplines” and methodologies (one might say “methodism”), which include fasting and other ascetic practices, “purificatory virtues” (Plotinus), self-abnegation, contemplation, affirmation and negation, self-introspection, emptying oneself, guided visualization, chanting mantras, etc. (Such methodologies, utilized by Pagans, are known to produce altered states of consciousness through self-hypnosis.) Some would add participation in Sacraments. To the Pentecostal, in contrast, the human mind is consciously “transformed” (Rom 12:1 ff.) through believing Biblical revelation, adherence to correct doctrine, and submission to the Holy Spirit.
The Mystic craves Transcendence over human nature and worrisome matters of this life, and constant or frequent assurance of God’s favor, God’s existence, and one’s own salvation. He (or she) longs to rise above petty humanity, to be unfettered by exigencies and rules, to eschew doctrine and debate and “contending for the faith.” He is emotions-based, desires to experience constant warm feelings and inner joy, and tends to be preoccupied with personal spiritual and moral development. The Pentecostal does not expect Transcendence except to the extent that he can resist and overcome base desires, by volition, when they arise. He is not driven to seek constant assurance, but stands by faith in the face of contrary circumstances. (Where is faith if one receives constant assurance?) He is encouraged (“edified”) and his faith strengthened by sound teaching, meditating on Scripture, and periodic occurrences of charismata within the church Body (“signs and wonders”), especially the exhortation and consolation produced through prophetic gifts. As Paul instructed in the face of anxieties, “Wherefore, comfort one another with these words” (1 Th 4:18).
Contemplative Prayer, to the Mystic, is a standard methodology facilitating ascent towards God. The Incarnation is viewed in terms of Christ showing people the path to God toward their own self-divinization. Ascent amounts to here-and-now restoration, in part or in full, from fallen human nature, toward an original or rightful divine nature. To the Pentecostal, on the other hand, Spirit Baptism represents reception by grace of divine power coming to reside, through faith, within fallen humanity–by virtue of which God deigns to reclaim human nature through the partial impartation of himself to mere “earthen vessels,” which are sanctified, not in their own right, but by his presence. He comes to dwell not in deified flesh but “all kinds of flesh”; not in response to an ascent, but by effecting a descent. “I will come to you,” Jesus said, in the form of the Paraclete (Jn 14:16-18).
The Mystic desires God’s immediacy, to realize divinization and Transcendence now. He rejects human nature and limitations, to seek apotheosis, theosis, theopoiesis, becoming God (pick one!). He seeks to put substance to faith: to experience, now, the object of Christian hope, to attain the object of faith before the culmination of all things. He is not content to wait or to “know in part” (with which the apostolic generation had to content themselves, cf. 1 Cor 13:9-12). Many Mystics develop an attitude of superiority by virtue of their passion for God’s presence and for Transcendence, not unlike the Corinthian spiritualists who became “puffed up” in their enthusiasm for public charismatic displays.
Pentecostal spirituality is eschatological: “fullness” (culmination) comes at the Eschaton, the End. Man remains fully human, undivinized, mortal, until “changed” (1 Cor 15:51 f., Php 3:21). Our treasure is in heaven, our future inheritance. The deposit of the Holy Spirit, together with gifts, are the “earnest” of that inheritance (2 Cor 1:22, 5:5; Eph 1:11-14). Until the End, faith, not actualization, not realization, remains the “substance” of the believer’s hope, the assurance of things yet invisible (Rom 8:24, Heb 11:1).
Spirit Baptism is human nature eschatologically redeemed. It is incarnation, becoming God’s instrument in spite of the flesh: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). Our hope (salvation, Eternal Life, divinization), as an object, is not yet available for our experience in this mortal life. At the “Last Trump” shall “mortal put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:3 f.), not before.
Mystics tend to dislike doctrine and dispute as something beneath their new apotheosized nature; but doctrine and debate, according to the New Testament pattern, are integral with declaring the Gospel before “the disputers of this Age” (1 Cor 1:20), along with preaching, rebuking, and exhorting (Titus 2:15, et al.).
To the Mystic, ascent obviates Spirit Baptism and gifts. Those who ascend enter into their own spiritual hierarchy. Those who reckon themselves on the path to ascent develop a “me and Jesus” attitude. They often gravitate toward Quietism, become monks and hermits. Their spiritual hierarchy tends to bypass church hierarchy and leadership, though they often seek out guru-type figures who can lead them into Ascension. Church, as an authority and teaching hierarchy, as a worshipping and self-ministering Body, and as a means of spiritual growth, tends to diminish in value in their eyes as they become “lone wolves” or “gurus” in their own right. They are too “transcended” to be subject to earthy rules, structures, and limitations.
The Pentecostal conceives a Church-as-Body-of-Christ model, with many parts variously functioning, all capable of individual, respective spiritual endowments, cooperating to form a whole. Thus they demonstrate why the “tongues of fire” lit upon each one individually at Pentecost (Acts 2:3). None are “higher” or “lower,” none more or less ascended, only differing in gifts. All have the same Spirit (1 Cor 12:4 ff.). Individuals are gifted with immediacy, as the Spirit determines (1 Cor 12:11), requiring willing cooperation of the “prophet” but not ascent, purificatory rites, prior divinization or “spiritual formation.” The motivated individual receives an influx of the Spirit, thus becoming temporarily a vessel “filled with the Spirit” (see “refillings” in Acts 4:8, 13:9). He is an instrument of the Divine (“a vessel unto honor, made holy, fit for the Master’s use, and prepared unto every good work,” 2 Tim 2:21), not divine himself.
Mystics rely heavily on a relative few passages of Scripture for support as well as devotional utility. Especial favorites are allegorical passages such as the Song of Solomon and parts of Proverbs. Such texts, comprised as they are of figurative literature, are ripe for abuse. In the minds of Mystics, the Song, for one, portrays a mystical pursuit of God, the soul wooing and being wooed, catching glimpses of God through Contemplative Prayer and ascent. Such applications of the Song go back at least to Origen.
Somewhat more compelling, in terms of a Biblical argument for Mysticism, are Moses’ yearning to glimpse God (Ex 33), and Paul’s vision of, or transportation to, the “Third Heaven” (2 Cor 12:1 ff.). Both narratives, however, actually tell against the possibility of mystical Transcendence, of approaching God, and of mere mortals becoming divinized. Such application of the Moses episode can be traced back to Philo, and was a frequent resort of Gregory of Nyssa. Much like today’s Mystics, Moses yearned for a close encounter with God. Indeed, Moses is allowed to approach the vicinity of God’s presence, but cannot be said to do so in a transcendent way (certainly not via Contemplative Prayer); rather, he comes, literally and physically, to the mountain bearing tablets to be written upon by the “finger” of God. God denies the feasibility of Moses seeing his “face” and surviving. He offers instead to allow Moses to see his “goodness”–the expression of his essential nature–and the after-effects of his glory or presence departing. Thus Moses can be said to experience God’s influence but not at all God’s real, full presence, nor Moses his own Transcendence. He sees God’s effect, God’s expression, but not God (much as all men can see God in his Creation, only in greater measure). He is affected by the experience, but not ascended. The afterglow from God’s presence which caused his face to shine was likewise an after-effect that was passing away, and represented neither a fundamental change in Moses’ spiritual status nor his state of being, nor did God’s glory become Moses’ own lasting attribute or possession. It might have been Moses’ concern over the fading of this ascribed glory, which the people might have gathered to be a removal of God’s blessing on his leadership, that caused him to cover his face after speaking to them.
In contrast, Paul’s “visit to Heaven” was of a spiritual, revelatory character and not a physical approach to God. Yet to claim Paul’s experience to have been accomplished through Contemplative Prayer would be sheer assumption, as would be the details of that experience, other than the fact of “hearing unspeakable words” and his subsequent receipt of a “thorn in the flesh.” Paul’s point in relating the episode is his realization and God-given reminder that it is not in any exalted experience, or seeming encounter with the presence of God, or “abundant” nature of divine revelations, or gifts of power, that he should glory, as if he were deserving, special, or accomplished, but in the power of the Cross and the grace that is “sufficient,” in spite of the utter helplessness of the flesh (see also Gal 6:14).
In both these narratives, God’s reply to seekers is that we can but reflect his glory. He alone is God, He gives his glory to no other. Though He may at times allow a glimpse, no man can attain any measure of godhood nor approach his throne. Try as we might, and yearn as we will, we remain mortal, subject to corruption, and cannot rise above it until eventually and finally Redeemed–indeed, a vital lesson every Mystic needs to learn.
Copyright © 2013 Paul A. Hughes