June 16, 2019

Monday with Michael Spencer: On Transactionalism

Monday with Michael Spencer
On Transactionalism

I am setting out to do something that is unlikely to be extremely popular. I am writing a theologically tentative essay about a word most of my readers have never heard and an issue I’ve only heard one other person discuss. Why this word would inspire serious theologizing on my part, and require an essay to explain, will only be evident to those who expend the effort to read and think along with me. (And as I said, this is a very tentative project.) While it isn’t my goal to persuade, I believe that some segment of my readership will find this essay a further step along a road they’ve been traveling for some time.

The word is “transactionalism.” I no longer believe in it, which won’t bother anyone who has no idea what I’m talking about. Fair enough. The dictionary defines a “transaction” as “a communicative action or activity involving two parties or things that reciprocally affect or influence each other.” Transactionalism would be a belief system that involves a transaction- actions on our part and results- between God and a human being. All based on reciprocal actions.

Put that way, I hope you will recognize that the typical evangelical is awash in a sea of transactional language, images, explanations, sermons, and songs. Evangelicalism is often one huge system for “getting God to do stuff.” I’m out of that business with God, because I don’t think God was ever in that business.

In the simplest terms, transactionalism is the belief that in response to some action on my part, God responds to me and something happens that was not the case before my action. Placed in the context of basic Christian belief, I am saying that I no longer believe that God responds, in a transactional fashion, to actions on my part, but relates to me totally according to His own good pleasure in the Lordship and mediation of Jesus.

This does not mean that I do not recognize the place of transactional language. Yes, the Bible frequently uses such language. A certain amount of transactional language is unavoidable, particularly in talking about prayer, covenants, sacrifices or in discussing Biblical narratives. But despite this, I believe that if we were to see all of God’s dealings with human beings from the divine point of view, we would not see transactionalism, but instead see God’s own gracious outworkings of unprompted, sovereign salvation in Jesus.

What must I do to be saved?

The New Testament uses three commands to describe what seems to be “our side” of the transaction: repent, believe, and confess. The many variations and synonyms don’t need to be listed. Even if we include the diversity of Christian beliefs about the necessity of baptism, the majority of Christians would agree that repentance, faith and some form of confession are repeatedly urged and illustrated by the New Testament writers.

Most evangelical Christians would agree that these are “our part” in a transaction with God called “being saved.” We repent from sin, we believe in Jesus and the Gospel message, then we demonstrate the reality of that faith through some form of confession. That confession is usually understood by evangelicals to be a public invitation or altar call, baptism and/or the public confession that precedes church membership. In response, God gives us salvation by removing our sin and crediting us with the righteousness of Christ. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the blessings of salvation become ours. Our entire existence is then infused with the “new creation” that is “in Christ.”

But is this the best way to think of the Christian message? I have serious questions about whether transactionalism confuses the language of scripture with the realities of God, and in the process, leads to a religion of “doing business” with a God who is manipulated. Is transactionalism the source of the trivialization of God and the elevation of man that plagues evangelicalism? I believe so.

Transactional approaches are common in many areas of the Christian life. If we confess our sins, God forgives them. If we have faith when praying, our prayers will be answered. If we pray in large numbers, God will send revival or perform miracles. If we fully surrender, greater power will come into our lives. Of course, we confess, believe and repent….and God responds. Right? Transactionalism tells Christians that they are constantly in a situation where what they do will determine what God does, and what God does is his side of a transaction that starts with- and depends upon- us.

It’s not hard to think in these terms, especially if you are an American. Transactionalism is deeply ingrained in us from virtually all of our human relationships and experiences. I probably sound well off the farm to say I question whether this is really the way God operates. Some may say I am advocating a kind of hyper-Calvinistic fatalism where our choices are so predetermined they are meaningless. I can assure you that is far from my position. I believe our choices are real and meaningful. In fact, I tend to believe our freedom is far more dynamic than most of my reformed friends. But I do not believe the Gospel is a set of directions for transactions between God and people. I believe the Gospel is revelation of who God is, and the announcement of the acceptance that comes from God in His Son, Jesus.

An illustration

One of the most frequent transactional promises heard in Christianity is the invitation to make Jesus your personal savior. Christ stands and knocks. We open the door, let him in, and allow him to change us.

I believe this misrepresents the New Testament message. N.T. Wright uses an illustration that I have found helpful, though I will use my own version.

It is the time of the Roman empire, and a small village on the outskirts of an outlying Asian province has received a messenger from the capital. The village elders have gathered the whole city to hear the message from the outside world. After the formal greetings, the messenger stands and speaks.

“The new emperor, Tiberius Caesar, sends you greetings. Our divine emperor extends his benevolent rule to this village, and proclaims his power and wisdom to all your citizens. In the future, taxes and tribute from you will be brought to Tiberius. Those who submit to his rule can expect peace and justice. Those who rebel against him will find justice and punishment. Tiberias Caesar is Lord!”

Is this a description of a transaction between the citizens of the city and the new emperor? The language of the messenger at first appears to be transactional, as much of the language of the New Testament appears to describe a “give and get” arrangement between God and the Christian. But is that really what’s going on?

What we actually have here is an announcement of a new order. The villagers are being informed of the new order and realities of that order. Their acceptance or rejection of the announcement is secondary to the reality of whether their behavior now conforms to the new order. Tiberias isn’t opening a business and looking for customers. He’s informing his subjects of what the future will be like.

Tiberias is Lord. “Accepting” him as Lord isn’t a transaction; it’s an embracing of reality. Sending taxes to Tiberias may bring Roman protection, but no one is “buying” the friendship of the emperor. They are wisely sending on to Tiberias what already belongs to him. If a new road appears in the city, it is not a transaction with Tiberias that brought the road; it is the “will” of Tiberias that brings roads and blessings; war and peace.

Is “transaction” the word that best applies here? Or is it recognition? The messenger is proclaiming the advent of a new order and the wise benefits of recognizing that order. While his language may sound transactional, the realities of the situation make it obvious that something entirely different has arrived.

Various persons in the city may “repent,” “confess” and “believe” in the new order, but does anything new happen at those points? Or do these responses simply indicate a rearranging and recalibrating of the person’s life in line with the new order and reality of Tiberias?

This illustration may seen silly, but I believe it holds much of the truth that the New Testament is proclaiming, particularly in the fully matured theology of the later epistles and the Gospel of John. In the Gospels, the kingdom of God isn’t coming. It is here, now, being revealed. It is present, but we have not come to terms with it. Jesus’ incarnation plants a sign of the kingdom’s presence in the midst of human history. His journey to earth doesn’t begin the kingdom, or invite us to a transactional relationship with God. Jesus demonstrates that God’s reality, compassion and Lordship are always present.

Repentance, faith and confession are ways we recognize and embrace this kingdom and this king. We do not “bring” the kingdom; we surrender to it and embrace its ever present power.

I also believe it the illustration points out the relationship between the Christian and the kingdom of God. Are verses like Colossians 1:13-14 describing the results of a transaction, or do they describe the free and gracious action of God, to which we respond?

While I like Wright’s illustration very much, I feel it’s important to add a particularly Christian nuance. If the New Testament proclamation is the Lordship of Jesus Christ, then we must talk about “What kind of King is Jesus? How does he differ from other kings and Lords?” The answer to that question is something like this- and it is very important: Jesus is a King who pardons rebels, by taking the rebellion and its consequences upon himself.

In other words, the relationship of rebellious subjects to a sovereign does add the potential of a needed transaction of forgiveness. In the Gospel, we are presented with the clear truth that Jesus preemptively forgives rebels through his own reconciliation and mediation. The “acceptance” of that forgiveness is the closest we come to a transaction in the Gospel.

Comments

  1. Iain Lovejoy says

    I think I get the difference here. The phrase “Anyone who trusts in me will be saved” is of the form “If you read this book, you will understand calculus” or “if you put a plaster on it, it will stop bleeding” rather than the form “if you pay me £5 I will give you X” or “If you promise to obey me, I will reward you.”

    • Robert F says

      But what is the character of that trust? How is it defined? How much of it do you need to have to be saved? Does it need to be a perfect and unfaltering trust? Or is it okay if there are lapses in it? If lapses are okay, how many are allowed, and how grave may they be, before it is no longer adequate trust to be saved?

      That seemingly simple requirement, having trust, when you start unpacking it, itturns out be be tremendously complicated, whether it is transactional or not.

      • –> “…having trust, when you start unpacking it, it turns out be tremendously complicated, whether it is transactional or not.”

        Meh. The weather occurs whether I like it or not. It’s ultimately sovereign. Hurricane Katrina cared not one iota whether anyone trusted it or not… it was going to do a lot of damage because it’s nature was a powerful mix of wind and water.

        What I think I’m hearing with you, Robert, is that you don’t trust yourself. Maybe that’s valid. Maybe that’s ultimately the bottom line: none of us trust our own wobbly selves, afraid that we aren’t “doing the God thing right, doing it the way HE wants me to.”

        To me, that’s the point of Michael’s article. If it WAS transactional, dependent on us, then it WOULD be broken because of our own nature. God’s nature is maybe more like the weather, which cares not one iota about YOUR trust. Weather has ITS unshakeable, sovereign power; God has HIS unshakeable, sovereign power. Fortunately, scriptures (and Jesus) tell us that His nature is pretty darn good.

      • Iain Lovejoy says

        It is not transactional. That is the point. We are not rewarded for trust nor punished for the lack of it. Jesus tells us how to be saved, shows us how to be saved, enables us to be saved, and we must trust that he is right, and that if we follow him we will be saved. The amount of trust required is the precisely the amount of trust we who are dying of thirst require for us to take the cup and drink the water offered. It is a free gift.
        The transactional approach assumes that on our own we are actually fine and what we need to be saved from is God. It assumes that it is the threat from God that is the danger of sin, and God who needs to be paid off so we can safely continue sinning.
        To abandon a transactional approach is to say that God needs, requires and wants nothing at all from us except our own best interests. When we sin and reject God we are harming no-one but ourselves and each other, not God, and what God wants is for us is that we should stop doing so, nothing more, and purely for our sake, not his.
        Here’s what I think: in this approach, salvation is love. We are “saved” when we love, precisely because to love is to be saved, and are “damned” when we do not love, because to be without love and without God (which is the same) is to suffer, diminish and eventually die. If we trust Jesus and do what he says, we will learn love, and learn to love, and become love, and be in perfect loving union with God and each other, and will be saved because that is what “being saved” and “eternal life” and “heaven” and all those other words mean.
        At least that’s what I think.

    • Robert F says

      Is trust something I do? Or does it happen to me? If the former, I then wonder how it is I do it, and how I get good at it; if the latter, well, then I just wait, and maybe I’m still waiting. I don’t much care if the world transactional is used in this connection or not; what I want to know is if I have to do something to be saved, even if that doing is”only” trust — and if I do, then I need to know exactly what that is, and I will be looking for some kind of orthodoxy to meet that need. And here we go round the same religious traffic circle again.

      • Faith doesn’t do anything; it simply enables us to relate ourselves to someone else who has already done whatever needs doing.

        Illustration:
        Imagine that I am in the hospital, in traction, with casts on both arms and both legs. And imagine further that every time you visit me, I carry on despairingly about the fact that my house, in my absence, is falling apart: the paint is peeling, the sills are rotting, the roof is blowing away in the wind.

        But then imagine that one day, after a considerable interval, you come to me and say, “Robert, I have just paid off the contractor I engaged to repair your house. It’s all fixed — a gift from me to you.” What are my choices in the face of such good news? I cannot go out of the hospital to check for myself—I cannot know that you have fixed my house for me. I can only disbelieve you or believe you. If I disbelieve you, I go on being a miserable bore. But if I believe you — if I trust your word that you have done the job for me — I have my first good day in a long while. My faith, you see, accomplishes nothing but my own enjoyment.

        Look at it another way. Suppose I had decided, while staring at the hospital ceiling, that if only I could work up enough faith, you would undertake to repair my house. And suppose further that I had grunted and groaned through every waking hour trying to get my faith meter up to red hot. What good would that have done unless you had decided, as a gift to me in response to no activity on my part whatsoever, to do the job for me? No good, that’s what. Faith doesn’t fix houses — carpenters and painters do. And faith doesn’t pay bills, either. Faith, therefore, is not a gadget by which I can work wonders. It is just trust in a person who actually can work them — and who has promised me he already has.

        (from The Astonished Heart, Faith and Sacrament, Robert Capon)

    • senecagriggs says

      Michael came out as a “Neo-Calvinist?” Who knew – laughing

      • He actually started out that way, and slowly changed his mind.

      • How did you come to that conclusion Seneca?

        • senecagriggs says

          Calvinism/Augustinianism – holds to the total sovereignty of God. On the surface there may appear to be “wheeling and dealing” with God, but the reality is; not so much.
          _________

          Some years back; had a brief conversation with a “none” relative who told me she and God “had an understanding” as if they were peers.

          It doesn’t work that way. God is sovereign – we are not. God has the understanding, she did not.

          • Christiane says

            something to consider, this:

            what does it mean ‘to be made in the image of God’?

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > God is sovereign

            Sure, and the notion of sovereignty is clear, concise, and devoid of any possible ambiguity.
            No cultural baggage attached to that word

          • –> “Calvinism/Augustinianism – holds to the total sovereignty of God.”

            1) WRONG. The BIBLE and SCRIPTURES hold up the total sovereignty of God. And regardless of denominational and theological beliefs, there is no doubt that scriptures portray God in “Calvinistic” terms at times, such as that He is sovereign. The creators of Calvinism just choose to make it one of their “MUST BELIEVE THIS” requirements.

            2) I’m primarily Arminian/Wesleyan. That doesn’t prevent me from seeing God as sovereign. Calvinism holds no monopoly on God’s sovereignty.

            • Adam Tauno Williams says

              > total sovereignty

              I’d recommend the term “incommutable” over “total”; that is more precise.

            • Christiane says

              well, AUGUSTINE was a Doctor of the Church, but his area that is honored doesn’t include determinism, at least not in the Catholic Church, no.

              you want the Catholic point of view on ‘determinism’ versus ‘free choice’, here’s your point man:

              ““” In spite of the all-powerful strength of God’s merciful hand,
              which touches, enfolds and bends the souls with so many inspirations, calls and attractions,
              the human will remains perfectly FREE, unfettered, and exempt from every form of constraint and necessity.”
              “Grace is so gracious, and so graciously does it seize our hearts in order to draw them on, that it in no wise impairs the liberty of our will…
              grace has a holy violence, not to violate our liberty but to make it full of love…it presses us but does not oppress our freedom…”

              (Francis DeSales)

  2. Robert F says

    Actually, Tiberius wants to mask his demand for a certain kind of response from those he is making his decree to in the language of a fait accompli. He is wanting to make it seem as if there options are so limited that they have only one of two choices that he’s set before them; he is using fear as his strategy to reduce their options. The fact is that, however risky it may be, humanly speaking they still have other options. But even if they only had the two that he had predetermined and set before them, he would still prefer that they choose the path of acceptance; that makes his decree really a transaction he is offering them. He is saying, “If you obey, and accept my rule, I will establish peace and justice for you ” — that’s totally transactional, because it is the outcome he would prefer. If he didn’t care about realizing that outcome, he would just slaughter them, which would be the totally non-transactional option. Anything short of that means he wants and is asking something from them, and would prefer to have it rather than not, however deceptive and power-playing he frames his request; that’s a transaction.

    • No analogy is perfect. 😉

      • +1.

        One of the things I’ve discovered over my years of various Bible studies is that even Jesus’ parables fall apart if examined too closely or taken too far.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > “If you obey, and accept my rule, I will establish peace and justice for you ” — that’s totally transactional

      No, I don’t believe this is a good example of Transactionality.

      Gravity? I don’t transact with the gravity well of the planet, it is, and I can navigate that successfully, or not. There is no transaction. Of course, I can attempt to defy Gravity, even if I do so it is a transaction with nobody.

      A transaction implies a Deal. If there is no deal, there is no transaction.
      When there is no Negotiation, there is likely no Transaction.

  3. Knowing that Spencer was a fan of Capon…

    “Our confessions do not earn us forgiveness by their sincerity or their exhaustiveness: we had it all along by Jesus’ gift. Our prayers do not con God into being gracious: he conned himself on the cross. Our Eucharists do not cause Jesus to show up in a place from which he was absent: he is already everywhere – in all the fullness of his reconciling work – before the service starts. And our baptisms (to come finally to the root sacrament of the Good News) do not divide the world into the saved (us, inside) and the lost (them, outside). Baptism – and the church it constitutes – is simply the authentic, effective sign of the mystery of the Christ who has already saved all, whether in or out.”

    — Robert Farrar Capon, Health, Money, and Love and Why We Don’t Enjoy Them

    • Robert F says

      Universalism, then? I’m okay with that, but Capon in other places says that he is not necessarily a universalist, that hell is real, and that our choice to believe in Christ or not is consequential and important to where we end up. I find that confusing: do or don’t we need to “get saved”? If we don’t, if it’s a done deal, then how on earth can we end up in hell if we don’t jump through the right hoops?

      • D: Okay. You’ve forced us to ask you this. Are you a universalist?

        RFC: If by universalist you mean that the forgiving grace in Jesus has been universally given to all human beings, yes, I am. You can sing in church, “O Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world…except for this list of sins.”

        D: It wrecks the music for one thing.

        RFC: The point is you can’t do that. Every Christian who believes that the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world believe that He took them all. But if you ask if the universal gift of forgiveness and grace is refusable by people, then, obviously, yes. Of course. But acceptance of grace is a tricky phrase because in one sense you don’t have to accept it, you’ve got it, but the enjoyment of it and the acceptance of it can be refused. “Oh, taste and see how great is the Lord.” In other words, you’ve got a whole cellar full of it. If you want to sit there and drink Pepsi for the rest of your life with a cellar full of that stuff down there, you can do it. You can go to hell. But that is not the point. The point is you already have the gift.

        http://www.mbird.com/2016/08/throwback-thursday-the-doors-1983-interview-with-robert-farrar-capon/

        • Which is actually very close to C S Lewis’ views on the subject.

        • Robert F says

          As I understand what he has to say about it, this is very close to Karl Barth’s position. Barth was so insistent about the work of salvation being finished in Christ that he criticized Billy Graham’s evangelistic preaching — he said Graham’s preaching made salvation contingent on the choice to believe or not. Barth, by contrast, said that preaching of the Good News should be announced as a done deal without reference to belief — the Good News, Barth said, is about what God has done in Christ for the whole human race; there is nothing contingent in it — or, if you prefer, it is not transactional.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > Universalism, then?

        Shrug.

        One of the reasons I have come to dislike Theology [or perhaps more accurately Theologians].

        The concept of Pay-Grade. This is above mine. Why is delineating this so precisely of importance? It isn’t as if my consent to it matters – see the concept of non-transactionality 🙂

        Do I believe in ECT? Nah, probably not, but there is so much Industrialized Evil in the word it doesn’t seem unreasonable. So maybe, based on precedent. Do I like that? No. Did anything which matters ask my opinion? Nope.

        Am I a Universalist? Meh, if someone calls me that I don’t care, but probably not [as I believe in Evil People].

        So I get Capon.

        > but Capon in other places says that he is not necessarily a universalist, that hell is real
        > and that our choice to … I find that confusing

        Yep. And that goes on top of a very large stack of things I find confusing.
        Or perhaps better said: Operationally Impossible to Disambiguate (#OItD).

        • Good comment.

          For me, I’ve swung pretty much toward the Universalism camp because it is so dang hopeful. It helps me view God as so dang loving that He might just make a way for everyone. It makes Jesus’ sacrifice so much more amazing because it covers not only a multitude of sins, but A MEGA-MULTITUDE OF SINS. It’s forgiveness that’s not just three times, nor seven times, but seven times seventy-seven times. It’s a forgiveness of a debt that can’t be paid. Yes… I need to say that again: it’s a forgiveness of a debt that has NO HOPE OF EVER BEING PAID.

          I have no doubt that Jesus is the way. I have no doubt of God’s sovereignty. I have no doubt that He can make a way for ANYONE.

          Again… it’s above my pay grade. I wouldn’t have done anything the way God has done it, so I can sit back and relax and trust He’s got me, He’s got my wife, my daughter, He’s got my sister, mother and dad, He’s got my close friends, He’s got acquaintances, He’s got the checker at Fred Meyer, He might even have people I don’t like and who appear to be far, far away from Him.

          That’s my trust in God.

          • I think it was Moltman who replied that he was not a universalist, but perhaps God might be. I have random thoughts toward it, which my evangelical upbringing shoos away as sinful. Yet, “I will draw all men unto myself” takes some acrobatics to digest, and yet we all know the Bible is crystal clear on everything Jesus said. Some people obviously – my eldest brother now deceased – want nothing to do with God. Or maybe just religion. Who am I to say what’s in God’s mind? We have only a faint and largely ignorant view of Grace. It’s just way over my pay grade so I can leave it up to God. Sorry a bit off topic….

            • Rick Ro. says

              –> “I have random thoughts toward it, which my evangelical upbringing shoos away as sinful.”

              My evangelical self calls my universalistic self a heretic, so I hear what you’re saying.

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              I think it was Moltman who replied…

              I read “Moltman” as “Mothman” for a moment.
              Real trippy mental image.
              (Sez the guy who’s trying to get to Point Pleasant WV the next time he’s on the East Coast…)

  4. john barry says

    A parent has a child, the parent loves the child unconditionally without any reservations. The child for whatever reason thinks his parent does not love him and refuses to acknowledge or accept the love of the parent. The parent always does and will love the child, nothing will change that. The parent dies loving the child as they always did and the child dies still not accepting the love of the parent.

    The child’s entire life was changed by the refusal , for whatever reason, to accept the love of the parent. The child’s life might be great, good or terrible but the rejection of the love of the parent is going to have great impact on the child. From the beginning the child does not have to do anything but be born to have the parent love them. The parent wants the child to do certain things, follow certain rules maybe 10 rules to make their life better but it is not transactional , the parent will love the child no matter what but the child may never really believe it or waste many years not accepting the love of the parent. I do not think a parents love is transactional. I do not think accepting a parents love is transactional. Sometimes we overthink and make it harder than it is.

    This would be a good parable and somebody should write it down

  5. senecagriggs says

    “Now and then we had the hope that if we lived and were good God would permit us to be pirates.”

    Mark Twain

    [ Still on my bucket list ]

  6. Adam Tauno Williams says

    Great Post! I’m down with it.

    We are indeed a deeply transaction culture. I’ve heard something like this described elsewhere as Autonomy vs. Sovereignty.

    Autonomy (maybe ~Individuality) is an illusion, but corresponds well to a transaction mind set. An Individualist can view nearly everything as a transaction between Me and Other. Yet time will teach everyone, eventually, how much individual power they actually have.

    The reality is that most of the time the Other isn’t really dealing, we’re fooling ourselves.

    This in contrast to Sovereignty, both mine and those of others. What is is, and I have some power to choose how *I* respond or react to that, which is my sovereignty. I can, of course, choose to be transactional, or not (Love is notably non-transactional).

    Aside: An interesting lesson from Game Theory is that one effective strategy is to deliberately break the cycle of reciprocity. In other words – to be non-transactional. Doing so throws everything off, as a strategy it creates unpredictability. Another word for unpredictability is “possibility”. It is not difficult to find “christian” undertones in that lesson.

  7. Christiane says

    it is interesting that when Henri Nouwen sought peace for his soul, he left the world of prominent academia and came to work for L’Arche, the refuge for developmentally disabled people run by his friend Jean Vanier. He was fleeing from fame and the company of prominent people.

    Where he went, he became care-giver for people who were simple and did not know ‘who he was’, they just needed help and kindness.

    Was that a quid pro quo? He helped them, and God gives him peace?
    Or was it something ELSE? Did the ‘disabled’ help Nouwen in another way . . . to find a renewed ‘center’ of humility before the Lord . . . . to see things in a vastly different light . . . . to be accepted as Henri who helped feed them and bath them and dress them, and not as the world-famous Nouwen, scholar, author, and priest and professor?

    ?

    I think those who want ‘transactional’ out to re-examine the ‘deal’. Sometimes ‘paradox’ is a more appropriate construct for ‘understanding’ what only the heart can teach us through loving-kindness.

    We don’t understand how this ‘deal’ works very well, until we have nothing to give except kindness. Maybe all God asks of us has to do with ‘love’. But we throw everything else into the bargain thinking we are ‘saved’ and can still go on having contempt for ‘the others’, belittling ‘the others’, pointing the finger at ‘the others’?

    ??

    • Christiane says

      John 13:7
      (Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”)

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > he left the world of prominent academia and came to work for L’Arche

      There is also Eccl 12:12 “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”

      As someone with a penchant for Intellectualism, and a lover of books and knowledge, I remember how this verse annoyed me. This from the wisest man ever? Wisdom and Knowledge are an Absolute Good!!!

      It took this more clever than average monkey until the age of ~40 to understand the teacher was correct.

      Wisdom and Knowledge can be hoarded just as well as gold, with the same soul rotting effect.

  8. Apologies in advance for the long post, but this IS the short version – the original essay was 20+ pages :-). I agree with Micheal Spencer – most evangelicals have a transactional way of dealing with God, but call it a ‘relationship’, a ‘faith’ relationship. I think the real issue is how we understand ‘faith’. To most evangelicals it is transactional, and viewed primarily as trust. But what often happens is we end up with faith in our faith (or our ‘faith experience’) – I walked the aisle, said the prayer, so it’s a done deal – I have a ‘relationship’ with God (NOT a ‘religion’ like them dang . . .).

    I have wrestled with this for some time. While in seminary I wrote my thesis on Jesus’ ‘take up your cross’ and related demands (222 pages of bedtime reading – right to sleep). In that I concluded that the primary demand of Jesus was repentance, and first-century Jews would have understood that not as a change of mind, but rather as a change of allegiances. That is what the Kingdom message is about in the synoptics: God is doing something new and it demands a change of allegiances, and that challenges all other allegiances – family, culture, nationality, ethnicity, even Torah itself.

    The dilemma (for me) has been that in Paul the requirement is ‘faith’ (pistis). I understood that faith in the Greco-Roman world would involve allegiances, since religion permeates everything in the ancient world. But how do you get from ‘repentance’ to ‘faith’? (the real subject of my unfinished Ph.D. thesis). What is the connection (or is there one)?

    I think the problem is that modern (or medieval) Christians don’t understand the social dynamics of the Greco-Roman world and read into the text our own ideas (or those of our culture, even our religious culture). We use the biblical words but they have different meanings to us than to the early Christians.

    The key is the patron-client relationship (this is the postage-stamp explanation). Someone of higher class or more wealth would often become a patron to someone of lesser standing (the client). Wealthy Romans might have dozens of clients, who would be provided some ‘benefaction’, from pulling some strings to get something done to providing a full income. The client would often be required to appear at the patron’s home each morning (with his other clients) to see what the patron needed from him that day. This is a great oversimplification, but it was the basic social relationship at all levels of Roman society – just about everyone had a patron, and usually had clients. (BTW, this is what Paul is talking about in 2 Thes 3 when he says those who don’t work don’t eat – he is discouraging Christians form becoming clients because of conflicting allegiances.)

    The terms used in this relationship are important. If I needed a favor from someone (or desired to be their client) i might ask someone to act as a ‘broker’ – someone who was already a client of a patron, or someone with the status of the patron, who would intercede for me to establish the relationship. What the patron provided was a ‘benefaction’. There were unspoken expectations of the client (which everyone knew), the most important being a public acknowledgement of the benefaction, and the most important, loyalty to the patron.

    Here is where it begins to come together:

    The term for the ‘broker’ is ‘parakletos’ – ‘advocate’ (1 John 2:1). Most Bibles translate it as ‘comforter’ (which in KJV times was much closer to correct), or counselor (terrible translation). Jesus is our advocate – the broker who intercedes with the Father (our patron) so we can become clients.

    The term for the ‘benefaction’ or ‘gift’ is – wait for it – ‘charis’ – GRACE!

    The term for the public acknowledgement is ‘epainos’, translated in the NT as ‘praise’.

    And finally, the term for the loyalty expected of the client is ‘pistis’ – faithfulness, usually translated in our Bibles as ‘faith’ (because, the translators are not ancient Greco-Roman Christians).

    So, in a nutshell, these ‘theological’ terms (grace, praise, faith) were NOT theological terms to the early Christians at all. They were sociological terms and they understood themselves to have become clients to the most generous of patrons, as a result of Jesus’ intercession for them. And their response to that greatest of benefactions was praise and loyalty, which is exactly what Jesus called for – allegiance. This was a ‘relationship’ not a transaction. And ‘faith’ is not the ‘key that opens the door’ to God’s grace; it is the response expected when someone receives that grace, the most generous gift.

    • Dana Ames says

      Excellent synopsis, Greg. Well done!

      Reading N.T. Wright in my mid-40s, after +20 years as an Evangelical, enabled me to grasp those sociological meanings. Although we don’t make a lot of those connections overtly in EOrthodox teaching, we do **act** as if we have those understandings – in worship, in the tenor of our prayers, in the attitude that comes through how we do things. It’s in the air we breathe, so to speak. But you have to be there for a while to catch it. And part of what makes Orthodoxy feel strange to people on their first exposure to it is the total lack of transactionalist underpinnings – not only does much of Protestant theology have those underpinnings, but so does our everyday life as we go about our business.

      If you have time, do go to Fr Stephen Freeman’s blog and read the articles “Being Saved – the Ontological Approach” and “The Ontological Model – part 2”; they are still on the front page of the blog.Fr Stephen in those posts is delineating much of the non-transactionalist understanding.

      Dana

    • Rick Ro. says

      Wow! Good stuff! Thanks for sharing, Greg!

    • john barry says

      Greg, The only person we know for sure that Jesus said would be in paradise with him is the thief on the cross. Did the thief act on faith at the last moment or was he moved by grace? Did the thief give his allegiance or did he accept the gift of salvation Jesus offered. What about the other thief who died without accepting the grace from God? Are both thieves with the Lord? Thanks for your well explained thoughts on the subject

      • john, I don’t know that either Jesus or the thief gave it much thought. It was so much a part of the air they breathed that it was just intuitively understood (like how we relate with our family). The thief did recognize Jesus as king, and thus submit to (or accept) his claims, so I assume that would be some form of allegiance. And if that thief had heard Jesus teaching (which usually seemed to include some call for allegiance) he probably didn’t need to spell it out. Other examples that aren’t explicit (since we like chapter and verse proof) are Zacchaeus (there has been much scholarly discussion about Zaccheaus, his promises, and Jesus’ response – was Zaccheaus simply defending himself by stating his normal practice? Or did he have a change of some kind and promise to begin doing this? Did Jesus receive [and forgive] him or did he simply proclaim that Zaccheaus had always been a ‘child of Abraham’?), and the ‘Rich Young Ruler’ (Mt 19, Mk 10, Lk 18) – he rejected Jesus call for allegiance (but is this incident a different telling of Jesus and Nicodemus, who may ultimately have become a disciple – the parallels have been noted). Again, we look for the ‘proof’ and details (and the right words to match our formulas – was Judas really ‘saved’ or not?) The ambiguity is probably because they simply didn’t think like we do (bullet points, airtight arguments, etc).

        Part of the problem, I suspect, is the Protestant fear of ‘works salvation’. Talk about allegiance or faithfulness causes some people to spy the works-righteousness bogeyman hiding behind every tree. That leads to the very transactionalism iMonk wrote about. As George Eldon Ladd pointed out some six decades ago, the kingdom of God is the ‘realm of salvation’ and repentance/allegiance/faith/faithfulness is the response to his gift/grace. It is not ‘do this and be saved’; it is ‘this is where life is found, come and be part of it’.

        • john barry says

          Greg as there is much we do not know it gets down to faith. As many Christians in the past and now were poorly educated and had little time for study it had to be boiled down to basics. Sometimes it is a matter of semantics, allegiance to you would be accepting salvation to my Grandmother. I do not think evangelicals have the fear of works as much as projected, as many do many community and mission works believing they are not necessary for salvation but as attempt to spread the Gospel and help others in word and deed. I respect your points and think it is worthy of much deep discussion. According to Mrs. Bullard , 5th grade Sunday school teacher repentance means change, from non believer to believer like the Monkee’s song, the base of evangelical belief is accepting Jesus as savior and that is where all the different paths start at.

      • Rick Ro. says

        –> “What about the other thief who died without accepting the grace from God?”

        Curiously (perhaps), after telling the one thief that he would be with him in paradise, Jesus didn’t then turn to the other and say, “But you won’t.”

        • anonymous says

          no, He didn’t

          He wasn’t a fundamentalist/evangelical/far right christian jerk

          • Robert F says

            And he didn’t exclude Judas from the Communion table, though he knew what Judas was about to do and the sin in his heart.

            He wasn’t a sacramental purist making sure only those who were religiously fit would receive the gift.

            • Rick Ro. says

              Another excellent example of Jesus’ non-condemnation!

              This short little discussion/train-of-thought makes me wonder… Were there ANY encounters Jesus had with ANYONE that he didn’t leave open-ended? Does he turn to ANYONE… even the worst of the worst, and say, “Guess what… you’re TOAST!” Heck, he doesn’t even call after the rich young ruler, “Yep, go ride yourself off to hell now!”

  9. The best example of transactionalism I can think of is from the original Conan the Barbarian movie when Conan prays to his god Crom before the final battle.

    “Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you will remember if we were good men or bad, why we fought, or why we died. No, all that matters is that two stood against many, that’s what’s important. Valor pleases you, Crom, so grant me one request, grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to hell with you!”

    • Christiane says

      good one, Stephen

      the ‘example’ that came to my mind is pretty sickening, this:

      the various witch trials that put women into circumstances where if they sank in deep water, they were innocent; and if they ‘floated’, they were guilty. Either way, it usually ended in death ’cause if the woman floated, she was declared guilty and strung up;
      as for the ones that sank into the deep, most drowned, although a few were hoisted up and survived being declared innocent after all . . . .

      some ‘transaction’ when to be declared ‘innocent’ you were dropped into deep water with your hands and feet bound . . . . you died, but if you stayed below and didn’t ‘float’, you WERE at least declared ‘innocent’

      not a good trade, I’d say, but my guess is that this was all the ‘entertainment’ of the times

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        some ‘transaction’ when to be declared ‘innocent’ you were dropped into deep water with your hands and feet bound . . . . you died, but if you stayed below and didn’t ‘float’, you WERE at least declared ‘innocent’

        FEATURE, NOT BUG.
        Ask any Witchfinder-General (who were paid from the witch’s assets, and split the take with the secular magistrates).

  10. Rick Ro. says

    In case anyone comes back to this thread of comments later, here’s a question I just read while preparing a Bible study on Isaiah 49. I thought it was relevant to this discussion.

    “What is one thing that convinces you that the Lord, and not some other god or force, is indeed the one you can trust?”

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