Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Eschatological Business: Remitting Debts – A Guest Series by Nathan Hitchcock

[Ed. note: This post is part of a guest-series by Nathan Hitchcock. Nathan is Associate Professor of Church History and Theology at Sioux Falls Seminary, and is the author of Karl Barth and the Resurrection of the Flesh. Click here for this series’ description; Introduction.]

When Christians go to work, they do so to forgive debts. They leverage their own honor to protect others’, as in the manager who takes the hit for a subordinate who violated company policy and lost a client. They challenge policies of economic exclusion, as with the city councilor simplifying procedures for start-up businesses. Sometimes they forgive in very explicit financial ways, finding a way to finance a home loan to someone with a ruined credit record. In all their work, Christians do meaningful labor by imitating the God who places Himself on the line to restore commerce.

The acknowledgement of one baptism for the forgiveness of sins is best understood through the eschatological lens: only those in Christ, those baptized into Christ, will God forgive in the end. Divine forgiveness extends to many instances through time, of course, but it is an act coincidental with the Last Judgment, properly speaking. The Bible depicts this moment as the day of reckoning: deeds will be exposed and rewards and punishments assigned (Isa 34:8; Mal 3:1-4; Matt 24:31-46; 2 Tim 4:8; Rev 20:11-15). At the great judgment, God deals conclusively with past accounts. At that time He will render a not-guilty verdict for the elect. He will end all alienation. Positively expressed, the Father will pour out on believers the inheritance belonging to them (Col 3:24; Heb 9:15; 1 Pet 1:4). That is God’s final work: to remit the debts of His people and enrich them so that they might be in royal fellowship with Him.

For all the western abuses of the doctrine of salvation, one may and must consider the forgiveness of sins a commercial idea. Contra well-meaning Orthodox soteriologists, the Bible is comfortable with the financial metaphor, speaking of sin in terms of debt, transfer, and restoration of credit (e.g., Lev 16:20-28; Psa 22:25; Matt 18:21-35; Luke 7:40-50; 2 Cor 8:9). God’s work is to deal with sin-debt by interposing His own wealth. The Church need not wring its hands when deciding whether to recite the Lukan “forgive us our trespasses” (Luke 11:4) or Matthew’s “forgive us our debts” (Matt 6:12). Neither should it be concerned over the nuances of the Greek eis aphesin hamartiōn or the Latin in remissionem peccatorum when professing the Nicene Creed. Trespasses are debts and forgiveness is remission – so long as one keeps in mind that all such terms deal principally with relational commerce. (The wrangling between west and east has been not about the use of forensic-commercial language, one might say, but the extent to which righteousness can be quantified.) In the end, salvation involves a transfer in which guilt, or bad debt, is eradicated and righteousness, or good debt, is established.

David Graeber in his remarkable history, Debt, argues persuasively that credit-debt systems (not bartering rituals) are the oldest and most fundamental ways of going about exchange. Even modern fiat currencies are largely matters of credit, as national governments invite (or coerce) persons to trust them as economic guarantors. The question becomes, then, not whether or not to have debt, but to whom one should be indebted and the terms of the indebtedness. In the divine economy God insists that we act as debtors to Him under the terms of the holy covenant. He eradicates our bad debt that we might take on proper indebtedness to Him.

The world is all too familiar with bad debt. Through unwise decisions or oppressive conditions, many end up in a species of obligation that can only be described as servitude. Unprotected by law, a tenant is reduced to subsistence farming. An elderly couple experiences health problems and amasses an insurmountable credit card balance. A drug dealer is unable to get out from under obligations to a criminal ring. A college student avoids her parents after crashing the family car. In all these cases monetary debt amounts to social powerlessness, whether through obligation to the wrong party, unfavorable terms, or a violation of trust. Bad debt is the cancer of social relations. It requires excision.

In the end God will purge such debt. The Lord of the “release” or “pardon” (Deut 15; Isa 61:1-4) will return to clean slates and destroy the evil economy with its creditors and merchants (Psa 94; Rev 18). Debt-remission is also a matter of dealing with humans’ own sins. Therefore the Lord who entered the business of “expiation” or “cleansing” of sin in the Levitical sacrificial system (Lev 4; Num 8:5-14) will perform the final purgation (1 Cor 3:13; Rev 20:14). Put in more social terms, God rightly demands honor, but sinful humans cannot pay the honor due Him. By their own doing sinners have distorted the generous terms of the covenant and are in default. The Father must apply the blood of the Lamb, “canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands” (Col 2:14, ESV). Ultimately, God grants shalom by remitting sin and dropping penalties.

Forgiveness is also the establishing of good debt. Indeed, there is such a thing as good debt! Consider the practice of paying for a friend’s lunch: one person says to her friend, “I’ve got the bill,” to which the other says, “You didn’t need to, but thanks. I’ll get it next time.” By paying for the check one friend has indebted the other, but only in a way that affirms their friendship and calls for another meeting.

The Bible commissions various forms of good debt: the Israelites were to remember their “perpetual due” to the Levites through their offerings (Lev 7:36) and burn bulls and rams routinely in order to produce “a soothing aroma before the LORD” (Exo 29:25). Within the believing community married couples owe each other sexual gratification (1 Cor 7:3-5) and all Christians are to observe “the continuing debt to love one another” (Rom 13:8, NIV). Good debt involves the practice of genuine reciprocity. Therefore, forgiveness may and should be understood as the advancing of good credit so that proper exchange may resume. (Here is where Anselm’s honor-based model of the atonement is, well, more satisfying than later penal theories.) The taking away of bad debt, with its poverty and alienation and fear, is coincidental with the creation of good credit, with its wealth and community and trust.

The God of the future insists on relational commerce. He who put forward the hilasmos (Rom 3:25; 1 John 2:2) will consummate the fellowship with a joyful wedding (Isa 62:4; Rev 21:1-2). While all human deeds must be weighed, at the last judgment believers are ultimately reliant upon Christ who interjects His own credit to overcome their sinful debts (Rom 5; 2 Cor 5:21). By His costly and gratuitous work God makes friends and inspires them to reciprocate in thanksgiving: “O to grace, how great a debtor / Daily I’m constrained to be.” God summons more and more humans into His economy. God seeks to be all in all, Creditor to all.

How then shall Christians work? By joining God in His work of the remission of debts. Of course, the work of the Church is largely centered around the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which comes with the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. With the task of evangelism, the Church exercises radical generosity. The Bible contains numerous examples of the believing community practicing hospitality and debt forgiveness in its own ranks (Lev 25; Acts 2:44-46; Rom 15:25-27). The mutual remission of sins is the necessary catalyst for Christian unity.

More broadly, however, Christians go to their jobs with the intent of remitting debt. In the world too they are agents of forgiveness. By the Spirit they make their work a foretaste of the coming kingdom where trespasses are erased and good standing is established.

Christians work toward the goal of eradicating bad debt. Accountants root out the manifold places for corruption and account distortion, keeping internal and external business relationships above board. Administrators specializing in medical coding look to reform billing language so that it does not obfuscate. Directly or indirectly, many Christians are financial counselors. Various non-profit agencies champion the cause of immigrants, refugees, the disabled, orphans, rehabilitating convicts, and other exposed people groups. In the overtly political realm, Christians do the hard work of creating legislation dealing with health insurance, investment policies, and short-term lending reforms. They fight against various forms of slavery, whether it be the ensnarement of girls led into prostitution, coercive labor through confiscated passports, or the enforcement of impossible national debt repayment plans. Christians are bad-debt killers.

Positively stated, Christians forgive by restoring good social indebtedness. In the banking world one finds immediate applications, as bankers serve as intermediaries who keep businesses in good standing. They empower the poor through microloans and restructure corporations to make them just, sustainable, and profitable. They keep the economy lubricated. Other professions facilitate positive debt too. Military and police exert great impact on community relations when acting righteously (cf. Luke 3:14). Christian social workers take on the difficult task of situating children in the best possible family networks, and Christian business persons wager their good standing to secure initial jobs for ex-convicts to assimilate into the workforce. Christian managers place themselves on the line to restructure institutions in ways that “humanize” work for others, shaping companies to prevent “alienation” between the worker and the work itself (cf. Volf, Work in the Spirit, 165). Eschatological business leads to healthy debt, to deep commerce.

Sometimes the work of forgiveness takes place under suspect conditions. Here in America there is a Christian car dealership owner who sells inexpensive cars, all under $5,000, to persons with destroyed credit. Customers typically make purchases with no cash down. As the default rate on the loans they take out is one-third, the Christian owner has set the interest at a whopping 30% APR. Even so, his seemingly usurious rate is in fact a fraction of payday loan rates – and this rate falls to 15% after customers make two successful monthly payments. His automotive business exists to reap personal profit and get people back on their feet again. Many of the customers are single mothers desperate to find reliable transportation to their jobs. This dealer is one of the few in town who will work with them to include them in the economy.

Occasionally the heathen act surprisingly Christian, as in the remarkable case of Arunachalam Muruganantham in the documentary Menstrual Man, who has repeatedly sacrificed his own social standing in order to help businesswomen in rural India manufacture sanitary pads. By selling women his basic machine on credit, he frees them to develop a business network, hire other women, and maintain a livelihood independent of abusive husbands and oppressive employers. They are not independent so much as newly situated within society. Good debt replaces bad debt.

Because of the broken condition of the present age, Christians are always having to ask themselves if their well-intended labors are helping or hurting others. Is a certain philanthropic work lifting the needy out of poverty or disempowering them through handouts? Is a certain gesture an act of grace or movement toward a codependent relationship? What are the unintended consequences of inserting the kingdom economy into the world’s?

Even so, work exists for Christians to act out grace to their neighbors. They know their future with the God who remits sin. In the Spirit and under the shadow of the cross, Christians labor to do the same. They give. They forgive.



W. Travis McMaken said...

Thanks once more for sharing this series with us here at DET, Nathan. Here are some thoughts that I have in response to this second installment:

First, I thought that your first post put the eschatological theme more creatively to work than did this one. Here, eschatology seems to function simply as a form of the divine sanction, the awareness of a final judgment as motivating factor for an obedient life. I’m not at all sure what to do about this, i.e., how to use eschatology in a more creative fashion here. You’re the budding expert, after all! But maybe even “realizing” your eschatology a little bit more would help, that is, finding a stronger way to talk about how eschatology takes shape here and now through the sort of acts that you recommend to Christians. This would need to be parsed with care but, since you’re a student of Barth, I know have some tools for such parsing. 

Second, I want to affirm the practical approaches that you highlight in this post. You have clearly thought carefully and deeply about how Christians who are involved in “business” might put their Christianity into practice. Some of the gestures that you suggest are “safer” than others, in the sense that they demand resisting the late capitalist economic system less than others, but there is nothing inherently wrong with that. We all grow and progress in our sanctification, etc., and one must begin somewhere.

Third, and as a “however” to my second point, nowhere in this post do you call in a straightforward way for fundamental revision of the late capitalist economic system. All of your illustrations are of people functioning within the system in redeeming ways, and this is – of course – important. But it seems to me that part of a Christian theology of work, especially an eschatological one, must be the relativizing of the present reigning economic system. Given that this system is, in fact, founded on “bad debt” (as you call it) and basic inequality, wouldn't you agree that it must be more clearly rejected than you have yet done?

Looking forward to your thoughts, and to the next installment!

W. Travis McMaken said...

That little square box in my comment was supposed to be a smiley-face. Oh well. :-)

J. Scott Jackson said...

Hi Nathan,

Thanks for another very stimulating post. I commend your attempt to suggest practical ways Christians might mirror divine grace and forgiveness in their everyday work and relationships.

I have a few questions too, though. Allow me to start at the most general level - the level of methodology. The issues you are covering seem to me to be about the economy of salvation and how it might impact, direct and shape economies of everyday human relationship. In discussing these economic interactions, you have chosen a set of terms that seems (to me) to be narrower than the relationships covered under the rubric "economy" or "theology of economy". You highlight terms like "commerce" and "business" in discussing the relationships of monetary (or credit) exchange between human beings -- e.g., between producers of goods and services and consumers.

Perhaps this is a matter of focus and emphasis. But I find, for my part, that it's impossible to think about such exchanges except against the backdrop of our broader economic relationships -- including those, say, between human beings in a family or community or between human beings and the broader ecological environment. As I'm sure you know, the Hellenistic and biblical notion of oikonomia is broad and inclusive indeed and in many respects frames the discussions about salvation within early Christian thought.

Does this make any sense? I feel as if I'm expressing my concern here too vaguely, and I apologize for that. But if would like to expand a little on your project and why you frame it in the terms that you do, it might help me get a little more clarity.

Nathan Hitchcock said...

Travis, I think the square is more pregnant with meaning than the average emoticon. I predict octagons will trend in 2015.

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul and hateful bird, a haunt of every foul and hateful beast. For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury” (Rev 18:2b-3, NRSV). And so goes our own prophesying. Babylon’s perversion, her governmental collusion, her gluttonous markets are as abhorrent to us, just as they infuriate the Judge of all. Her unscrupulous markets are rife with bad debt, even “slaves – and human lives” (Rev 18:13). We issue our No.

And yet, setting aside the issue of how much our “late capitalist” economy corresponds with Babylon, I suggest that the Church’s No exists for the sake of its Yes. The God who judges Babylon is the same who commands His people to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,” namely, “pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7). Indeed, Babylon is ostensibly one of the cities from which “the kings of the earth will bring their glory” into the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:24). Christians participate in Babylon’s economy and work to include others, especially the poor, so long as the fire of God tarries.

Let me continue by responding to Scott.

Nathan Hitchcock said...

Scott, I value your question because it gets at the problem of how to classify and weigh this kind of theology. Folks in the Faith at Work Movement have lamented the dearth of theologies of work through the centuries. But on closer observation Christians have had a lot to say about work. It's just that, historically, work and economics have been subsumed under political philosophy, ethics, and ecclesiology (cf. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers. Only relatively recently has economics been isolated as its own discipline in the academy (though economics clearly has politics, sociology, religion, and a host of other disciplines stirring beneath the surface).

Tell me if this sounds right: you and Travis are balking on account of two approaches in "Eschatological Business." First, the articles privilege the economic idiom over the sociopolitical. Second, the articles are written with a certain stress on personal vocation. Both ways of constructing a theology of work leave the door open for an individualist interpretation, which in turn can leave unchallenged the status quo.

I acknowledge this concern. I myself feel it. But let me pose a question back: Is an eschatological theology of work necessarily revolutionary?

J. Scott Jackson said...

Thanks for cutting to the chase. I won't speak for Travis. He's of age and, though young (in relation to me), well advanced in the ways of wisdom. I myself have not researched theologies of work, so I'm a learner here. So far, I think, I'm still trying to psyche out where you stand or where your position is situated on a number of fundamental issues. I am guessing. Forgive me if I guess incorrectly or, better yet, enlighten me.

Are these my quibbles, then?

"First, the articles privilege the economic idiom over the sociopolitical."

I'm not sure I'd put it quite that way. I think we need to come to some clarity about how we define the terms "economic" and "sociopolitical". I'm not, by a long shot, an economist. But from what tidbits I've garnered from those better informed than I, there is something of an arbitrary cleavage between these two realms of discourse in the contemporary period than there was in the classical period of political economists. The way I'd want to approach economics, especially as a theologian rather than a specialist in that field, would be very broad indeed and would encompass broadly humanistic concerns as well -- as in some of the earlier, more politically oriented writings of Marx. If that's the approach to economics that's informing your work -- and I feel safe in assuming it probably isn't -- it would be helpful for me if you could lay out, briefly at least, your own understanding and commitments.

"Second, the articles are written with a certain stress on personal vocation."

I don't see how I can object to that, on the face of it. As you point out, vocation is a preoccupation of theologians past and present, and don't see how I could reasonably object to that per se.

"Both ways of constructing a theology of work leave the door open for an individualist interpretation, which in turn can leave unchallenged the status quo."

Well, that remains to be seen, I guess. I'm glad you're aware of that danger, and it seems to me you have resources lined up to meet that potential objection. After all, many of the believers who drove social reform in the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries (sadly, not as much in the last century, it seems to me) worked out of pietistic evangelical convictions. There is nothing, on the face of it, that entails a focus on individual vocation entails socio-political quietism. Far from it. One of my teachers spoke of modern figures who sought to integrate the "mystical" and the "political" dimensions of existence, which seems to me another way of articulating the same basic concern.

Finally, "Is an eschatological theology of work necessarily revolutionary?"

That depends, it seems to me, upon 1) the shape of one's eschatology and 2) how one maps that eschatology onto concrete commitments. So, for example, many have pointed to certain "elective affinities" (to use a Weberian term, I think) between certain kinds of apocalyptic eschatology and a revolutionary praxis -- say, among the radical sects of the 16th century or, closer to our time, the religiously infused revolutionary activism of John Brown. (But not, obviously, the kind of apocalyptic that characterizes the *Left Behind* phenom.)

I will put my own cards on the table somewhat, if that helps, and say that the Gospel, as I understand it, is intrinsically revolutionary. But I affirm the Barthian caveat that the revolution stems from the action of the God who loves in freedom and can't allow itself to simply co-opted by this or that partisan concern. So Barth himself sojourned among the religious socialists, for example, but maintained a critical stance vis-a-vis this movement. I've probably already said too much about my own views, but you did ask.

W. Travis McMaken said...

I want to take a chance to jump in here quickly before you and Scott take the conversation too far afield while I’m in class…

You asked, Nathan: “Is an eschatological theology of work necessarily revolutionary?”

First, revolution means the upending (or revolving) of the system, i.e., turning things upside down. Given that imagery, it is hard for me not to think of Matthew 20.16. So in this sense, I think all eschatology must finally be revolutionary in aim.

Second, it is another question whether eschatology – and an eschatology of work – must be revolutionary in method. This I take to be a contextual judgment that must be made in the light of a careful assessment of the socio-political-economic system that the church finds itself living within. Now, it just so happens that I have made such a judgment personally about global capitalism: I think revolution is necessary. The core of the system is too corrupt and corrupting – that is, fundamentally un-just – for incrementalism alone to address.

Does this mean that there isn’t a place for micro-revolutions of the sort that you suggest, small gestures that undermine the values of the system? Of course not. But I worry that, in your altogether valid concern to give your readers ideas about concrete steps that they can take now, the revolutionary goal is neglected.

Anonymous said...

I'm really intrigued by this idea of good debt. I remember when I was a kid being told by my father that Jesus was still fully human and that he would remain fully human for all time. Somehow, up until that point, this idea had escaped me. I still remember how shocked I was by the scandalous idea that the second person of the Trinity would remain like me forever. I had just assumed that since my sin (debt) had been taken care of, there was no longer any need for the Son of God to remain incarnate. Note my very western and modern view of debt! To this day, I am careful to emphasize this point (the eternal nature of the incarnation) with my students, and they always look as shocked as I felt when I was first exposed to the idea. The fact that Jesus remains eternally one of us seems to support this idea of good debt being part of God's economy, or, more strongly, being the main point of God's economy. God doesn't just want to fix our debt problem, he wants to draw us into relationship with himself. It is the eschaton and the eternality of the incarnation that tells us God's ultimate intentions. We so often assume that the incarnation was simply God's plan to deal with sin/bad debt. But really, isn't that just a side note (an important one, certainly)? Isn't God's real intention to establish good debt with us? In other words, to establish an eternal relationship, in which we begin to establish good debt as we follow his example?

Nathan Hitchcock said...

Scott and Travis, your responses are helpful. They are going a long way in shaping my footnotes (which are omitted from the DET version). The distinction between aim and method is particularly useful, as the two are related but hardly equivalent.

I have had modest hopes that the theological lens of "remission of debts" would generate some language for various parties across the political spectrum. Can these terms be used as currency among the political left? It sounds like the erasure of "bad debt" resonates, but the creation of "good debt" is not yet getting traction.

I've noted that the president did not allude to my article in his address last night. Rebekah stole all the attention.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Glad that the conversation is proving helpful! :-)

You're right about last night - Big O missed a serious opportunity there.

With reference to the language of "good debt" and whether this can gain traction. You suggest it might be hard for the left, but I think it would be hard for the right as well. Can you image a Tea Party type getting excited about generating some good debt? And on the left, the worry would be that this is just another piece of language that our capitalist overlords can co-opt to our detriment, by - among other things - coming up with convoluted arguments for why what we normally would think of as "bad debt" is actually "good debt," etc.

J. Scott Jackson said...

(Shrugs) I've given up on the President, Nathan. I don't think he even reads DET, not even after I wrote all those posts on the Niebuhrs. And I have little hope things will improve when Ms. Clinton assumes office. Though back in the day some used to claim the Clintons were influenced by Reinie, but I wonder if her tastes might not lean more toward (and this is going to get me into trouble) Machiavelli.

At any rate, I affirm your appropriation of the debt remission trope. It's very biblical after all, what with the Jubilee concept in the OT and it's resonances especially in Luke's Gospel.

Like Comrade Travis, though, I do stumble a bit at your retrieval of "good debt" here. First, in the sphere of soteriology proper, I worry about whether this notion of the "good debt" we owe to God for our redemption might give a wrong impression, that it even might enable a kind of semi-Pelagianism (though I'm not accusing you of heading that way yourself). After all, it seems to me, the "debt" I owe to God in salvation seems to be radically incongruous with the debt of sin I owed, that Christ paid on the cross through a sheer gift. "But the free gift is not like the trespass" (Rom. 5:15 NRSV). It seems that the use of debt language vis-a-vis the life of faith, as in the famous hymn by Watts is highly paradoxical:

"But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give my self away
’Tis all that I can do."

But "all that I can do" is never enough, is it, because that debt is infinite and there's no way in hell (or on earth) that I can ever repay this? It's always sheer gift. My bad debt has been paid in a final conclusive way, and I'm uncomfortable with using equivalent language for describing he situation under grace. (Perhaps I'm a krypto-Lutheran here).

Not so our human relationships. How do I relate the "good debt" I owe God in Christ to the car dealer's loans to low income patrons in your example. I'm struggling to find a congruity here. Now I have no problem affirming the dealer as a godly person who is doing the best he can to both feed his own family and lend a helping hand to those in need -- under conditions that are less than ideal, I think you'd have to admit. The situation seems pretty crappy to me and suggests that we might try to envision some more equitable systemic economic alternatives. The borrower-lender relationship we have in late modern capitalism suggests to me more the tragedy of the fall more than it does the economy of grace.

Thanks for the thoughtful provocations -- I'm hungry to read more. I'm in your debt.

J. Scott Jackson said...

My last comments sound more trenchant than I had expected. I hope some of it is helpful for the discussion.

Nathan Hitchcock said...

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Rom 5:1-2, NRSV).

“Sin will not dominate you now, because you are not locked in bad debt but in good debt” (Rom 6:14, wilder-than-Peterson paraphrase).

I’m glad the conversation has taken a soteriological turn, as there should be some kind of baseline agreement about the economy of grace. Anonymous, thank you for calling attention to the Christological basis for our positive debt-relations with God. You’re spot on. The resurrection and ongoing mediation of the incarnate Son of God grounds the beautiful, perpetual relationship we have to God. If the story ends with Jesus’ crucifixion – which has been the temptation of western soteriology – all that is accomplished is the removal of bad debt. But the cross in itself does nothing to facilitate new commerce with the Father. We need a living mediator to govern the living covenant. The risen Christ’s mediation of good debt is the basis for Christians’ pursuit of good debt in the world.

Scott, to rephrase your concern, you raise the important question of whether “good debt” is inherently within the orbit of law-based righteousness. Watts’ hymn certainly suggests this orientation. This is the fruit, I contend, of basing sanctification on inspiration from God’s past gift rather than faith in the ever-risen Christ. Nicholas von Zindendorf’s blood-soaked mantra (“This have I done for you; what will you do for me?”) falls into that trap. I heard an early version of John Milbank’s gift-theology that struck me the same way. Wiser is the Heidelberg Catechism, which holds together our active response with the objective work of the triune God: “Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, is also restoring us by his Spirit into his image, so that with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits” (Q&A 86).

Nevertheless, for the sake of Christian ethics I don’t want to insist on an Augustinian doctrine of grace. Semi-Pelagian or not, Charles Wesley gets it right as his hymn continues: “Let Thy goodness, like a fetter / Bind my wand’ring heart to Thee.” Let God’s goodness, His real and active goodness, bind our wandering hearts to Him! Then we will work under grace and not law.

Nathan Hitchcock said...

One more response to you, kind conversationalist Scott. My intuition is that you may not need to sign up with the Lutherans on account of your doctrine of salvation, but your two kingdoms ethics may warrant it!

Here I'll out myself as reformed, that is, reformed in the ethical pattern of distinction and correspondence. The car salesman's actions are distinct from, but correspond to, the economy of grace. His actions are not God's, certainly, and his work in the worldly sphere is not the same as his participation in the ecclesiastical sphere. Yet his work in the world is, by the Spirit, analogous to God's work (debt forgiveness) and analogous to the Church's task (proclamation of the forgiveness of sins in Christ). Grimy as the dude is, he is going about holy work.

J. Scott Jackson said...

Uh oh. If my train is indeed headed toward two-kindgoms ethics, I may have to consider switching tracks at the next depot.

Much to think about. Thanks for your replies.

Anonymous said...

I have a question that maybe is too narrow or off the path of the subject of these articles, but I was pushed to think of a different topic when reading about the "menstrual man." It seems he is very much like the Christian in his work of remitting debt, yet he is not a believer. This "heathen" apparently has tapped into doing something good while not ever having experienced the power of Jesus. How do we make sense of these examples of people "doing good" when they do not belong to the kingdom society we Christians do? Is there a difference between "doing good" and "being good?"

Nathan Hitchcock said...

Anonymous, apparently Scott Jackson has taken up your question seriously and posted an entire article in response. Nice turnaround, Scott!

Given the climate of American ethics these days, I wouldn’t recommend invoking the righteous pagan too often, lest the secular humanists think too highly of their program of milquetoast morality. But I did so here in part because Muruganantham illustrates debt remittance so well, in part because I want to make clear that the goodness of work rests objectively in God’s work. To the extent that humans walk in the imitation of God’s final forgiveness, resurrection, and recreation, their own work is good. That means that Muruganatham’s work should be counted genuinely good, and genuinely praiseworthy. It also means that Christians have a considerable advantage in doing good work. They do it and they get it. They get it and they do it. Now, does that make Christians “good” or just graced?

I’m going to muse on Scott’s poignant meditation and pick up the conversation there. http://derevth.blogspot.com/2015/01/so-what-difference-does-theology-make.html

J. Scott Jackson said...

We like to keep the conversation going. That's what we do here.

If I took your anecdote too far out of context (which seems likely), I'll take personal responsibility for that. But I'm teachable.