SEI Online Journal
Ex Corde Ecclesiae Cogitans
Ex Corde Ecclesiae Cogitans
Welcome to the online journal of the St Edward’s Institute for Christian Thought (SEI). The SEI seeks to promote academic scholarship that engages with contemporary culture and the Christian faith. We value the intersection between rigorous and critical academic learning with the life of prayer and devotion to the beauty of the Gospel. These types of engagement occur across all academic disciplines and the SEI supports such scholarship taking place in, and arising from, the heart of the church—in particular, the Anglican Church of England.
St Edward, King & Martyr, is located in city-centre Cambridge in the midst of one of the oldest and most significant universities in the world. The church was established around 1000 AD but later, in 1446, King Henry VI gave the parish church to Trinity Hall and Clare College so that he might build King’s College Chapel where it stands today.
Since that time, St Edward’s has remained a parish church but is unique in that it remains under the authority of the master of Trinity Hall rather than the Bishop of Ely. Due to this arrangement, St Edward’s became a church of safe harbor for priests during the Reformation period who wanted to preach reformed ideas that were filtering through the university in the 16th century. Catholic priests such as Hugh Latimer, Thomas Bilney and Robert Barnes were among those who were able to speak on subjects of faith and living that could not be censored by the Bishop. Other scholars also found a safe haven at St Edward’s and thus the church became the cradle of the English reformation in Cambridge.
These scholar-priests engaged with and discussed the biblical text and theological ideas that were critical to the formation of the English church and society. They sought to express the fullness of the Gospel in their culture and within the university. And this is what we want to achieve through this online journal. We hope it will be a place where Christian ideas can be expressed and discussed for the benefit of the church and the broader culture without the current polarization that affects so much of the dialogue in the world today.
The pieces published here will reflect a wide variety of disciplines but will not always express the views of St Edward’s church. They will all, however, share a common theme of offering Christian viewpoints on contemporary topics with the hope of articulating and revealing the truth of the Gospel and its relevance to the contemporary world. The writings will come from both emerging and established scholars. Many of our writers will be PhD students who participate in our weekly Scriptorium at the church. This is a small community dedicated to the life of prayer, fellowship and study. Other articles will be from scholars and friends associated with the SEI who have a similar vision for the church, academic scholarship and the university.
We hope you enjoy and are enriched by these writings. And we hope that in a digital age of so much misinformation, you may discover reflections of truth from scholars committed to a life of discipleship within their academic pursuits here in Cambridge and from others associated with the SEI.
Mark W. Scarlata
Director of the SEI & Vicar-Chaplain of St Edward’s Church
Mark W. Scarlata
As I sat down to write this article I was struck by an advertisement that popped up in my browser. In pronounced bold, green typeface it read ‘No Limits’. Behind the words was a picture of a very fit athlete running in full stride. The ad was for a protein supplement that would apparently cause the human body to go faster, run farther and become stronger than ever before. The words appeal to a deep desire in the modern human psyche to push beyond all limitations, to be held back by nothing and to achieve anything we set our minds to. The problem with the ad, and with our desire for human limitlessness, is that it encourages a false doctrine of unlimited human expansion. It fosters the belief that justifies our unrestrained consumption. Limitless growth, limitless production, limitless technology, limitless energy—all become foundational ideals for a limitless humanity. Every human, many believe, is entitled to the pursuit of limitlessness no matter what environmental destruction or social desolation they leave in their wake.
In his article ‘Faustian Economics’ farmer and poet Wendell Berry writes, ‘The problem with us is not only prodigal extravagance but also an assumed limitlessness.’
Berry recognizes that our view of limitlessness implies the ideal that every person can pursue whatever their heart desires. It offers free license to take, plunder and consume as much as we see fit for the sake of progress, growth and the fulfillment of human destiny. Berry contends that when this belief becomes normalised in a technological society our industries become driven by efficiency to make possible maximum gains at any cost. Yet unlimited profits and success result in the ‘minimization of neighborliness, respect, reverence, responsibility, accountability, and self-subordination—this is the “culture” of which our present leaders and heroes are the spoiled children’.
Berry goes on to compare our culture to the tragic character in Christopher Marlowe’s Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Faustus makes a bargain with the devil to sell his soul for the possession of all knowledge and power. He wants to be limitless. He wants to experience the vastness of humanity’s potential in himself. He wants to be everything that the ordinary Doctor Faustus is not. In the course of events he is assigned a subdevil, Mephistophilis, who eloquently explains what is truly limitless:
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, but where we [the damned] are is hell,
And where hell is must we ever be.
Though Mephistophilis warns Faustus of the sorrow and pain he will endure in hell, the man is determined to acquire extraordinary powers even if it be for only twenty-four years. Yet like Icarus, like those determined to construct a tower in Babel that reached the heavens, the end of Faustus is that he is doomed to suffer for trying to grasp those things beyond his limits.
One problem with Doctor Faustus, and the problem with the doctrine of human limitlessness, is the underlying presumption that we cannot be truly free if we function only within the limitations of our human experience and within the particular places we inhabit. Limitlessness assumes that enforcing boundaries on human activity is the equivalent of binding and shackling the human spirit. When we associate our understanding of ‘freedom’ with limitlessness we begin to justify our consumption, expansion and control over the natural world as an exercise of our God-given rights. The modern industrial and technological world has convinced us that life without expansion and ‘progress’ is not worth living—that to live within the natural limits of our environment is to fail as human beings and to settle for second best. The very concept of self-restraint for the sake of others in our local communities, or for the care of our families, or for generosity in how we use our resources, might very well be labeled communist propaganda by some. To others the thought of temperance and being satisfied with what we can produce in a world of limited resources is a direct attack on one’s ‘freedom’.
This doctrine of limitlessness particularly rings true in our relationship with technology today. The principles of the industrial revolution undergird the digital revolution that we have experienced over the past decades—expansion and growth are only limited by our imaginations and the technology that we can create. If there is a problem, then it can be solved through a new and better machine. If we need greater efficiency, then new programming and faster computers are the answer. This ideology now extends to our very human bodies with recent movements towards computer or other machine implants. If the human body is ‘weak’, then we can build it better through technology. Neural cognition and the power of the mind is reduced to digital codes that can be reprogrammed or re-engineered if we have the right technology. The goal of some tech companies is to enhance our minds by connecting them to the power of supercomputers and thereby creating ‘advanced’ human beings.
Underlying these projects is the drive towards limitlessness and the exercise of our human freedom to go beyond what anyone has done before.
Freedom in Leviticus
A significant counter argument to the doctrine of limitlessness can be found in one of the most neglected and misunderstood books of the Bible—Leviticus. To most modern readers, Leviticus presents a strange and impenetrable world where blood, sacrifice, cultic purity and legislation around morality seem like relics of an ancient past that has little, if any, relevance to the digital world. Yet within the commands given to Moses at Mt. Sinai we find limitations and restrictions that are given to the Israelite community to help them live in relationship to God, to one another and to the creation. To flourish as a human being in Leviticus is not to pursue limitlessness but, rather, it is to pursue holiness—to be holy as God is holy (Lev 19.2).
To pursue holiness requires the knowledge that God’s holiness penetrates all aspects of creation. In Leviticus God’s holiness is made fully manifest in the tabernacle, or the tent he commands the Israelites to construct which will serve as his home on earth. Like a nuclear powerplant in the midst of his people, God’s holiness radiates outward to the community, to the land and to all creation creating distinct boundaries and restrictions on how to approach his holiness. The whole world is sacred according to Leviticus because God is fully present in the world. And it’s because of his presence and order in the world that Israel is given instructions on how to live within this reality and how to grow in holiness.
There are any number of examples that we could use from Leviticus to demonstrate how we can follow the patterns of holiness that God gives in his instructions to Israel. In each one there is always the underlying assumption that Israel’s place in the world is one that comes by grace. There is no room for arrogance, hubris or self-conceit since God is the one who saved them from death and slavery in Egypt and because he is Lord of the land where he will plant them. And it’s in relation to the land that we find many of the commandments concerning how Israel should live in order to experience the full blessing of God’s promise.
In the prescriptions around the Jubilee and the redemption of all Israelites in the fiftieth year God reminds his people, ‘The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants’ (Lev 25.23). The most striking words here are ‘alien, stranger’ (Hebrew gēr) and ‘tenant, sojourner’ (Hebrew tōshāb) because God has previously referred to Israel as his ‘first-born son’ (Exod 4.22-23). Why has the language of Father/son been replaced here by alien/sojourner? It seems likely that its use in this context is to prevent Israel from using their chosen status as a means to abuse the land or their neighbour. They are still God’s children, but that does not give them license to do as they please either to the land or to those within their community. God reminds his people that they do not have inalienable rights to the land but that they are like tenants limited by the prescriptions of the Lord of the land.
Within this framework we come to a series of commands that seem like they emerge from ancient superstitions rather than a call to holiness. Immediately following the commandment to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev 19.18), which Jesus cites as the second great commandment (Matt 22.39; Mark 12.31), we find three injunctions dealing with three aspects of agrarian life.
You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials (Lev 19.19).
The first restriction on breeding animals deals with the natural boundaries created between species. You might breed different types of horses together, but we somehow transgress the natural order of creation if we try to breed a horse with a camel or a cow with a sheep. This relates back to Genesis 1 where God orders all life ‘according to its kind’. Every species, both plant and animal, are commanded to be fruitful and multiply, but they must do so with others of their kind. The idea is that God’s established order offers a framework or boundaries in which the farmer might work. Israel should not try to improve what God has created by mixing certain species together. Instead, they should preserve the wholeness and holiness of the plant and animal kingdom by maintaining the proper divisions God has established. Loving our neighbour extends to the respect we have for the integrity and preservation of the complex web that exists between all life in God’s creation.
Ellen Davis highlights the fact that mixing between similar species (plant or animal) has been a part of agrarian practice for centuries. ‘Whereas traditional hybridization mixes genes among varieties within a species or between closely related species, transgenic engineering devises crosses between kingdoms: plant, animal, bacterial, and viral.’
The question we might ask is whether some modern uses of DNA manipulation go against natural genetic compositions that preserve the integrity of individual organisms.
Davis rightly argues that Leviticus offers us a paradigm that ‘should guide us in determining what might constitute holiness with respect to our culture’s scientific, agricultural, and eating practices.’
Rather than allowing technology to dictate how we use the tools developed in the modern world, Leviticus reminds us to live in humility, taking our place within the world and working within the boundaries of God’s creation rather than forging our own paths simply because we can.
The second restriction on sowing two types of seed in the same field is concerned with husbandry and how the farmer manages his crops. In some instances, planting two types of seed could be beneficial, like planting corn and pole beans together. The corn stalk can provide support for the bean vine and the beans add nitrogen to the soil needed for the corn to grow. There is the additional benefit of reducing the risk of pests and diseases that may attack some plants and not others. The question of hybridization between seeds is not the problem since they would retain their own distinction even if planted next to each other. So why the commandment?
In this case we see that the physical mixing poses no threat to integrity of the species, but the symbolism seems to indicate that mixing two types of seed in the same field is closely related to the mixing of different types of animals. Earlier in Leviticus the priests are commanded to ‘distinguish between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean’ (Lev 10.10). In the same way, the average Israelite farmer is to maintain distinctions and purity in the land. The analogy between farmer, priest, and the land is not accidental. God’s command to till and keep the land (Gen 2.15) is treated as a sacred act. The prophet Isaiah also commends the wisdom of the Lord that is reflected in the farmer’s orderly sowing and reaping from the land (Isa 28.23-29). Despite the potential benefits of mixing crops, the symbols of purity and distinction are to be maintained in Israel’s fields to remind them that they are a distinct and holy people. In this regard, they are also reminded that the land is not theirs to manipulate as they please even if it might increase their yields. They are still aliens and sojourners on the land.
The last command prohibiting the mixing of fabrics likely has to do with mixing that takes place in the divine realms.
Jacob Milgrom points out that some of the high priest’s garments, and portions of the tabernacle, were made of linen and wool (see Exod 26.31; 28.6, 15; 39.2, 5, 8, 29). We also find this in the cherubim (a mixed divine creature) on top of the ark (Ezek 1.5-11).
We are reminded again of the symbolic categoriesthat form a framework around these restrictions. Mary Douglas argues that these symbols express, ‘the relation between parts of society, as mirroring designs of hierarchy or symmetry which apply in the larger social system.’
The outward sign of wearing something made of one material may have been yet another reminder of Israel’s call to purity and not trying to improve on God’s creation. This might not make pragmatic sense to us today but within the symbolism and teaching around God’s holiness it may have offered another physical reminder of Israel’s call to purity and holiness and their submission to life within God’s order.
These three examples governing daily life on the farm offer simple, paradigmatic commands that situate the Israelites in their call to be a holy people and their role as tenants who care for the Lord’s land. The concept of human limitlessness is curtailed by God’s prescriptions but this does not result in the limitation of freedom. In fact, obedience to the commands with the humility to accept divine governance over creation leads to holiness, life and the blessing that God promises in his covenant. In the mind of the authors of Leviticus, transgressing the commands for the sake of human ingenuity or ‘progress’ leads to chaos and threatens the very life that God intends for his people. As Berry writes, ‘Our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements, but rather are inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning.’
The argument against human limitlessness is not merely some Luddite opposition to new technologies. Scientists should be the great artists of our age and technology experts should be among the great dreamers of society. But both science and technology must find their place within the created order and be at the service of human relationships and our relationship to the land. Science and technology can help reveal the wonders of creation but must do so with respect to betterment of the land and society.
Living within the natural boundaries of God’s creation, as seen through the lens of Leviticus, is a life where human beings can celebrate the blessing, fertility and fullness of his creation. We are also reminded that we are ‘aliens and tenants’ on the land, abiding under the authority of God’s command. Living as a tenant on the land requires humility and a vision of ‘smallness’ as we care for what has been entrusted to us. Smallness in the sense of knowing our place, rooting ourselves in the land and community right outside our doors. Smallness in the sense of recognising, and being connected to, the rhythms of our particular locale. Only when we truly understand our limits within the vastness of creation will we have the freedom to explore the limitlessness of God’s blessing in the places where we are. Then may we begin to discover the fullness of William Blake’s famous words, ‘To see a world in a grain of sand, or heaven in a wildflower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.’
About the Author
Mark W. Scarlata is lecturer in Old Testament at St. Mellitus College, London. He is also the vicar-chaplain of St. Edward, King and Martyr and the director of the St. Edward’s Institute for Christian Thought. He has recently published, A Journey through the World of Leviticus: Holiness, Sacrifice and the Rock Badger(Cascade, 2021) and will soon publish The Theology of Leviticus in the Cambridge University Press Old Testament Theology series. He has also written on the Sabbath (Sabbath Rest: The Beauty of God’s Rhythm for a Digital Age, 2019) and a theological commentary on Exodus (The Abiding Presence, 2017).
 Wendell Berry, ‘Faustian Economics’, in The World-Ending Fire (London: Penguin Random House, 2017), 209. Also found in Harper’s Bazar 2008 https://harpers.org/archive/2008/05/faustian-economics/.
 Berry, ‘Faustian Economics’, 211.
 Berry, ‘Faustian Economics’, 213. Marlow, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, scene I, lines 77, 85-6.
 E.g. see Elon Musk’s Neuralink (www.neuralink.com) company that researches the interface between human minds and machines. Musk has said that the technology will ultimately be able to help with all sorts of neural diseases. ‘These can all be solved with an implantable neural link. The neurons are like wiring, and you kind of need an electronic thing to solve an electronic problem’. (https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/8/28/21404802/elon-musk-neuralink-brain-machine-interface-research). The idea that the brain can be ‘fixed’ like a computer is the type of reductionism that occurs when we fail to see the vast complexity of the human body and senses in our experience of the world.
 There is also a Transhumanist agenda which moves beyond trying to improve the physical body to forsaking it all together. The goal of transhumanism is to go beyond the limits of death through technology and the expansion of consciousness and intelligence. For more see the Transhumanist Declaration (https://itp.uni-frankfurt.de/~gros/Mind2010/transhumanDeclaration.pdf). See also Norman Wirzba, This Sacred Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 34-60.
 For more on Leviticus see Mark Scarlata, A Journey Through the World of Leviticus: Holiness, Sacrifice and the Rock Badger (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2021).
 Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 88.
 See the discussion on genetic manipulation of seeds in Vandana Shiva, The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Economy and Politics (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2016), chapter 2.
 Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, 90. Another example might be found in the recent transplant of a pig heart into a human being (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-00111-9). This seems to be a clear transgression of Levitical principles and we might question the end result. Is it right to extend life through an animal transplant into a human being simply because we have the technology to do so? Especially in the light of heart transplant research that demonstrates muscle memory and changes in personality in those who receive transplants (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31739081/).
 Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22 (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 1660-65.
 Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, 1656-65.
 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: The Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1966; 2002), 4.
 Berry, ‘Faustian Economics’, 217.
Over the Christmas holidays – a period that television networks predictably mark with reruns of classic films and serials – I had the pleasure of rewatching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Despite knowing the script virtually back-to-front, I noticed a pattern in the closing sequence that had previously escaped my attention. On the surface Indiana Jones must navigate a threefold series of deadly boobytraps in order to retrieve a mystical artefact. But below the surface the entire sequence is a reenactment of the fundamental aspects, and order, of traditional Christian liturgy: Firstly, Jones faces the “breath of God”, which “only a penitent man” may pass through unharmed. Secondly, Jones must follow in the “word of God”, which requires the application of his understanding to properly spell “Jehovah” and then put his feet on the correctly lettered steeping-stones. Thirdly, Jones must perform a literal “leap of faith”, where he offers himself to a seemingly empty chasm only to find a hitherto invisible bridge firmly beneath his feet. All this, of course, precedes Jones properly discerning and drinking from the restorative and life-giving Cup of Christ – the Holy Grail. To make the significance of this pattern explicit, there is (corporeal) confession, then the reception and application of God’s Word, then a form of offertory (a self-surrender to God’s mercy, as opposed to trusting in one’s own righteousness or reason), and finally participation in the Eucharistic Cup of Christ – Holy Communion.
It would be entirely possible to elaborate further on how even minute details in these scenes convey genuine and profound theological and liturgical Christian truth (surprising as that may be!). However, I want to draw attention to merely one such detail. The first obstacle Jones faces (“the breath of God”) is revealed to be a mechanised circular blade that periodically swings out of a side wall just below head-height. Whilst “only a penitent man may pass”, it is of course readily apparent that merely thinking penitent thoughts isn’t going to help the intrepid archaeologist avoid decapitation. Only at the very last moment does Jones realise what characterises the penitent man approaching a Holy God. He kneels.
In the twelfth chapter of The Emotional Power of Music (2013), philosopher Jenefer Robinson summarises three theoretical models of how various emotional responses are elicited in human beings.
The first is the cognitive appraisal model, wherein a human subject evaluates an object or event, thereby triggering the inner emotional state congruent with that evaluation. This model is favoured by “most theorists of emotion” across a wide range of disciplines.
The second is the action tendency model, wherein an object or event demands a particular action from a human subject, thereby triggering the inner emotional state that will best prepare the body to perform said action. This model is principally associated with the psychologist Nico Frijda, who is building on James Gibson’s idea that objects afford certain interactions.
The third is a somatic induction model (the James-Lange theory), wherein emotional states are identical with their bodily expression in the human subject, such that the state of the body induces the emotion. Objects and events thus affect the emotions because they affect the body, not the other way around. The father of this model is the American pragmatist philosopher William James.
Let us momentarily revisit Indiana Jones in order to illustrate each of these in turn. In the first model, The Last Crusade ends early: Jones recognises that God is holy, whilst he is unholy, and thus (appropriately) feels guilty, regretful, and penitent. So, all the while ruminating on his many sins, Jones walks bolt upright towards the sharp, spinning blade… In the second model, the film may or may not end early: Jones recognises that the situation demands some action of him and so, by putting himself into a penitential state, he prepares his body for the right kind of action. Of course, that action might be weeping just as much as it might be kneeling – who knows! The alternative, unhappy ending still threatens. In the third model, however, the film will be exactly as it is. Jones realises penitence – he makes penitence real – for to be penitent is to kneel. And, controversial as it may sound, vice versa.
Of course, the three models outlined above, and their application, are an oversimplification of what actually goes on (even for a fictional character). Furthermore, these models are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive.
Indeed, Robinson herself contends that each has its own part to play in an overarching process of emotion.
Nonetheless, there is a significant body of empirical evidence supporting the somatic induction model (as I have termed it) of William James. Many of these experiments are collated in Jim Laird’s Feelings: The Perception of Self (2007), but a 1988 study by Fritz Strack, Leonard L. Martin, and Sabine Stepper is sufficiently illustrative. For this investigation, subjects were asked to rate how funny a cartoon was whilst performing
“a task that either inhibited or facilitated the facial muscles involved in a smile. Whereas the inhibiting task did not induce the muscle contractions that constitute an emotional expression, the facilitating task allowed a smile to occur and required subjects to contract the muscles necessary to generate a smiling facial expression. The results of both studies suggest that the affective reaction toward an emotional stimulus was intensified when the facial expression was facilitated and softened (cf. Darwin, 1872) when this expression was inhibited by an irrelevant task.”
In other words, those who were made to activate their smiling muscles found the cartoon funnier than the control group, whilst those who were physically inhibited from smiling found it less funny than the control group.
Therefore, whilst admittedly a leap far beyond the data (although in the same direction), it seems likely that, for a human being in a wholly neutral state, smiling would induce genuine happiness and frowning would induce genuine sadness. Granted, such an a priori neutral state is purely hypothetical; human beings are creatures in perpetual motion, emotion, and commotion. Some of this movement is voluntary, some involuntary. Consequently, the somatic induction of happiness could be overridden by either a more powerful, contrary (psycho)somatic disposition or the will of the subject who intends to merely feign happiness.
Crucially, however, somatic induction of emotion is not ineffectual or insincere because (A) someone fails to activate both an (inner) emotion and its appropriate (outer) bodily expression, but rather because (B) someone or something actively intervenes to divide a natural whole into two artificial parts. It seems to me that the converse statement – namely, that insincere emotional expression is a result of (A) not (B) – is not just untrue but an untruth all too favourable towards Christianity’s perennial philosophical foe: gnostic (mind-body) dualism. Our default ought to be that an emotion and its expression are one and the same. Indeed, even the very notion stated in (A) of an emotion’s “appropriate bodily expression” presupposes this unity.
Let us reintroduce the penitent man (viz. a man who kneelingly-repents/repentantly-kneels) but, considering him merely a species, move outwards to his wider genus, the spiritual man. In Romans 12:1 St Paul writes:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship [emphasis added].” (NRSV)
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service [emphasis added].” (KJV)
The two different translations given above illustrate the fact that the Greek word, λογικήν (logikēn), unique to this passage in the New Testament, has a potentially wide semantic range and can be variously rendered as “spiritual”, “reasonable”, or some other English conceptual cognate. Whatever the precise case linguistically, however, it is plain from Paul’s exhortation that engaging our bodies in Christian worship is wholly logical, spiritual, and godly. By implication, to disengage them is the very opposite – illogical, unspiritual, and ungodly. In the Christian framework, therefore, spirit and body are two interdependent, mutually-indwelling substances. To use another Greek term, they undergo and perform περιχώρησις (perichoresis). Mind is neither over nor under matter but the spirit totally envelops, and is enveloped by, flesh. Furthermore, it should be immediately obvious that this perspective is crucial to a fully-Christian understanding of how the Holy Spirit of the triune God indwells the individual Christian believer.
In Ephesians 5:18-20, Paul exhorts believers to be filled with the Holy Spirit, that person of the Holy Trinity who motivates every Christians to live worthy of their calling and to do good works – not motivating from a distance, but rather from within the whole Christian person. In order to illustrate what willing cooperation with, and subjection to, the Spirit’s promptings looks like, Paul uses the analogy of drunkenness (Eph. 5:18). Just as being drunk is not the process of repeated drinking, nor even having a given quantity of alcohol in one’s system as such, but is to allow, and have allowed, one’s reason, desires, and reflexes to become totally subject to the chemical stimulants in the alcoholic beverage; so too being filled with the Spirit is not a repetition of reception, nor a “spiritual top-up”, but is to subject one’s thoughts, appetites, and actions to His direction. And the practical means by which this happens, says Paul, is “as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves” (Eph. 5:19, NRSV).
Consider this in detail for a moment: Each member of a congregation empties his or her lungs and (so long as s/he doesn’t try to wilfully intervene and resist!) they fill with air entirely by themselves; the breath enters of its own accord. Filled with this breath each member then breathes out, but each has now filled this breath with musical pitches; the breath that entered has become fruitful within (although this requires a voluntary cooperation with it). This musically-laden breath then fills the air and enters the bodies of the rest of the congregation, helping them to sing in unison or harmony with it; thus every individual’s fruitful breath causes kindred fruit to be produced in others. This aspect of congregational singing is not a mere symbol or metaphor for some “more real” cultivation of fruitfulness in the corporate life of faith, such as the imitation of godly character in another believer or the giving of pastoral advice or correction to a wayward Christian. Rather it is just as real and just as important as those things because – very much like how God uses the sacraments to communicate grace – in congregational singing God uses material, embodied activity to align a whole Christian person with the immaterial activity of His Spirit and integrate these persons into His Church.
Notably, such a view is entirely consonant with much of the theological writing on music from the early modern era – a time when dualism had not yet ascended to the height of its power. As one 17th-century Lutheran theologian, Johannes Saubert, writes:
“It is the Spirit of God that tunes up so the song can be continued, that is, that it goes through the heart… Hence it is not us who sing or speak spiritually in this way, but it is the Spirit of our heavenly Father that lives in us.”
A profound mystery thus takes place when the chests of a church congregation swell for the opening line of a hymn and subsequently exhale its melody:
“The Spirit breatheth where He will; and thou hearest His voice, but thou knowest not whence He cometh, and whither He goeth…” (Jn 3:8, Douay-Rheims Version)
Furthermore, this view of congregational singing is also consonant with a significant body of modern scientific research into “interpersonal musical entrainment”, which shows that engaging in synchronised musical activity increases broader cooperation and trust among participants.
Clearly corporate song is the God-ordained way that we “may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ [emphasis added]” (Rom. 15:6, KJV).
These words of St Paul return us once again to the necessary integration of spirit (“one mind”) and body (“one mouth”), which I have argued undergirds not only spiritual song but also human emotions. Therefore, it should be readily apparent that spiritual singing is also emotional exercise. Fullness of joy in God is not merely expressed by singing but actually is singing. Furthermore, singing (like kneeling) is one of the ways that we embody belief. Bernard of Clairvaux – explaining why the consummation of a human’s love of God can only be attained at the final resurrection – says,
“souls are bound to bodies, if not by a vital connection of sense, still by natural affection; so that without their bodies they cannot attain to their perfect consummation, nor would they if they could. And although there is no defect in the soul itself before the restoration of its body, since it has already attained to the highest state of which it is by itself capable, yet the spirit would not yearn for reunion with the flesh if without the flesh it could be consummated.”
Without the body the human person cannot wholly love God. As Article IV of the Thirty-Nine Articles clearly states, “flesh” and “bones” pertain to “the perfection of man’s nature” [emphasis added].
In a world where it is generally accepted that “how I feel” precedes “how I behave”, what I have been arguing will seem incredibly alien. And yet my contention is this only goes to show just how dualistic our society has become – not to mention even the Church herself in the west!
Indeed, much of Protestantism in particular can be characterised as “neo-Gnostic angelism”, where heaven (not a new earth) is the ultimate goal, and the soul (not the whole resurrected human being) is the sole object of God’s salvation.
Against such a bleak backdrop it becomes all the more pressing that Christians reengage their bodies in worship and not be fearful of somatically-inducing those emotions appropriate to each part of a church service – even, and especially, if they don’t feel them arising involuntarily. As C.S. Lewis put it, “[v]ery often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already”.
So, if you are singing Duffield’s “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”, or the Gettys’ “O Church Arise”, stand. Or if you are invited to “make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees”, kneel. After all, Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection proclaim with the utmost clarity: Christianity is a bodily belief.
About the Author
Peter Elliott is a PhD student in Music at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and a Research Associate in Christian Humanities at the Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi Christian University. He read music for his bachelor’s degree at the University of Oxford from 2013-16 and holds both an MMus in musicology & ethnomusicology and an AKC in theology, philosophy, and ethics from King’s College London. He has articles published in Early Music, Metal Music Studies, and The North American Anglican, and a critical edition of 18th-century chitarrone music published by The Lute Society Music Editions.
 Jenefer Robinson, “Three theories of emotion – three routes for musical arousal”, in Tom Cochrane, Bernardino Fantini & Klaus R. Scherer (eds), The Emotional Power of Music: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Musical Arousal, Expression, and Social Control (Oxford: OUP, 2013), pp. 155-168.
 Robinson, “Three theories of emotion”, p. 156.
 Ibid., p. 158.
 Ibid., pp. 161-2.
 Ibid., pp. 164-5.
 Fritz Strack, Leonard L. Martin & Sabine Stepper, “Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of facial expression: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, (1988), p. 775.
 The way in which somatic induction of emotion is limited here is similar to the way in which voluntary induction of faith (“acceptance”) is limited in William Alston’s “Belief, Acceptance, and Religious Faith” (1996). See also Leonard Jonathan Cohen’s An Essay on Belief and Acceptance (1992); William James’ “The Will to Believe” (1896); John Henry Newman’s Grammar of Assent (1870); and Pascal’s Wager (1670).
 “der Geist Gottes ists / welcher anstimmt / damit das Gesang seinen fortgang habe / das ist / das es durch das Hertz gehe / Act. 2. Darumb wir sinds nicht / die wir also Geistlich singen oder reden / sondern der Geist unsers himlischen Vatters ists / der in uns wohnet.” Johannes Saubert, Seelenmusik, wie dieselbe am Sontag Cantate … gehört worden, (Nuremberg: Halbmayer, 1624), p. 10. (I am indebted to Dr Bettina Varwig for this quotation and translation.)
 Bernard of Clairvaux, Chapter XI, On Loving God.(https://ccel.org/ccel/bernard/loving_god/loving_god.xiii.html)
 See my poem “Excarnation’s Incantation” (2021). (https://www.ekstasismagazine.com/poetry/2021/8/5/excarnations-incantation)
 I am grateful to Dr Jon Thompson, based at The Faraday Insitute for Science and Religion, Cambridge, for introducing me to the term “neo-Gnostic angelism”, which comes from Reinhard Hütter, Bound for Beatitude: A Thomistic Study in Eschatology and Ethics, (2019).
 C.S. Lewis, “Let’s Pretend”, Mere Christianity.(https://www.dacc.edu/assets/pdfs/PCM/merechristianitylewis.pdf)
A participatory-substitutionary understanding of the atonement, through the lens of the munus triplex and the role of blood
This essay challenges a satisfactory or propitiatory understanding of the atonement which, it will show, would amount only to an ‘exclusive’, human act – one of appeasement (the human Jesus effecting something for us, and then only afterwards do we benefit from it). In contrast, this essay demonstrates an ‘inclusive’ divine-human event, a participatory substitutionary atonement, which brings two aspects together into one simultaneous act: Jesus does something both ‘for us’ or ‘on our behalf’ (substitution) and at the same time ‘with us’ (participation). By looking at the wider work of Christ through the munus triplex and the role of blood, the essay advances a biblically wholistic understanding of the atonement.
From Exodus 34:
Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.
From Luke 15:
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
In recent months, two events have reminded me of Christ’s key purpose of revealing the Father. The first event was a book launch – the new title was a commentary on the Gospel of John. In the personal dedication, the author signed my copy with the Greek text ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο from John 1:18: ‘No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known’ [who has declared or displayed him]. The Son was sent by the Father to reveal or display the Father’s love – this is Jesus’ core message. The mission of the Son is to bring the prodigals ‘Home’ to the Father. It is through the Son’s person and work that we share in the filial relationship of the Son – he alone is our ‘Way Home’, and only by being grafted into the Son by the Spirit, can we partake in the event of our own ‘Homecoming’. Only through our adoption by the Spirit, are we made children of God and can we address God, in union with Christ, as ‘Abba, Father’. We also find this Father-Son relationship woven throughout the narratives of the Torah, where YHWH raises his son, Israel. To see God as a compassionate Father (2 Cor 1:3) is central to the Jewish faith, especially on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) with the reciting of the Jewish prayer Avinu Malkeinu – “Our Father, our King”.
The second event occurred during a time of sung worship at a recent college residential, where I was struck once again about what we sing about the Father’s love and how it is so often misaligned with our spoken or written theologies of the cross. That afternoon, we were singing a song about God as our ‘good, good Father’. In fact, I often perceive a real disconnect between our worship and our theology. Has Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God, that we are no longer slaves of fear, but are children of God – a message at the centre of so many of our choruses – really sunk into our hearts and minds? Do we really know God as Father in a personal sense or only as an abstract ‘theological’ concept? When we ‘do’ theology, are we aware that we are embraced by the loving arms of the Father?
My theological starting point is ‘God as Emmanuel’; for me, the Good News is that ‘God is with us’ and does not leave us alone. Jesus reiterates this throughout the Gospels: everything he does, he emphasises is the Father’s work through him (“he who sees me, sees the Father”). If we believe this Gospel truth, then this must also particularly be the case on the cross, as it is here where we see the very essence of who God is, in his self-giving or self-sacrificing love – the cross as an icon, a window to the divine.
If this Gospel truth – that the Father is the core message of Jesus’ Good News – has penetrated our very being, then this deep understanding of the Father will be reflected in both our worship and our theologies of the cross. God is a compassionate and patient (long-suffering!) Father in terms of forgiving both our sinful actions as well as the way we relate to and treat his Son. This notion of the love between Father and Son needs to be reflected in our doctrines on the atonement. So as we sung about our ‘Good, good Father’ a few weeks ago, I was prompted to pause again and think what hope there is for us, if in his darkest hour the Son is actually abandoned by this ‘good’ Father. This essay argues that the notions of ‘punishment’ and ‘abandonment’ cannot lie at the heart of the atonement because were this the case, they would drive a wedge between the Father and Son, shattering the bond of love and peace of the Spirit, fracturing the homoousion, and therefore rupturing God’s very trinitarian being.
Some preliminary thoughts on ‘satisfaction’ and ‘propitiation’
In many sermons on the cross, the atonement has been (and is still often) preached as being a satisfactory or propitiatory sin-offering, the sinless Son of God dying instead of humanity.
However, if the death on the cross is understood in a satisfactory way – i.e. the death is seen as a satisfactory sacrifice in which Jesus pays a debt which is owed to God by sinful humanity – then what does this say about the Father? Does the Father require satisfaction to restore his honour? In a similar vein, Christ’s death is often interpreted as a propitiatory sacrifice; one through which the ‘wrath of the Father’ was appeased or placated, effecting a conciliatory response from the Father towards sinful humanity. Both interpretations highlight not only that all humans are sinners and under the judgment of God, as God can neither ignore sin nor simply forgive repentant sinners, but also assume that God’s righteousness demands a penalty (since sin dishonours God, the only treatment the sinner deserves is death). The only way salvation is possible for a sinner is within the context of God’s honour being restored (satisfaction) or reparations being made for God to gain justice (propitiation).
This, therefore, concludes that the Father can only turn to sinful humanity in mercy after his righteousness has been justified. But since no human can achieve this perfection, the sinless Son of God himself becomes the instrument of this perfection, by giving himself as the sacrifice. With his bloody death on the cross the ‘wrath of the Father’ is appeased and, showing mercy to the sinner, the Father can be reconciled to humankind.
However, as I will show, the cross is not the Father’s ‘righteous vengeance’ against humanity. Some of these interpretations of the atonement appear to resemble the Greco-Roman principle of do ut des: I (human) give, that you (God) give to me. In this interpretation, the sinner offers the deity a sacrifice in order to effect a change of mood – from anger to mercy.
Some of these misunderstandings of the atonement seem to stem from an overemphasis on the legal language (cf. court room setting) with regard to justification (justification here is understood as a legal term) and a neglect of the cultic setting of the atonement. The problem with a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement is its underlying notion that God ‘needs’ to punish or condemn either us or Jesus in order to save us. But this is a false dichotomy. In fact what needs to be condemned is sin in the flesh (Rom 8:3), the alien and oppressive power that enslaves us! Jesus is not simply ‘substituted’ like a football player (replacing the person).
Nevertheless the question remains: how exactly can and does God condemn sin, when it resides within a person? How can God ‘remove’ sin without destroying the sinner altogether? The answer, we will see, is ‘spiritual circumcision’ (Col 2).
We will see that Jesus does not simply take ‘my place’, but rather he does something with us (participation) in our place (substitution), within our very existence (Gal 4:4). Jesus’ death is a death that he dies on behalf of us and for us – something that you and I cannot do – taking us out from the dominion of darkness and bringing us through a holy and sanctifying death (fulfilling the Law’s commandments) into his marvellous light. God’s death in Christ is therefore different to our death, because Jesus is fully God and fully human. By participating in Christ’s death (the death that conquers ‘Death’) we die and are raised with him to new life. As Paul writes: I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20). The I dies: our former, sinful self ceases to exist and we are trans-formed from one existence into a new existence. So Christ’s death needs to be understood as a ‘substitution of our entire existence’. Jesus’ conquering of sin and death shows that even death, the last enemy, has no power over God and cannot ‘destroy’ Jesus.
So rather than seeing the cross through a legal lens, we need to focus on the cultic world of ancient Israel. This cultic framework places a much greater emphasis on God’s holiness and explains the need for a substitutionary sacrifice and the notion of participation – the person’s own involvement in it. When seen through the lens of the cultic framework, sin – or rather sinful humanity – is the problem, as a holy God cannot be in a covenant relationship with an unholy people. What needs to change is our very existence, our being. Here it is also important to differentiate between God’s dealing with Israel’s sins in and outside the cultic setting. The language of ‘punishment’ is completely absent in the cultic setting. This does not mean that God doesn’t chastise Israel when Israel is rebellious and offers sacrifices without true repentance (shuv – turning away from sin). But my wider point is that we must recognise God’s mercy in chastisement.
Furthermore, in the West, soteriology often ends up being separated into objective (Christological) and subjective (pneumatological) categories. Thus, another key question is the role of the Holy Spirit in the atonement. There are not only two actors involved in the cross – Father and Son – but also the mystical dimension of the Spirit, I would argue, is often ignored and neglected. We understand the Father, who sends the Son, and we understand the Son who dies on the cross. But what is less obvious is the role of the Holy Spirit in the atonement. The Spirit is the bond of love and peace, the invisible ‘force’ of God at work. It is by the power of the Spirit that Christ was incarnate, lived a life in full obedience of the Father’s will and was raised from the dead. And so too is the Spirit fully present in the crucifixion: it is by the Spirit that the Son offers his life to the Father (Heb. 9:14), and it is by the Spirit, who joins us to Christ, that we can be grafted into the Christ-event, and participate in the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:3-8).
An important question to address is whether on the cross Jesus is the ‘object’ of the Father’s wrath or instead an active agent, i.e. the ‘subject’, in the event of the atonement.
1. Pauline atonement
The view of the atonement that Jesus is a satisfactory or propitiatory sin-offering therefore arguably drives a wedge between the Father and the Son, and is fundamentally non-Pauline and unbiblical. The primary reasoning behind this argument is its separation of God’s righteousness from God’s mercy; to argue that God’s righteousness punishes, and God’s mercy comes only when the sinfulness has been punished, is to argue that these two aspects of God are fundamentally discrete.
The argument is further threatened by the perceived hostility between God and humanity. Human sin is linked to the wrath of God (Rom 2:5; John 3:36; 1 Thess 1:10), and it is clear (according to Romans 5:10) that the people for whom God is accomplishing the act of self-sacrifice are ‘enemies’. Yet the word ‘enemy’ here has an active meaning, characterizing the one requiring reconciliation, as it pertains to enmity against God, created and demonstrated by disobedience against God’s will. Paul uses the term ‘enemies’ to indicate the essence of being a sinner as being in rebellion against God and therefore cut off from God. Paul never talks about any sort of hostility from God against the sinner. There is also no causal relation between sin and enmity as in the Tun-Ergehen-Zusammenhang (the deed-consequence connection or the relation between human action and divine reaction), but rather an ontological relation – the enmity of the sinner against God should be understood as the very being of the sinner’s existence. The problem is not God, but humanity.
Many statements made about ‘God’s wrath’ disallow such an interpretation, ignoring the fact that the wrath of God is not an emotion but rather an objective fact – it is the coming of the eschatological Day of Judgement, which will condemn the ones to death who, despite Christ’s saving work, continued to live their lives as enemies of God (Rom 2:8; 1 Thess 1:10; John 3:36; Mt 25).
Here it is important to differentiate between God’s dealing with his covenant community and their sins, and those who are outside, who sin and even bring evil, torture, and death on the covenant community and the wider world (see 1 Thess 2:14-16). God’s wrath is still imminent for the person who is not in Christ. Ultimately, we also need to remember here that it is the Son who is the judge at this Day of Judgement, and not the Father (see John 5:22 and Revelation 6:16).
Scripture talks of an eschatological (new) creation that will occur for everybody who is in Christ, dispelling the old, sinful existence (2 Cor 5:17). Paul makes clear that this is exclusively the work of God as well as his gift to humanity (2 Cor 5:18-19). The active subject of this reconciliation is therefore solely God Himself – in fact it is God in Christ. On the cross, God has reconciled the sinner, who is in a state of enmity against Him, with Himself. Through the cross God has annulled the enmity of humankind, its rebellion, and placed humankind into a right relation with Him, that is, peace (Rom 5:1). Reconciliation is therefore a complete annulment of the negative relationship that dictated the existence of the sinner before God, rather than any shift or change in the existing relationship between God and humanity.
The Pauline expressions are clear – the only subject of this reconciliation is God Himself, and the only object, sinful humanity. Paul never states that God was reconciled with or to the world, nor does he state that Christ has reconciled God with us. Furthermore, Paul does not imply anything about a change of God’s opinion or mood – he sees this reconciliation originating only and exclusively in the love of God (Rom 5:8). Hence the reconciliation can be seen neither as ‘the end of the Father’s wrath’ nor the ‘gift of God who was angry until then’.
As already mentioned, the outcome of the gift of reconciliation in Christ is the salvation from the coming Day of Judgement and a share in the triune life. Through participation in Christ’s substitutionary death and resurrection in baptism, a person shares in the new resurrection life by the power of the Spirit (Romans 6:3-8). The sinner is taken from the dominion of sin and death, and placed in the sphere of God’s righteousness and peace – God’s holiness. Christ’s death must therefore be understood as both a substitutionary as well a participatory atonement, or rather an ‘inclusive place-taking’ (something is happening to us!) on our behalf: a coming-to-God through Christ’s sanctifying and purifying death on the cross, which annuls all enmity and gives humanity a share in the divine sonship. So rather than an ‘exclusive’ atonement, in which ‘Christ took the place of the sinners and thereby took our sins upon himself so that they no longer rested upon us’, I would define participatory substitution as an ‘inclusive’ event, in which Christ does something ‘in our place with us’.
If the crucifixion is understood as a satisfactory or propitiatory sacrifice it cannot be seen as an act of salvation, but rather as a human act, a presupposition for God’s salvation on which basis God can now follow by allowing reconciliation. It would also be a sacrifice to God and we would be unable to recognise that it was God himself who died there and then. Arguably, to understand the atonement in terms of the ‘mercy’ of the Son appeasing the ‘wrathfulness’ of the Father creates not only a wedge within the Trinity but a type of tritheism (three distinct gods). Furthermore, if we affirm that God’s actions (economy) reveal his being (ontology) and vice versa, then this particular tritheism risks making ‘wrathfulness’, like ‘love’, a part of God’s very being. And yet since God is love (Rom 5:8) and Jesus reveals the Father’s love, God meets us not when we meet certain conditions, but when we are at our worst, so to speak. Thus, there is no Deus absconditus – a God behind the Son – but instead on the cross, the Son perfectly reveals the Father.
Thus, since the Son and the Father are one in the bond of the Spirit, the act of reconciliation on the cross is a godly act for us, God’s own act – occurring out of love (Rom 5:8). Because God was present in the crucified one, the death of Christ is therefore not merely the medium of reconciliation – in fact the execution is not only the enabling but the realisation of the act.
Therefore, it is not the do ut des principle that is applied on the cross, but the Jewish-Christian principle of Tu solus omina dedisti – you (God) alone have given everything. As Paul states 2 Corinthians 5:18: ‘All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation’.
So in our sermons on the cross, we need to preach in a pastorally-sensitive way and always remember that we are both victims and doers of sin – we are utterly helpless, trapped in a vicious cycle of sin. This needs careful pastoral attention. Ultimately, God’s desire is to have fellowship and dwell among his people. But sin poses a problem for a holy God who also desires to be fully present. Atonement is therefore necessary to ‘wipe away’ sin so that God can come and be present. As my old pastor used to say: “If a baby has a full nappy and cries, you are not angry at the baby – you take the dirty nappy off and wipe the baby clean.”
Only Christ, through his substitutionary death, can take away our sinful nature and give us a new one through our participation in his death and resurrection; this is something you and I simply cannot do. We cannot be born from above (John 3) through our own efforts; only God can do this. And he has done this in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). Christ frees us from this cycle not by taking the punishment we deserve but by breaking the power of sin and death – by living a life in total obedience to the Father’s will. Christ fulfils the Law by his perfect and holy life. On the cross, Paul writes, Christ, condemned sin in the flesh (Rom 8:3), so that the righteous requirement of the Law is fully met. Christ lives our life, he lives for us, and everything he does – incarnation, baptism, life, death, resurrection, ascension and the sending of the Spirit – is done on our behalf and for us. By his holy life he fulfils the Law and all commandments, and in baptism, we participate in his death and resurrection, and share in his new resurrection life.
2. The atoning work of Christ and the role of Blood
A key question remains then: could God simply forgive sin without satisfaction being paid, without propitiation made, and without any sort of punishment? This, I would argue is the very essence of divine forgiveness! Christ’s prayer on the cross is simply ‘Father forgive!’ Why, then, was it necessary for the Son of God to come and die on the cross and shed his blood? The answer lies with the human predicament, our inability to change. Luther’s understanding of the human condition as incurvatus in se is a helpful picture here. We are curved in on ourselves and consequently cannot change our situation – i.e. we cannot change and become a new creation in union with God no matter how hard we try.
The use of blood in the Levitical sacrifice on the Day of Atonement helps us to understand why Christ had to shed his blood. Blood in the cultic setting is seen as the seat of life (Lev 17:11), which is brought on behalf of the Israelites by the High Priest into the presence of God in the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the mercy-seat (the place of divine reconciliation). Through the act of identification, the laying on of hands by the High Priest (who represents all of Israel) on the animal, it is Israel’s life that is brought to God. Thus the central aspect of the atonement is our coming to God through death.
What is effected in this identification is a bond between the High Priest and the animal. The animal dies physically for the people and the people participate spiritually in the animal’s death. The Hebrew verb that is used in the cultic texts that speak of substitution is tachat, ‘instead of’, which can also be translated with ‘below’ or ‘underneath’. Israel’s life is ‘laid’ on the animal and in this way ‘bears’ or ‘carries’ the whole nation. The death of the animal, who is ‘underneath’, becomes the sinner’s own death, taken over in substitution by the sacrificial animal.
And so when the animal is sacrificed and its blood (which represents life in purest and most vulnerable form) is brought into the Holy of Holies, it takes the life of the whole nation through death into the life-giving and reconciling presence of God.
In the same way, by shedding his blood, Christ offers his life to the Father (Heb 9:14). Through his identification with us and ours with his (by faith) we are inextricably tied to him, our life is hidden in Christ (Col 3:3), taken into death, brought to the Father, and taken into new life.
The cross therefore encompasses a physical substitution and a spiritual participation: our sin-enslaved existence is killed with him and we are raised with Christ (Rom 4:25). If God would simply forgive us our sins it would not ‘change’ us: we would remain stuck in our sinful nature and we would continue to sin. The same logic applies to the resurrection. Without the resurrection, Jesus’ death would not benefit us as our sins would be forgiven, but we would have no access to new life. According to Paul, it is us – we are the problem, we need to be made new and change. So Christ had to die ‘for us’ to make us new. But for this to be a reality for us it needs to be ‘applied’ to us, and we need to participate in it in order to change us. Christ’s sacrifice has achieved that for us and has brought us to the Father. As 2 Cor 5:17 states: ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here.’
Once again: rather than an ‘exclusive’ atonement (Christ taking the place of the sinner and taking our sins upon himself) the cross is an ‘inclusive’ event, a participatory substitution, in which Christ does something ‘in our place with us’. We are embraced by the Son, who is embraced by the Father, and in this way, we are taken into the Son’s embrace of the Father and embraced ourselves by God.
Christ’s death to the Law (Gal 2:19) has determined the predicament of sin (human enslavement), as the one who has died is free from sin and the Law (Rom 7:4-6). The atonement is all about a change of ownership: from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of light. Christ’s substitution is the death he died for us as we cannot die this holy death alone. The inclusive element is our participation by the Spirit, the living presence of God, which is mediated and activated in us. In this way, the Son and the Spirit are, as Irenaeus put it, the two hands of the Father which bring about humanity’s salvation.
To understand more fully the depth of Christ’s atoning work in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, let us take a closer look at the person and work of Christ through the lens of the munus triplex and the role of blood in the atonement.
(a) Three offices of Christ
John Calvin’s doctrine of the three offices of Christ (munus triplex) offers some assistance in keeping our understanding of the atonement broad and inclusive. Calvin highlights that Christ acts as our prophet, priest, and king. In his doctrine of the three offices, Calvin includes the teaching of Jesus, his sacrificial death, and his kingly rule. Atonement, or at-one-ment, encompasses all of what Christ did on behalf of humanity, and does not single out the death. Karl Barth, in his elaborate doctrine of reconciliation (CD IV.1), also makes use of the idea of the three offices of Christ, imaginatively weaving them together with the classical doctrines of the two natures (divinity and humanity). Here we also see the simultaneity in the person and work of Christ – his two states occurring together (humiliation and exaltation). For Barth, ‘God’s Humility’, rather than wrath, is key to the doctrine of the atonement. This yields the themes of ‘The Lord as Servant’ (God in Jesus Christ acts humbly as our priest, redeeming us from our sin of pride), ‘The Servant as Lord’ (humanity in Jesus Christ is exalted by grace to royal partnership with God, liberating us from our sin of sloth), and ‘The True Witness’ (the union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ is radiant truth, carrying its own prophetic power and dispelling our sin of falsehood).
(b) Padah, Kipper, and Go’el – Redemption
We can link the three offices of Christ to three Old Testament concepts of redemption: (1) padah, (2) kipper and (3) go’el, each speaking of different aspects of redemption.
(1) Padah redemption is the active obedience of the kingly office, which stresses the dramatic aspect of God’s intervention and rescue, emphasising the nature of the redeeming act: out of the judgment of God or out of an alien and repressive power, which for its part is brought under the judgement of God (see Egypt). It highlights the cost of redemption, namely that it always involves a sacrifice, a substitutionary offering, involving the idea of a life for a life. It represents simultaneous deliverance out of both alien oppression and from guilt and punishment.
(2) Kipper redemption is the obedience of the priestly office, Christ becoming an expiatory sin-offering for us, a concept of redemption that stresses the cultic aspect of holiness – the restoration of fellowship and union with a holy God. God is the subject here for it is he who atones; even though it is the priest who carries out the atonement and expiates the sins by the blood of the sacrifice, he does it in the presence of God who appointed him to do so. So redemption is rooted in the covenant will of God.
(3) Go’el redemption is the incarnational assumption of the prophetic office, which stresses the nature of the redeemer and our kinship with him. It is the concept of redemption out of bondage by an advocate or a kinsman who is bound to the person in need. The Hebrew noun go’el describes the vindicator (the redeemer) and it is normally the next of kin (see the story of Ruth and Boaz) who takes this title. In the Old Testament is it God who delivers the Israelites out of the bondage of Egypt and out of the captivity of Babylon and the Hebrew writers are clear that it is none other than God who can be the go’el from death and judgment (see Is 52:9).
(c) The role of blood
These three concepts of redemption can also be linked to the various uses of blood, which highlights an important aspect in the light of Christ’s death:
All three strands of redemption (Go’el, Kipper and Padah) and the usage of blood (protecting, cleansing and binding) converge in Jesus on the cross. In the New Testament it is Jesus who is our kinsman-redeemer and our advocate – we are purchased by his blood. It is Jesus who is not only our High-Priest but also the offering, and it is through his blood that our sins are washed away and we are being cleansed. And it is also through Jesus’ victory on the cross over death and sin, his divine rescue mission, that we are saved, to live now under the protection of his blood.
Christ dies as our mediator, as fully God and fully human, and therefore his death should not be seen in terms of punishment, but as a holy one – a sanctifying and purifying death that leads us into the presence of a holy God. Christ’s shedding of blood is therefore not a presupposition for God’s salvation on which basis God can now follow by allowing reconciliation. Rather, Christ’s blood is salvation and protection, purification, and our bond to God. Blood is the life of Christ, who has his source in the triune life. By receiving Christ’s blood in the Eucharist, we share in the divine life. We are joined with him and so his righteousness becomes our righteousness by participating in his own life – he dwells in us and we in him. We share in his sonship as adopted children. In him we die to sin and the Law’s requirements are fulfilled. Outside Christ, no mortal can get to the Father, but Christ has opened the way to the compassionate Father on the cross – the new mercy-seat (Rom 3:25) – who sends the Son not just for our redemption but who is our redemption. Christ does not just show us the way to the Father – he is the way to the Father; it is through and in him that the prodigals are being brought by the Spirit into the Father’s compassionate embrace!
In this essay I have advocated for an ‘inclusive’ act on the cross – something happens to us, and we are changed in the act itself, not just afterwards. A satisfactory or propitiatory sacrifice would amount to an ‘exclusive’, human act – one of appeasement (the human Jesus, the object of the Father, effects something for us, and then only afterwards do we benefit from it through union with Christ). In contrast, substitutionary-participatory atonement brings these two aspects together into one simultaneous act: Jesus is the active subject in the event of the atonement. He does something on our behalf (substitution) and at the same time with us (participation). The cross is therefore an ongoing-event (actualistic ontology) and we participate in the Christ-event through the Spirit. The cross is the eternal mercy-seat (Rev 13:8) and it is here that we become a new creation. Equally, the OT sacrifices receive their meaning and expiatory power in Christ’s death as well. This means that we really die with Christ in 30 AD. Our new birth by the Spirit (John 3) transcends time and space – that’s the real mystery! Put differently, by the Spirit, God in Christ places us into the story of Jesus, and so Jesus’ time and existence become our time and existence, just as his crucifixion is ours too. This also means that his resurrection has become our resurrection. ‘Being in Christ’ means that we become a new creation, set free from sin and all the evil powers that had enslaved our human condition.
‘Dying in Christ’ in the ritual of baptism is not just a metaphor or a helpful analogy, but a reality – our inclusion in Christ’s death! And this impossibility – participation in the death of somebody else who died 2000 years ago – only becomes a possibility through Christ the mediator, in whose incarnation the divine and human nature are joined, and past, present and future are held together. I cannot participate in somebody else’s death and neither is the vice versa possible. Nor is my death a living-giving one – it does not achieve anything. Only the death of the Son of God, the God-human, our Alpha and Omega, can achieve the impossible, being as he is the Emmanuel, the God with us, on both sides of death. It is only Christ’s physical substitution, in our very existence, which makes our spiritual participation possible. We said that humanity is a prisoner of sin. But sin is not detachable like a backpack that can be ‘taken off’ the sinner; it is a power that resides within a person – it affects the entire being. Sin is therefore an ontological category – we are sinners, this is our existence, and we need to be made new – re-created. Hence what is required for union with a holy God is the ‘substitution of our entire existence’.
Currently, we live in the tension of the ‘now and not yet’. Christ’s atonement is a spiritual reality for us (2 Cor 4:10-12 and 16-18 and 2 Cor 5:1-5), but it will also be a bodily reality (1 Cor 15:35-58), when we are giving a new ‘spiritual body’.
The Gnadenstuhl (mercy-seat) paintings of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries onwards have become an icon of the work of the Triune God in the atonement. Here we see the pieta of the Father, which depicts the cross not as a place of despair and separation, but as the place of the Father’s mercy, love, and compassion. As the Father embraces the Son, he is not distant – he has not abandoned the Son. Instead, he is close to him in death, and we can rely on the same good, good Father to draw close to us and embrace us too.
I would like to conclude with verses 2-6 of the famous Lutheran hymn Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice, a hymn which tells the story of the compassionate God who sends his obedient Son to bring sinful humanity home.
2. Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay;
death brooded darkly o’er me.
Sin was my torment night and day;
in sin my mother bore me.
Yet deep and deeper still I fell;
life had became a living hell,
so firmly sin possessed me.
3. My own good works availed me naught,
no merit they attaining;
my will against God’s judgment fought,
no hope for me remaining.
My fears increased till sheer despair
left only death to be my share
and hell to be my sentence.
4. But God beheld my wretched state
before the world’s foundation,
and, mindful of his mercies great,
he planned for my salvation.
A father’s heart he turned to me,
sought my redemption fervently;
he gave his dearest treasure.
5. He spoke to his belovèd Son:
“It’s time to have compassion.
Then go, bright jewel of my crown,
and bring to all salvation.
From sin and sorrow set them free;
slay bitter death for them that they
may live with you forever.”
6. The Son obeyed his Father’s will,
was born of virgin mother,
and, God’s good pleasure to fulfill,
he came to be my brother.
No garb of pomp or pow’r he wore;
a servant’s form like mine he bore
to lead the devil captive.
About the Author
Revd Dr Matthias Grebe is Lecturer and Tutor at St Mellitus College, London. He is also the associate vicar of St. Edward, King and Martyr and the Assistant Director of the St. Edward’s Institute for Christian Thought. Matthias undertook doctoral work on Karl Barth under the supervision of Prof. David Ford at the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge. His revised PhD thesis is published under Election, Atonement, and the Holy Spirit (Oregon: Wipf & Stock, Princeton Theological Monograph Series, 2014). He has prevsiouly written the following essays on the atonement: ‘Jesus Christ: Victim or Victor? Revisiting Galatians 3:13 in conversation with Karl Barth and Scripture,’ Communio Viatorum: A Theological Journal (LVII, 2015, III), 240-251, and ‘Suffering, Sin-bearing, and Stellvertretung: Revisiting the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’, in Matthias Grebe (ed.), Polyphonie der Theologie. Verantwortung und Widerstand in Kirche und Politik (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2019), 175–193.
 Regarding satisfactory atonement: Traditionally Anselm (Cur Deus Homo) is considered to be the first theologian to think of soteriology working in this direction, towards God. Although his idea of satisfaction of feudal honour may no longer have direct relevance, the idea of propitiation of sin has been reworked since then. It was developed by Aquinas and then became an important theme for the Reformers, especially Calvin. See also John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006), who concludes that God must satisfy himself by substituting himself for us or as he calls it: “divine self-satisfaction through divine self-substitution” (188). Therefore, for Stott “the theological words ‘satisfaction’ and ‘substitution’ need to be carefully defined and safeguarded, but they cannot in any circumstances be given up”, 188.
Regarding propitiatory atonement: See James Denney, The Death of Christ (London: Tyndale Press, 1951).
 See Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (London: Tyndale Press, 1965), 167-170.
 Calvin, Institutes 2:16.5.
 See Hartmut Gese, ‘The Atonement’, in Essays on Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1981), 95.
 See Otfried Hofius, ‘Erwägungen zur Gestalt und Herkunft des paulinischen Versöhnungsgedanken‘, in Paulusstudien (WUNT, 51; Tübingen: Mohr, 1989), 4.
 Regarding “not an emotion”: See Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1980), 37f..
Regarding “eschatological Day of Judgement”: See Otfried Hofius, ‘Sühne und Versöhnung‘, in Paulusstudien (WUNT, 51; Tübingen: Mohr, 1989), 36.
 See Hofius, ‘Versöhnungsgedanken‘, 4.
 See Ernst Käsemann, ‘Erwägungen zum Stichwort „Versöhnungslehre im Neuen Testament“‘, in Zeit und Geschichte. FS Rudolf Bultmann, (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1964, 47-59), 48ff..
 Simon Gathercole, Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Michigan: Baker Press, 2015), 16.
 See Hofius, ‘Sühne und Versöhnung‘, 39.
 See Bernd Janowski, Sühne als Heilsgeschehen: Traditions- und religionsgeschichtliche Studien zur Sühnetheologie der Priesterschrift (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 2000), 247.
 See Gese, ‘The Atonement’, 113, 105 & 114.
 See Janowksi, Sühne als Heilsgeschehen, 359.
 See Gese, ‘The Atonement’, 106.
 See Hofius, ‘Sühne und Versöhnung‘, 47.
 Along with Peter Stuhlmacher, Reconciliation, Law, & Righteousness: Essays in Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), I see the ‘mercy-seat’ in the light of the cultic atonement in Leviticus 16 and not against the Hellenistic background of 4 Maccabees 17:20-22. See also Gese, ‘The Atonement’, 115.
Matthew Kuan Johnson
After two long years of attending church virtually, two things have become painfully clear to me:
It is in this space of antinomy and aporia that I have apathetically dwelt, as aspects of my faith and practice have languished and lessened. Yet, in this space of stillness, where the church walls lay subdued in the absence of corporate worship, the cracking of the host and streaming of the chalice lay silent, and the pulpit was mounted each week by a singular figure speaking to an unmanned camera, there emerged other voices – voices that had been too often overlooked – who attested to the value of virtual church. Indeed, after the voices that we are so used to normally hearing came to the end of their words, faced with seemingly endless lockdowns and exhausted from their detest of the disembodied virtual church, there emerged other voices out of the silence who testified to how indispensable the virtual format was for their ability to hear the Word and commune with the people of God. These individuals, who are embodied in the world in different ways from those we typically think of (and attend to), spoke of how features of their embodiment which previously kept them from being able to participate fully in the church services, were now (because of the virtual format) finally able to participate more fully. The infirm, who for years could not travel to the church, suddenly found themselves in the same boat with everyone else. Those who risked overstimulation by the sounds or sights or smells of the church setting found themselves able to participate in church from the safety of their home environment. Those who struggled to hear the words of the service each week found themselves benefitting from real-time speech-to-text software that automatically generated captioning that they could follow. And those who risked deep psychic injury or dis-integration from entering places that had been the source of profound personal trauma, found themselves able to attend church for the first time in years.
The pandemic, while a source of unfathomable loss, has gifted us with the opportunity to hear these voices – and learn from them. As many churches are now moving more of their activities back into their buildings, we risk losing one of the profound gifts of the pandemic if this move back into physical spaces means eliminating the digital spaces – and with them, our brothers and sisters who depend on them. In fact, many of you may even be well acquainted with words of admonition from your pulpits, rebuking the sparse number of bodies in the pews, and proclaiming that the pandemic has made us “lazy” – and for that reason virtual church needs to end to get everyone back into church. My fear is that the bustle of joyful voices of those who can return to church buildings will crowd out the voices of those who cannot, and who we finally started hearing during the pandemic.
In what follows, I aim to offer a framework for beginning to approach how we can utilize virtual and hybrid spaces to make them as accessible and conducive to flourishing and faithful worship as is possible. I started this article by mentioning the various antinomies with which virtual church has presented me, and in what follows I aim to ‘flesh out’ these antinomies – the ways that the disembodied, virtual church is simultaneously beneficial and damaging – and then suggest how they might be better navigated.
Antinomy 1: Accessibility vs Control
The physical spaces in which we worship are almost exclusively designed for those without physical, cognitive, or emotional limitations – although some churches and denominations have made efforts to make their spaces more accessible with things like wheelchair ramps, hearing and translation devices, and so on. Nevertheless, the limits of how the vast majority of physical spaces have been designed (and the limits of the physical world) simply fail to afford a good number of individuals the opportunity to attend services or participate fully. This ranges from immunocompromised individuals who cannot attend church services without contracting a lethal infection, to some individuals on the Autism spectrum who cannot attend physical services because they will be overstimulated, to individuals with crippling social anxiety who cannot be around large groups of people, and so on. It also includes those for whom church buildings are sites of trauma, and having the ability to attend services from the security of their own homes provides them with a level of control that allows them to participate.
All of these kinds of examples speak to how digital technologies enable levels of accessibility, empowerment, and control that ensure that more members of the Body of Christ are able to participate. It also speaks to the diversity of ways in which people encounter God, fellowship, and worship – a beautiful picture of the different functions we all serve in the Body of Christ and of our individual uniqueness. The scholastics called this property that individuates us and makes us unique, haecceity.
The philosophical theologian, John E. Hare, associates this unique-making or individuating property of haecceity with the promise in Revelation 2:17 that God will give each person a white stone upon which is written “a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it” (NRSV). A recognition of another’s haecceity, then, involves an appreciation of how a particular individual is loved by God in all of their uniqueness. Since “God’s call to us is to grow into this individual character”, the soteriological upshot is that our work is also to help one another grow into their individual character – and this involves leveraging all of the resources at our disposal (including digital technologies), to help others grow into their individual character.
Those who benefit from physical interactions and physical worship services ought not impose their way of being in the world upon those who are differently embodied in the world, such as by refusing hybrid church formats that enable people to attend virtually as well as in person. Consider the picture painted in 1 Corinthians 12, where we are told that “…as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as He chose…” (v 18), and that within this arrangement, we all have need of one another. Those who are in positions of power and worldly honor may think that they are self-subsistent, but actually “…the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (v 22). Indeed, “…God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another” (v 24-5). 1 Corinthians 12 clearly paints a picture in which we are to care for everyone equally. We already care for those who are embodied in the world in ways that benefit from our normal church services and activities; consequently, in order to care for all members equally, we must “give the greater honor” to those members who have different needs.
While digital spaces give levels of much needed accessibility, empowerment, and control to some members, it can afford an undesirable level of control for others. Familiar to many of us are the Zoom calls in which individuals have carefully curated their presentation – meticulously arranged backgrounds (even virtual backgrounds) of heavily stocked and perfectly organized bookshelves, three-piece suits (while wearing pajama bottoms, just out of the video frame), or ‘beautification’ video filters that smooth out facial blemishes. This level of control over our own presentation to the world completely removes the kind of vulnerability and messiness that is required for true Christian communion.
To illustrate what I mean, I am reminded of one Sunday in particular in the pre-pandemic world, in October 2019. It was two days before my PhD dissertation was due, and I was a complete mess because I was rushing to meet the deadline. I slipped into St. Edward King and Martyr very late – only just in time for the sermon. Amidst the usual tweed and clerical collars of the congregation, I sported the black Golden State Warriors hoodie and dirty shorts that I’d been wearing for the past week straight (it had been about that long since last I’d showered). I was a complete mess – and to top it off, I was limping because I’d broken my leg two weeks beforehand. If I had been attending church virtually that week, I undoubtedly would have had my camera off or at least curated a video representation that was much less alarming. But that Sunday, in person, the church had me at my worst (and smelliest) – a complete and utter wreck.
The important thing is that I couldn’t hide where I was really at – and everyone else couldn’t help but notice. Many people checked on me, offered help, or assured me of their prayers. Proverbs 12:25 observes that, “Anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good word cheers it up.” Inhabiting that space physically made my anxiety physically present to everyone else there – it was embodied in how I looked, smelled, walked (or tried to), talked, and gesticulated – which offered them the chance to recognize it and offer the support that they could. When virtual spaces are used to give us a level of control that crowds out vulnerability, we prevent our brothers and sisters from seeing our messiness, and consequently crowd out opportunities for grace – for God to meet us through them.
This points at the resolution to the first antinomy: caring for the “weakest” members means that we must figure out how to make our worship and togetherness as accessible as possible for everyone – this will require all of our time, resources, financing, technological know-how, flexibility, and our creativity. But what could possibly be more worthwhile than spending all of ourselves to ensure that our brothers and sisters are able to worship with us? At the same time, we need to ensure that we do not avail ourselves of digital technology merely for the sake of control or convenience – we need to create space for vulnerability and for others to see us in all of our messiness.
Antinomy 2: Social Connection vs Abuse
Virtual spaces hold tremendous possibilities for social connection – individuals dispersed around the world are able to worship, pray, and study Scripture together. Some of my friends and I have benefitted enormously from this amidst the explosion of violent hate crimes and racism against Asians since the pandemic, as many of us found ourselves cut off from communities with whom we could process our anger and anxiety, and our own more banal, quotidian experiences of racism.
Through virtual conferences, online prayer groups, and digital resources – such as those offered by the Center for Asian American Christianity and the Asian American Christian Collaborative – I found space to learn, listen, process, and pray with an Asian American community from which I was cut off (due to my living abroad). Some of the events brought in over a thousand people from around the world, and included prominent pastors and some of the top scholars working in Asian American theology. These digital spaces connected a community that was able to create and find space together to grieve, rage, forgive, heal, and safeguard the motivation to keep working for the repair of the world.
Relatedly, virtual spaces also provide opportunities for marginalized and oppressed communities to worship together with churches in more privileged locations. This allows for a very real sense of the believers around the globe praying and working for one’s liberation, and can also serve to inform and encourage those churches in more privileged locations. Such spaces allow for a powerful sense of solidarity between very different and dispersed communities, and facilitates the process by which “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). In this way, such virtual spaces can facilitate a kind of shadow or pre-figuring of the eschaton, in which all tribes and peoples and languages worship together at the feet of the Lamb (Rev 7:9).
Virtual spaces have also provided new opportunities for (literally) getting ‘plugged into’ church. One of the major challenges of moving to a new place is the challenges of having to shop around with attending different churches until one finds the right one. Virtual services and virtual meet-and-greets much streamlined the process when I moved to Oxford, as I was able to more easily fit in attending services and events at churches to figure out which would be a good fit.
This was especially helpful, as it also meant that we were able to suss out a few of the red flags of some of these churches, from the safety of our own home. It also afforded the opportunity to ‘church shop’ on behalf of others: the ability to attend virtual services allowed me to help my sister find a church, quickly settling on Redeemer Community Church, which has been called “the best kept secret in all of San Francisco.”
Additionally, many individuals find that it is easier for them to interact with others when they interact in digitally mediated ways. We’ve already discussed how digital mediation provides a level of control and separation that some with certain types of social anxiety find makes it easier to connect with others. As another example, sentiment analysis software can help those with impairments in their emotional processing abilities to better connect with those around them.
Amidst the many recent investigations and reports that have brought to light large-scale patterns of abuse in most major denominations, it seems that one potential advantage of virtual spaces would be that they could be leveraged to safeguard vulnerable individuals from the kind of abuse that so frequently happens in physical spaces.
While certain digital tools may be leveraged to make digital spaces safer (e.g. algorithms that scan for key phrases or pornography), there are also a host of ways in which virtual spaces can open up new opportunities for abuse. The opportunities for abuse include both abuse within the digital world (e.g. simulations of sexual assault of a child’s avatar, online verbal abuse) and abuse online that facilitates abuse in the offline world, such as the many examples of individuals who have been groomed or radicalized online.
These latter kinds of cases attest to the ways in which vulnerable individuals’ connection to their smart devices provide opportunities for abusers to insert themselves into more and more areas of their victims’ lives.
Consequently, alongside leveraging digital spaces to connect believers around the globe, creating spaces for grieving communities to come together, facilitating finding the right church, and helping believers for whom it is crucial to be able to interact with others in digitally mediated ways, we must also ensure that our digital spaces safeguard against abuse. This will involve utilizing and developing digital technologies and processes that can protect the vulnerable in these spaces (e.g. algorithms that trigger alerts when certain words are used, parents limiting who their children can connect with and talk to online), but much of it will simply involve doing all of the hard work of which the church has been negligent – greater accountability for (and oversight of) those in positions of power, accountability for those who have committed abuse in the past (rather than simply moving them on to other communities), and so on. Of all of the antinomies in this article, this is the one that worries me the most – the church has a horrific track record of safeguarding people in physical spaces, and it will take a high level of vigilance and commitment to ensure their safety in virtual spaces, as well.
Antinomy 3: Spirit vs Embodiment
I mentioned in the last section that I started virtually attending services at Redeemer Community Church SF because I was looking for a church for my sister; however, my wife and I have continued to worship there because of their radical approach to social justice, vocation, and community. Being able to participate in their services (and however peripherally in their community) has been an indispensable supplement to our Oxford church experience, for the season we are in. Being able to be somewhat ‘embedded’ in aspects of their life, through their hybrid worship services, has brought us challenge, encouragement, and deep joy in the work God is doing through them on the other side of the world. This ‘embedding,’ though, involves a kind of absence in body, yet presence in spirit (not unlike Paul’s description of his relationship to the Churches in Colossae and Corinth, in Col 2:5 and 1 Cor 5:3, respectively).
Nevertheless, despite the joy of being present with others “in spirit,” there is still an irreducible longing to be present in body as well (Paul attests to his desire to be physically present to the churches in Rom 1:13 and 1 Thess 2:18). The desire to be only present in spirit would involve a kind of misguided gnosticism – we are made embodied and made to be embodied; consequently, the goods that God has made available to us are most fully received through our bodies.
Indeed, Aquinas observes that “…there is such a natural love between the soul and the body that the soul never desires to be separated from the body, nor the body from the soul: not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed (2 Cor 5:4).” Because of this “natural love” between soul and body, when we are present in spirit with others, we long to be present in body, as well – and the goods accessible through communal fellowship and worship reach their fullest form when we are present in both body and spirit. Consequently, while virtual church does allow new opportunities and possibilities for being present “in spirit,” our bodies still long to be physically present, as well. For this reason, virtual church cannot (all other things being equal), be a replacement for embodied interactions. Of course, there will be certain mitigating situations (such as those I have mentioned earlier), but this is why it is crucial that we curate hybrid spaces in which those who are able to attend physically can be with one another in spirit and body, and those unable to attend in body can attend in spirit. In these hybrid spaces, the Body of Christ can include and connect everyone in ways sensitive to how they are differently embodied in the world – and so that those present in body can in their being together hold space for those who cannot be.
Antinomy 4: Aesthetic Imagination vs Idolatrous Engineering of Experience
Imagery and sensory experiences have been used throughout the history of the church to engage our imaginations and bodies into deeper worship, understanding, and experience. Consider how Israelite and Jewish families read the narrative of the Exodus as part of the Passover observance, to engage their imaginations about the story of the flight from Egypt – and through reading it, find themselves within the story. Similarly, the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises instruct in how to imaginatively read the Gospels so that one feels as if they are actually experiencing the events being described. Art and other enhancers of spiritual experience are also widely used, and range from stained glass windows and artwork depicting Bible stories, to incense that represents (or instantiates) the prayers of the faithful rising to the Father.
The virtual world, in not following the physical limitations of the real world, provides novel opportunities for engaging the imagination and inducing experiences. With the recent shift by many tech companies to focus on the ‘metaverse,’ many tech companies are looking to leverage virtual spaces for religious practice, worship, and experience. Indeed, one of Facebook (Meta)’s post-pandemic aims is to encourage “churches, mosques, synagogues and others to embed their religious life into its platform.” There are already virtual reality experiences that allow you to experience the life of Christ in first-person. While some might decry the commercialization or ‘video-gamification’ of the central events of the Christian faith, it is worth reflecting first on whether such experiences are, in principle, different from the ways the church has traditionally engaged imaginatively with Scripture, such as through storytelling, the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, and art.
Consider how many traditions hold that icons can mediate our experience of Christ (or of the saints). They hold that the physical material of the icon (the signifier) mediates the experience of Christ or the saint that is signified by it (the signified). Consider, then, a virtual reality experience of the crucifixion (see fn viii): there is still the physical material of the screen (the signifier) which mediates the experience of the crucifixion that is signified by it (the signified). It seems that the difference is that while the representation depicted by the icon remains fixed (e.g. in depicting the crucifixion), the screen is capable of displaying anything. It seems that our reticence to grant the VR experience the same iconographical status as the painting of the crucifixion is largely that the painting’s representation remains fixed, while the screen’s representation does not. This reticence, to me, seems well founded as the screen could also be used to display pretty much anything else – there is nothing about the screen that fixes its meaning, and this seems to be a problem for an account that would place it on the kind of level as more traditional, physical icons.
But perhaps I’ve identified the wrong locus of analysis – perhaps even though the screen remains unfixed, the program that makes it up (which is stored on the hard drive) does remain fixed. This introduces, however, a second level of mediation: the physical chips on the drive mediate the VR experience (they are the signifiers of the VR experience), which itself mediates the crucifixion (the event signified by the VR experience, which is the signified). The physical hard drive, therefore, mediates the thing that mediates the thing signified; icons, however, only mediate the thing signified. Perhaps this second level of mediation does not provide an issue for iconography, though. On the one hand, we might think that each additional layer of mediation gets one further from the thing signified; but on the other hand, one might also think that the divine agency is able to work through these layers of mediation in a way that means that additional mediation does not equate to additional spiritual distance. Indeed, consider how someone could take a photo of Michelangelo’s Pietà and then pray before that photo – this would also involve two levels of mediation, as the photo signifies the sculpture in the Vatican, which signifies the thing represented (Christ crucified). The problem is that it would also make sense to speak of the photo as signifying Christ crucified – thereby cutting out the intervening level of mediation. I take it, however, that it would not make sense to make the same move for the hard drive and directly speak of it as signifying the crucifixion (but perhaps others have differing intuitions here). In any case, I leave open the thorny metaphysical issues at work here – perhaps it is possible that digital representations and experiences can serve the same function iconographically as paintings and statues do.
My bigger goal in raising these iconographical issues, rather than solving these metaphysical questions, is to point to how we ought to approach digital representations and experiences. Just as icons, as signifiers, cannot replace the signified that they represent, so too is it the case that our digital technologies cannot replace the experiences and encounters they are meant to supplement. If one so loves one’s icons that they are praying to the icons themselves, rather than to the Christ that is represented by them, then one has inverted the relationship of signified and signifier – this is idolatry. Similarly, if one finds that one is praying to the digital representation or experience, they are likewise committing idolatry.
Relatedly, there are also issues of dependence: while art and sensory experiences can enhance our religious practice and worship, we cannot become dependent on them. If one can only commune with Christ through an icon, or pray with incense, or celebrate the Eucharist with a particular wine, then this indicates that one has become too dependent on the signifiers. This is not necessarily idolatry; however, it has given the signifier too much power.
My deep concern here is that a host of well-funded and resourced user-experience researchers and psychologists are being given reams of funding, personal data, and the opportunity to run countless experiments in our digital spaces. This provides them with the ability to curate digital spaces that maximize our individual engagement through leveraging insights about general human psychology and about our individual psychologies (through profiling, based off of our individual personal data). The issue is that our worship in digital spaces may be so tailored to engage our attention and emotions, that they may easily divert us from deeper, spiritual engagement – or we may become dependent upon these digital experiences. Consider how some individuals worship in mega-churches whose services feature lasers, large rock bands, and fog machines, but then the individuals find that they struggle to worship in the absence of these things. How much of their religious experience was enhanced through these features, and how much of it was engineered by these features? Where the engineering is particularly effective, at which point were they no longer there for Jesus, but for the rock concert? My concern is that UX researchers, with all of these psychological insights and with our personal data, may be able to so effectively engineer our religious experiences, that the experiences may become largely divorced from what is ostensibly signified in these experience. There will, of course, be ways in which digital spaces can enhance rather than engineer religious worship, practice, and experiences, but this will involve developing and curating these spaces through a much different process than is used in typical UX research, as there are other considerations at play (e.g. making space for vulnerability, for the Spirit to move, etc.).
I hope that these four antinomies provide a helpful starting point for a framework for thinking about why hybrid spaces are the future of the church – and why we ought not get rid of them. At the very least, I think that they show how one of the few (or only) gifts of the pandemic was that it brought new voices to the fore – the voices of those who are differently embodied in our world, and aren’t as well served by the ways in which we typically inhabit and worship in physical spaces. It is imperative that we continue to figure out how to leverage digital technology to empower these individuals – it is crucial for their ability to flourish, worship, and grow into their haecceity, but it is also critical for the rest of us, since we are diminished as we fail to serve, support, and learn from those members of the Body of Christ who are called “indispensable.”
There is a final note of caution worth mentioning, for those who are sympathetic to the overall argument provided here. If one’s church is moving toward offering hybrid forms of worship on a more permanent basis, it will require vigilance to ensure that those who are not attending in person are still included in embodied ways. It may well be easy to overlook those who are only able to participate in digitally-mediated ways, or to assume that they are finding virtual participation sufficient and need or desire nothing further. Indeed, while those who must use the virtual mode of hybrid corporate worship may have some different embodied needs from others, they still need embodied interactions and worship in some form, because they are embodied beings. Consequently, hybrid formats necessitate a deeper sensitivity to the needs of those who are attending corporate worship virtually, and pathways must be set up that are responsive to their needs and that provide additional modes of embodied interaction. For instance, even if someone is immunocompromised or suffers from trauma that keeps them from being able to participate in full-congregation worship, there may be ways in which members of the congregation or the pastors/priests may be able to offer them smaller (even individual) in-person spaces for support, worship, prayer, counsel, and celebration of the Eucharist. The critical practice of believers and priests visiting and supporting shut-ins and those who cannot physically attend large corporate gatherings must continue and not be overlooked as we move to hybrid formats.
Matthew 25 puts this particularly starkly, when Jesus explains how at the Final Judgment, part of the criteria for determining one’s consignment to “eternal life” or to “eternal punishment” (v 46) will involve whether one has visited the sick and taken care of them, and visited those in prison (v 36, 43). Finding ways to be sensitive to and meet the embodied needs and desires of such individuals is a critical task for the hybrid church – and indeed, of working out our own salvation.
In closing, it is worth recalling the healing of the paralytic, which is depicted in all three of the synoptic Gospels (Mt 9:1-8, Mk 2:1-12, Lk 5:17-26). In this story, the paralytic’s friends desire to bring him before Jesus, and yet they are constrained by both features of the way that he is differently embodied in the world (his paralysis) and by features of the situation (the house that Jesus is in is crowded). The men respond to both of these constraints creatively, by dismantling the roof and lowering the man through the roof to Jesus. These men would stop at nothing to bring their friend before Christ – and we are told in all three Gospels that Christ honors the faith that they display (Mt 9:2, Mk 2:5, Lk 5:20) by forgiving the man’s sins and healing him. This story shows the kind of love and faith that we ought to emulate – one that stops at nothing to enable those who are differently embodied in the world to come before Christ (even if we have to do some structural engineering to lower a man through a roof or install some video cameras for a hybrid service), one that is creative in using all of the resources at our disposal (whether it’s using someone’s bed to lower them through a roof or using new digital technologies to make services more accessible), and one which Christ will honor by using it to sanctify us and our beloved brothers and sisters.
About the Author
Dr Matthew Kuan Johnson is a philosopher at the University of Oxford who works on empathy & moral imagination, AI ethics, virtue theory, embodiment & philosophy of mind, and Asian Multiracial Theology. In 2020, the Journal of Positive Psychology dedicated a special issue to his work on joy. He holds a PhD in Philosophy and an MPhil in Social & Developmental Psychology from the University of Cambridge (where he was a Gates Cambridge Scholar) and a BA in Cognitive Science from Yale University. Previously, he has consulted for Google AI, was a contributing scholar at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, was an Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University, and has taught at the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge.
 Hare, J. E. (2015), God’s Command, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 145-6.
 Hare, J. E. (2001), God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands, & Human Autonomy, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 77.
 Asian American hate crimes rose increased by 339% in 2021 compared to the previous year; NAPAWF found that in 2021, 74% of AAPI women reported experiencing racism or discrimination, 1 in 10 AAPI women reported experiencing physical violence due to their gender and/or race, and 38% reported experiencing sexual harassment that year.
 For example, during one of the virtual meet-and-greets, one of the audience members asked which leadership roles women were barred from holding in the church. The pastor answered in a way that obfuscated the fact that women could not serve in a particular leadership position. When I later emailed him to ask why his answer seemed to suggest that women could hold any position of leadership, when that would conflict with the official line of the denomination to which his church belonged, he conceded that I was correct. Even though my wife and I were looking for a non-complementarian church, the red flag here was not so much their doctrinal position as the fact that the pastor’s answer was so misleading that it revealed a concerning level of pastoral insensitivity.
 Tran, J. (2021), Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 158.
 For more information about Redeemer’s unique approach, you can watch this short documentary or read Jonathan Tran’s Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, which contains an ethnography about their community.
 Aquinas, T. (2013), Commentary on the Gospel of John 9-21 (Latin-English Opera Omnia), The Aquinas Institute (ed.) & Fr. Fabian R. Larcher (tr.), Lander, WY: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, p. 509.
 These are known as ‘A-Not-B tests,’ and UX researchers are running them constantly without our knowledge – if you look closely, you may sometimes notice small changes in the interface for a digital platform you are using, but that the changes later disappear. This probably meant you were in an A-Not-B test, and UX researchers were measuring how the changes affected your use of the platform.
 I am grateful to the peer reviewers who suggested that this paragraph be added, and who noted the relevance of the Matthew 25 verse.
“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” – Reinhold Niebuhr
Among the many illustrious former vicar-chaplains of St Edward King and Martyr is one whom many regard as the father of the modern Christian socialist movement: F. D. Maurice. Christian socialism arose in mid-19th-century England in response to the growing social challenges and injustices brought on by industrial capitalism. The movement within the Church of England sought to renew the religious and moral basis of the nation. Maurice and his allies attempted to inject a Christian moral perspective into the new field of inquiry known as political economy by holding up the ideals of cooperation, brotherhood, equality, service and more. The effects of the movement reverberated into the 20th century, shaping William Temple’s social vision and the policies of the Labour Party post-World War II.
While there is much of value in the theological and moral thought of Maurice and the first generation of Christian socialists, there is much that can be critiqued. The movement was often guilty of paternalism, a moralistic attitude to poverty and more. But perhaps the most significant lacuna that exists in their corpus is one that has beset the socialist project more generally: accounting for the limitations imposed by human nature. Even for people like Maurice, R. H. Tawney, or the Social Gospel advocate Walter Rauschenbusch, who did take sin seriously (and especially its manifestation in capitalism), there is little attempt to address how the limits imposed by original sin are accounted for in their economic and political proposals. The theologian Brad East has asked the right questions in this regard: “What is the relationship between the Christian doctrine of original sin and Christian support for a socialist economy? What role does ineradicable human fallenness play in such an account of socialism’s operation and success? Is ‘human nature’ and/or the limits and/or sinfulness of all human beings without exception a determining factor in the Christian support for, or version of, socialism?”
From the 19th century to today, an idealism and optimism about human nature and social progress has permeated the various streams of socialism, Christian or not. This has left socialists vulnerable to the charge of utopianism, often for good reason. A 2019 article by Theodore Dalrymple in the National Review exemplifies this attitude: “Socialism is not only, or even principally, an economic doctrine: It is a revolt against human nature. It refuses to believe that man is a fallen creature and seeks to improve him by making all equal one to another.”
This article attempts to make an initial response to these types of claims by arguing for the compatibility of the Christian doctrine of original sin and participatory socialism, or economic democracy. After briefly laying out how I will use the terms socialism and original sin, I will outline and critique the case made by the prominent neoconservative Michael Novak regarding original sin and capitalism. Then, drawing on Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism, I will present a realist case for socialism. Whatever other objections to a socialist political economy may arise, this paper aims to show that the issue of human nature need not be an obstacle. I will close with some brief remarks on the vision’s broader feasibility and prospects.
Note that the argument presented here is primarily theological and focused on the issue of human nature. As such, I will not be addressing the important arguments about the morality and justice of alternative economic proposals. Nor will I address the host of empirical questions which arise regarding human economic behavior. There may be many reasons – moral, practical and theoretical – to avoid economic democracy, but my argument seeks to show that human nature is not one of those reasons.
Defining terms and desiderata
Can a realist theological anthropology of the broadly Augustinian tradition be reconciled with economic democracy? To move towards an answer, let’s first define some terms.
This article is interested in “socialism as a philosophy regarding normative property arrangements and decision making in the larger economic and political community.” Among the various socialist visions, I will not be dealing with the statist, centrally planned economies seen in the likes of the Soviet Union or Cuba. This was only ever one stream of socialism, and has few defenders today. I am interested in the form of socialism which can be called “participatory socialism” or “economic democracy” which is distinct from Soviet or Cuban socialism in that it is 1) democratic and 2) decentralizes most ownership and management to the level of firms. This form of socialism has affinities with various theories and movements, including anarcho-syndicalism, guild socialism, distributism, the Italian nineteenth-century ‘associationism’ in the civil economy tradition (Genovesi) and more. The means of production in participatory socialism are owned and managed by workers. This could take various forms, but the most common type of socialist enterprise is generally a cooperative, but a participatory vision can include small-scale “private” firms and large-scale firms (such as natural monopolies) owned by the state.
What about markets? Socialists disagree about the desirability of markets, but it is important to say is that they can be integrated with economic democracy. In some proposals, they are retained as efficient mechanisms for allocating goods and setting prices. Some participatory socialists find that the same ends could be achieve through participatory, bottom-up planning methods. The question of markets does not directly affect my proposal and so it will not be addressed here.
Original sin will be understood in a broad sense, referring to the corrupt nature inherited by all human beings. It is the incurvatus in se (“curved inward on oneself”) that cannot be eradicated in this life, not even in those redeemed by Christ from the power and penalty of sin. To be curved in on oneself is to be self-centered, to follow the “devices and desires” of one’s own heart above love of God and neighbor. Fallen human beings are certainly not incapable of virtue, but their intentions and actions are always imperfect, tainted by sin.
Having defined these terms, I suggest that a realist account of political economy will need to fufill two requirements with regard to sin:
1) The “defensive” requirement. Sin gives rise to the will-to-power among individuals and groups, which means that defensive power of countervailing forces is needed to provide checks against abusive and aggressive uses of power. This is a typical justification for political democracy.
2) The “harnessing” requirement. Because of the fall, humans beings have an ineradicable tendency to pursue their self-interest. This means that a political economy cannot entirely divorce personal effort from financial or other gain. This rules out strict egalitarian forms of political economy, though there are other forms of motivation which are not material and the relative importance of these may vary in different contexts. Thus we stipulate that any viable economic system needs to account for and harness the self-interest which is a drive of human economic behavior.
Novak’s realist case for democratic capitalism
The American Roman Catholic philosopher Michael Novak has been the among the most prominent and influential defenders of capitalism among Christian thinkers. He saw himself as carrying on the Niebuhrian realist tradition, writing that “Niebuhr did not give much attention to economic issues. Precisely in Niebuhr’s neglect, I found my own vocation.” Novak’s best known work from 1982, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, has received ample critique and analysis which I will not rehash here. Yet his account remains exemplary of the argument against socialism on the basis of original sin, and I will focus narrowly on this aspect of his book.
Novak’s account of original sin and its relationship to capitalism has three primary claims (82ff). The first is that sin is ineradicable from human nature. We can never expect humans to act wholly altruistically in this fallen world, and a viable economy theory needs to incorporate this fact because “Every form of political economy necessarily begins (even if unconsciously) with a theory of sin” (349).
The second claim is that the defeat of sin in a capitalist economy comes from “transforming its energy into creative use,” which results in the “unintended consequences” of benefitting the common good in wealth creation (82). This is a version of the Stoic and classical liberal idea of the “invisible hand” guiding the self-interests of individuals in such a way that benefits all. The system thus does not require perfect virtue or that the intentions of its actors be for the common good which results. Selfishness can be harnessed for good.
The third claim is that self-interest is not a purely negative feature of human behavior but includes moral virtue. Novak claims that individuals’ “real” interests are “seldom merely self-regarding” (93). They frequently prioritize their families and give weight to the importance of their communities. Novak goes on to say that “In the human breast, commitments to benevolence, fellow-feeling, and sympathy are strong.” adding that democratic capitalism “depends upon and nourishes virtuous behavior” and depends upon a “high degree of civic virtue in its citizens” (85). How does this relate to original sin? “The concept of original sin does not entail that each person is in all ways depraved, only that each person sometimes sins. Belief in original sin is consistent with guarded trust in the better side of human nature. Under an appropriate set of checks and balances, the vast majority of human beings will respond to daily challenges with decency, generosity, common sense, and even, on occasion, moral heroism.” (351)
What are we to make of these three claims? I do not wish to dispute the first claim about original sin which I take as a given for realists. There is, however, a real question about how it might relate to the scope of what Novak includes in his third claim. His point about self-interest having a wider scope than the self is correct and we shall return to it. But given how much virtue, decency, and fellow-feeling Novak claims is necessary for democratic capitalism to work, how strongly are the effects of fall felt in economic behavior in Novak’s account? With the exception of the strong versions of Enlightenment and liberal optimism about the perfectibility of man, it is difficult to see how Novak’s vision of democratic capitalism is any more “realistic” about human nature than many socialist theorists.
Novak’s second claim about transforming sin’s energy into creative use would appear to satisfy the “harnessing” requirement. He sees that self-interest can motivate productivity for selfish reasons. Let us concede for the sake of argument that a capitalist political economy does harness self-interest in this way. The problem I see with Novak’s account is they he does not show that the capitalist organization of ownership and management is the only or even best possible arrangement for harnessing of self-interest.
The reason, I suggest, is that when it comes his analysis of socialism, Novak unfortunately deals almost exclusively with Soviet-style state run economies. Even when engaging theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s socialist proposals of economic codetermination (where workers are included on decision-making boards) and the control of economic firms by their workers, Novak immediately reverts to the idea that this is “government control over life” and over “economic decisions” (270). The binary of government vs private ownership is deeply embedded in his thought.
The one place where Novak does address something like participatory socialism (209ff), his primary concerns have nothing to do with human nature as such and whether sin can be harnessed. He offers the contradictory points that 1) there would be too many meetings (which people don’t like, as they don’t really want to participate in politics) and 2) that Americans already have lots of associations and committees (which meet!). Here Novak seems to nearly repudiate the notion of democratic politics as such while also acknowledging that people are already engaging in similarly activities as would be required in participatory socialism.
But perhaps the biggest weakness of Novak’s account is his treatment of economic power. While Novak acknowledges the concentration of economic power as an issue, he claims that competition and especially the “hazards of economic mortality” (90) will prevent inordinate amounts of economic power from accumulating. Apart from being historically and empirically dubious, Novak fails to see the multidimensional nature of economic power: between unequally sized firms, hierarchical/top-down power within firms, and in individuals enriched by firms. It is likely that this is downstream of his overly individualistic account of original sin. For Novak, sin is essentially personally vice. A broader understanding of evil in systems, in the principalities and powers, may have made him more aware of the need for structural remedies, such as creating countervailing forces (law and other institutions), against sin. This is precisely where the realist impulse behind political democracy calls for some kind of equivalent in the economic sphere. But because Novak doesn’t adequately consider that option, he fails to provide a convincing route for fulfilling the “defensive” requirement.
In light of this latter weakness in particular, I turn now to Niebuhr.
A Niebuhrian realist take
One of the central concerns of Niebuhr’s realism was the danger of the concentration of power. As Larry Rassmussen has written, “whatever one may wish to say about Niebuhr’s democratic socialism, and (the shortcomings of) his allegiance to democracy in the mode of political liberalism, he was never wrong about the necessity of democratizing economic power.” For Niebuhr, the presence of sin in human power relations necessitates a democratic accountability. The realism driving his democratic commitments in politics applies equally to economics.
Thus Niebuhr can write of the Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek that he has “no understanding of the fact that a technical civilization has accentuated the centralization of power in economic society and that the tendency to monopoly has thrown the nice balance of economic forces — if it ever existed — into disbalance.” While Niebuhr’s concerns are arguably grounded in the historical facts, they also capture the logical and needed extension of the realist perspective on political economy. That extension is expanding the scope of defensive power against sin by democratizing the ownership and management of economic power.
Niebuhr was an ardent state socialist at the beginning of the 1930s, but he had left the Socialist Party by the early 1940s over its pacifism and became less adamant about the ideal of economic democracy. Nonetheless, in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness in 1944, he has an insightful essay called “The Community and Property” which points to a realist position on economic democracy.
Niebuhr writes that in a modern, technologically advanced societies, capitalism has led to the socialization of production. “The ‘private’ ownership of such a process,” he writes, “is anachronistic and incongruous; and the individual control of such centralized power is an invitation to injustice.” He continues: “Since economic power, as every other form of social power, is a defensive force when possessed in moderation, and a temptation to injustice when it is great enough to give the agent power over others, it would seem that its widest and most equitable distribution would make for the highest degree of justice.” Niebuhr goes so far in his push to check concentrations of economic power, in socialist or capitalist orders, that he even says “it may be wise for the community to sacrifice something to efficiency for the sake of preserving a greater balance of forces and avoiding undue centralization of power.”
Yet as Gary Dorrien writes, Niebuhr’s “it would seem” was a retreat, a move away from the idea of economic democracy. Niebuhr would eventually settle on the best workable scenario being not a full democratization of economic power but the countervailing power of big business, big labor, and big government. This in the end, isn’t so far from the democratic capitalist position offered by Michael Novak. But I suggest that a Niebuhrian realism should follow the logic of his insight favoring “the widest and most equitable distribution of economic power” and propose a shared ownership and management of economic firms. In contrast to big, privately- (or investor-) owned companies, democratically owned and managed firms would decentralize power into smaller, independent units. The will-to-power domination that realists worry about would thus be held in check 1) between the more equally sized competing firms, 2) internally within the firms as ownership and managerial power is more widely distributed among the employees of the firms, 3) in other spheres of society as the deconcentration of wealth spreads spreads power more widely.
Incentives: Harnessing the incurvatus in se in participatory socialism
A final question is how a sin might be harnessed in economic democracy. There is disagreement among participatory socialists over whether remuneration is the same for all workers. For those who favor more egalitarian remuneration, the question is whether other incentives could sufficiently harness sin to maintain productivity. As Michael Novak noted, like Adam Smith and many others, self-interest is not to be equated with a selfish or profit motive. It incorporates a range of concerns: the well being of one’s family and community, but also seeking the approval of one’s peers, social recognition for one’s accomplishments, and so on. And interestingly, Daniel Pink has summarized research that suggests internal motivations such as autonomy, mastery, and purpose are important drivers of productivity, especially in knowledge and creative work. All this to say, humans’ inward curve can find various routes to self-satisfaction, and non-financial motives are important for productivity regardless of who owns and manages the economy.
Yet it behooves socialists to assume that financial self-interest will affect worker productivity. As Stephen Mott, the ethicist and Biblical scholar who has addressed these issues in perhaps the most detail, has said, “Socialism needs to be kept down to earth by a vigorous penetration of democratic realism. Human beings are attracted to shared production not only by altruism and communal longings. They also are motivated by self-interest in the profits of the firms in which they would have a share.”
In more market-oriented proposals for economic democracy, cooperatives still compete and seek profit. Those profits are simply shared among the worker-owners of the firm and thus provide personal material incentives. This is true of cooperative firms today operating in capitalist market economies and would be true of firms in participatory socialist market economies. Participatory models also tend to include different levels of pay for different tasks and roles – though the pay ratios are far more equitable than in capitalist firms. There is thus no reason to believe that material incentives for productivity would disappear in a socialist economy.
Mott’s defense of socialism guided by Christian realism points out that worker ownership and management certainly does not solve all problems, and it creates new ones. For example, some interpersonal conflicts are likely to increase as power is more equally distributed. The decrease in alienation from one’s work can also bring with more stress. A stronger sense of responsibility can increase the chance of burnout.  There are certainly other avenues in which sin will manifest itself in economic democracy. Precisely because sin cannot be eradicated until the eschaton, some problems are not ultimately solvable and can only be negotiated. The alternatives have to be weighed against each other.
But could it actually happen?
One might find the case above convincing and yet still be skeptical about the prospects for anything remotely resembling economic democracy every becoming a reality. So having presented the case for why human nature is not an obstacle to socialism, let me make a few brief remarks about why the socialist vision is of value and not utterly impractical.
Every movement, organization, or ideology needs some animating vision of the end to which they are working to make decisions about how to act now. You need to know the destination to map out how to arrive. Sheldon Wolin, describing Plato’s view of political theory, says that at the heart of politics is “an imaginative element, an ordering vision of what the political system ought to be and what it might become.” For Christians, the vision is ultimately Christ and his kingdom of God. But penultimately, we can envision how we might in the already-not-yet move toward more just and merciful systems that better reflect God’s kingdom. A socialist political economy is simply one of those penultimate proposals.
Furthermore, it is a vision which could have a surprisingly broad appeal as it cuts across the left-right dichotomies – something that more “radical” visions tend to do. It has traditionally been associated with the left, given its rejection of corporate capitalist control of the economy. But “conservative” figures should find plenty to applaud, given its skepticism of state control, an empowering of mediating institutions, and a valuing of local and traditional community and family life. Whether one’s source of political inspiration be John Ruskin’s guild socialism, G.K. Chestorton’s distributism, a Radical Orthodox post-liberalism, Noam Chomsky’s libertarian socialism, or David Graeber’s anarchism, conservatives and radicals alike should find considerable overlap in participatory socialism.
At this point, we only can get glimpses of what a participatory socialist society could look like. Orwell gave us some sense of what it briefly looked like in Spain. Individual companies, like Semco or the cooperative federation Mondragon, demonstrate that cooperative forms are possible, even in capitalist environments. The Meidner Plan in Sweden was a 9-year experiment with promising results. Most agree that there is no single blueprint and experimentation is needed to see what forms of economic democracy are appropriate in different contexts.
Having presented the negative case – that socialism is not incompatible with a sinful human nature – I should say that I believe a more ambitious case could be made that economic democracy better mitigates sin’s impact on the economy. In addition, I think it would enable more just outcomes and human flourishing than capitalist systems. But that’s an argument for another day…
About the Author
Joel Gillin is a PhD student in theology at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and a visiting researcher at Westfield House, Cambridge. His research focuses on western political theology and post-secular thought and his articles “Religion as a Liturgical Continuum” (2019) and “Agonistic Pluralism and the Theology of Self-Revisionary Identities” (2021) have been published in the academic journals Neue Zeitschrift für systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie and Kerygma und Dogma, respectively.
 For more on Maurice and his vision, see Jeremy Morris, F.D. Maurice and the Crisis of Christian Authority (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). For a recent introduction to Christian socialism and its contemporary relevance, see Philip Turner, Christian Socialism: The Promise of an Almost Forgotten Tradition (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2021).
 Stephen Charles Mott, A Christian Perspective on Political Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 207.
 See ibid. and the works of Gary Dorrien, such as Economy, Difference, Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice, Columbia Series on Religion and Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).
 Michael Albert, Parecon: Life After Capitalism (New York: Verso Books, 2004).
 The differences between the Eastern and Western theological traditions and the various streams of Protestantism do not bear upon my argument. But, as I see it, even the most pessimistic of theological anthropologies – such as those of the Lutheran or Reformed traditions – are not obstacles to socialism.
 Michael Novak, “Father of Neoconservatives: Reinhold Niebuhr,” National Review (May 11, 1992), 39–42 (cited in Dorrien, Economy, Difference, Empire, 139).
 Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York: American Enterprise Institute : Simon & Schuster, 1982), hereafter pages cited in the text.
 Novak inexplicably lists “competition” among the six key Christian principles relevant for a theology of economics.
 Malcolm Brown, After the Market: Economics, Moral Agreement and the Churches’ Mission (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2004), 136.
 Larry Rasmussen, “Was Reinhold Niebuhr Wrong about Socialism?,” Political Theology 6, no. 4 (February 11, 2005), 454.
 Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Collectivist Bogy,” The Nation 159 (October 21, 1944): 478, 480, as excerpted by Charles C. Brown, compiler and editor of A Reinhold Niebuhr Reader: Selected Essays, Articles, and Book Reviews (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), 141–42.
 Reinhold Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics (New York: Library of America, 2015).
 Ibid., 413.
 Ibid., 417-418.
 Ibid., 418.
 Gary Dorrien, “Introduction,” in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense, by Reinhold Niebuhr (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), xx.
 Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2018). This is generally once the material/financial needs of workers are comfortably met.
 Mott, A Christian Perspective, 207.
 For example, “Mondragon limits managerial salaries to nine times that of the lowest paid member; this is an exceptionally equitable differential compared with the 2014 average CEO-to-worker pay ratio of 127:1 in Spain or 331:1 in the United States (according to the AFL-CIO).” Sharryn Kasmir, “The Mondragon Cooperatives and Global Capitalism: A Critical Analysis,” New Labor Forum 25, no. 1 (2016): 52–59, at 54.
 Mott, A Christian Perspective, 210.
 Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 33.