Infinitely Entangled: A Story of a Murder and a God Who Cried

She was stabbed to death on a sunny, Saturday morning in a suburb near Austin, Texas. It was April 18th 2014.

Having sold some shares he owned in a company, her husband had just returned from Chicago with a hundred thousand dollars in cash. Allegedly, he wanted to escape somewhere after “the deed.” That morning, he had breakfast with his family, which included his wife and his wife’s sister, who was barely fourteen. Their two little kids were present, probably frolicking around in excitement in the presence of daddy. His wife sat across a dining room table, eating pancakes, while repeatedly stroking her pregnant abdomen. Everything seemed fine. His wife was busy sharing her morning with her friends on social media, putting on display a family committed to an ideal: “those who eat together, stay together.” The world must have thought everything was fine.

The husband, without a sign of disturbance, suggested to his wife, kids, and sister-in-law that they head to a park. You know, “for a morning stroll.” And so, the park it was.

In a matter of minutes, after he placed his two kids in their brand new Lexus, he returned to the house to find his wife alone. (The sister-in-law was probably in a nearby room preparing for the stroll.) Without skipping a beat, he grabbed a kitchen knife, put his pregnant wife in a headlock, and shoved the large knife into her throat. Surprised by this behavior, the wife didn’t seem to fight back.

A small commotion must have disturbed the sister-in-law, since she promptly returned to the dining room only to find her sister covered in blood, being stabbed repeatedly to death by her own husband.

In a state of utter dismay, she called the police.

He didn’t even bother to pull the knife out. He just left it standing there, stuck in her womb, an erect witness to the crime he had just committed.

Calmly, the husband got back into the car and went to the park with his kids.


But the story doesn’t end there. In fact, it hasn’t even begun.


Before Rachel ever married Matthew, she was in love with his cousin, Tim. After things didn’t work out with Tim, she had begun dating Matthew with the hopes that she could get Tim back by the sheer force of jealousy. Things didn’t turn out that way, and so, she ended up marrying Matthew.

Several kids later, Rachel found herself stuck in a marriage she did not want. Oh, her husband loved her—one merely needed to see the large diamond she wore on her ring finger—but it was a love she did not return. The inevitable was to rise to the surface in due time: Rachel was having an affair with Tim.

Now Matthew was not entirely an idiot. He had attended a prestigious university and had graduated with honors. It didn’t take long for him to suspect that his beloved wife (whom he’d casually beat during sex every once in a while) was cheating on him. When his wife announced that she was pregnant, Matthew, in his heart of hearts, refused to believe the child was his.

Incidentally, the cheating became less tacit. Rachel had a tattoo inked on her skin, just under her left breast, saying something that could be interpreted along the lines of Matthew’s suspicions. She became addicted to alcohol, drinking one too many glasses of wine with dinner. The baby growing in her bosom only fueled Matthew’s imagination: there was no way in hell the child was his. His wife wasn’t happy with him. He knew it; she knew it, and she no longer tried to hide it.

“The deed” committed, then, was a crime of passion. It was premeditated, conceived in the most intelligent of minds; being acted out by a man who knew what he was doing and why.

After the funeral, friends of Matthew, who were still enraged by his deed, visited him in prison. In his prison clothes, surrounded by fellow thieves and murderers, Matthew expressed no remorse or regret; he only wished he had done it sooner.

With Rachel murdered and buried, and her husband facing life in prison, the two kids were returned to her parents. Maybe they still had a future.

Rachel’s fourteen-year-old sister was no longer herself. She was a witness to a crime no one should have witnessed at that tender age. The psychiatrists placed her on large doses of antidepressants, anxiolytics, and hypnotics. Maybe she, too, had a future, however demented and guilt-ridden it would be.

For most of the surviving members of the family—be it the friends, the relatives, or the church members—the questions haunted them: where was God in all of this? Could God not have intervened? What purpose did it serve to have had a little girl witness such brutality? Was there really any “good” that could come about from the experiencing of such a violent scene? What about the children? Who’s going to raise them? And when Rachel’s daughter grows into a woman, what sort of stories will she tell on first dates regarding her father? Will she tell the guys how “Daddy just flipped out and stabbed mom to death”? Or will she invent something more readily digestible? (I assume one would invent some fanciful tale about one’s origins which one could psychologically deal with.) The question I wish to pursue is relatively simple: How does one live in a world of suffering, a world God allegedly claims as His own?


Before Rachel was ever murdered, before there was such a thing as her cheating and her husband’s rage, there was a concept of God and a concept of how the world ran that infiltrated every aspect of reality. The questions her family members ask, and the questions her little sister will ask as she matures, are undoubtedly asked from a particular vantage point. And what is that vantage point? In the following pages, I wish to articulate a view of God and His relation to the world that may help explain some of the suffering human beings experience.

For many people, the idea that God exists in a world of suffering poses problems. In the classical framing of the issue either (a) God is omnipotent and does not wish to eliminate suffering (hence making God malevolent) or (b) God is benevolent but cannot eliminate suffering (hence making God impotent) or (c) God does not exist. In any of the cases, God is certainly a major subject. It is to this noun “God” that I now turn.

Who or what is God? What does it mean for something to be “god”? The Bible presents us with a strange God. In the Old Testament, for example, YHWH suffers a great deal. In the New Testament, God also suffers—this time on a cross. In both Testaments, God functions as a Being who experiences suffering. In Psalm 78:40, it is said of God: “How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert!” In many ways, according to the Old Testament, God grieved due to relational issues. He grieved due to “forsakenness (Isa. 54:6); mourning (2 Sam. 19:3); distress and anger (Gen. 45:5); [and] injury (Ps. 56:6).”[1] In addition to these remarkably human emotions, the Old Testament relates how God suffers within the context of metaphors. For example, God’s relationship with Israel is seen within the context of a marital metaphor: God is the husband and Israel is the wife. The feelings God verbalizes are romantic:

“I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jer. 2:2).

In such romantic, marital recollections, what is being relayed is, according to Terence E. Fretheim, “a picture of the pain and anguish of God.”[2] In what seems like a hopeless romantic’s last-ditch-effort, God comes to Israel begging helplessly for attention.

“I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me…” (Isa. 65:1).[3]

The metaphors do not stop there. God is a mother (Hos. 11:3-4; Isa. 66:13; Ps. 131:2; Luke 13:34), a father (Isa. 1:2-3), a shepherd (Ps. 23), etc. In all these cases, God is relating to humans. It is the relationship that is at the center of the anguish and the pain of a suffering God. The image of God as a hopeless romantic may not be one that many of us would be familiar with—especially a suffering romantic at that! Our images of God, like the idols of old, are detrimental to theology.

The OT tells us that the people of God were often guilty of worshipping idols, of making up their own god, of creating gods, or even Yahweh, in a certain image. We oversimplify this matter if we think of such images solely in terms of wood or stone; the plastic image conveyed a particular way of understanding these gods or Yahweh. And, we have learned over the years that idolatries do not need the plastic form to qualify as such. One can move directly to mental images which construct a false image of God and have the power of wreaking havoc in people’s faith and life. Metaphors matter.[4]

And what is our image—our mental construct, our “idol”—of God today? In the words of Douglas J. Hall, we like the image of God as warrior-king:

The language of our religion had been so consistently informed by the spirit of might, winning, success, and related concepts that it is difficult to use any of the scriptural nomenclature of glory and triumph without conjuring up the whole ideology of empire.[5]

Citing C. S. Song, he writes, “[W]e have been handed a ‘high-voltage God’ and a ‘high-voltage theology’ by our tradition.”[6] The idea that God actually suffers too—that we are like God, having been made in His image—is as foreign to our ears as the oft-repeated phrase imago dei. We’ve heard it so many times, we’ve forgotten what it all means. The words are hidden from our eyes, “hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity” (§129), wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein.[7] Our God, instead, is no longer the God in whose image we have been made. It is a God who is “high-voltage,” like the narcissistic dictators some of us—who are clearly deranged—dream of.

Hall continues:

“The Judeo-Christian tradition does not deny the power of God, but neither does it magnify this attribute; moreover, and more to the point, it does not abstract the divine power from the divine-human relationship. The relationship qualifies—radically—the nature and deployment of power on God’s part.”[8]

And it is here that we’ve come to the crux of the issue. God suffers—and that is alright. But what if His suffering is predominantly contingent upon a relationship? If so, is God’s nature, then, somehow qualified by the relationship? The Bible suggests that this may indeed be the case: God cannot do anything willy-nilly—He is bound to the promises made to human beings.

If God makes a promise to a person, is He not limited by it? That is, if God says that He would do something no matter what, is He free to not do what He said He’d do? It appears that the idea of God being totally all-powerful is wrong. Not wrong in the sense of “God is omnipotent” but wrong in the sense of “God’s power is of such a case that He can do anything and everything no matter what.” Our conceptions of “power” are inherently tied to our conceptions of dictators, kings, and nuclear-capable nations. But is that really power? Is it really “powerful” to bomb another nation? Is it really powerful when you lock someone up in order to prevent them from doing what they so desire? “Who, through power tactics, can eliminate the self-destroying habits of a son or daughter who has fallen prey to hard drugs?”[9] In Frederick Buechner’s novel Lion Country, the protagonist, Antonio, makes the following remarks regarding his sister’s suffering, who was dying from a bone disease:

When Miriam’s bones were breaking…if I could have pushed a button that would have stopped not her pain but the pain of her in me, I would not have pushed the button because, to put it quite simply, my pain was because I loved her, and to have wished my pain away would have been somehow to wish my love away as well.[10]

To wish away relational pain, a pain watered by love, is to wish away the love also. And to wish away love…well, what else does one live for anyway?

We live in a world in which we want to wish away many things. All too often we deny the reality of suffering by failing to accept it as such. We want to reject suffering. We want to reject the pain we feel when a loved one is sick or dying. We want to reject a suffering God—for a suffering God has little to offer humans who have rejected the very nature of the God they claim to worship. And yet, this God is caught up in the cobwebs of intimate relations. This God does not live in a vacuum, detached from human freedom. Humans have the freedom to do all kinds of things. They can build or they can destroy; they can create life or they can take it. Somewhere in the mess of things, God finds Himself—from the biblical perspective—merely[11] involved. God is not, to use colloquial expressions, “in control.”

In the words of the physicist-turned-theologian John Polkinghorne, “A world in which God perpetually intervened in this magical way would also not be a creation that was allowed freely to be itself.”[12] He continues: “[S]uffering and evil of the world are not due to weakness, oversight, or callousness on God’s part, but, rather, they are the inescapable cost of creation allowed to be other than God, released from tight divine control and permitted to be itself.”[13]

According to Polkinghorne, the freedom that we have to exist is necessary for us to be able to truly be ourselves. Without it, we’d just be God on a different day.

But separation from God is not the only thing one could discuss. Separation is necessary for freedom. But what about all of God’s pain? What about all of our pain? This pain comes from involvement, from entanglement. Even reality itself is “built up from relationships.”[14] For example, the EPR experiment in physics[15] shows us that once two photons interact with one another—and begin sharing a single wave function—and are later separated, they will continue to share the same wave function no matter the distance between them. In addition, if anything is done to photon X (let’s say it is measured by a tool which places it into a spin-up state) then photon Y, however far away, will be put into a spin-down state. If mere photons have such “quantum entanglement,” how much are human beings entangled in the world and God? It is a deeply frightening question. Are we so entangled in God’s world that any action we take has virtually eternal and limitless repercussions? If this is, indeed, the case, this puts human beings in a very serious situation: the responsibility that falls on our shoulders may then be likened to Paul’s “weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).

There is a “togetherness in separation”[16] in the quantum world. How much more is there “togetherness in separation” in the real world! Returning to some of our initial thoughts, I do not think God is infinitely removed from reality. If God exists, it would certainly be a God who is a hopeless romantic “entangled” in us. On the flip side, our relations with God and neighbor, with wife and brother, are also gravely important. And what we do shapes and changes history. We have the freedom to love and the freedom to kill. But in any case we are, as it were, infinitely entangled.

If Rachel’s little sister were to ask a theologian about God, and God’s relation to the world, what would he or she say? In light of our brief discussion, mostly centered on the issue of relationships and pain, what does one say? I don’t have the answer—but I think we have a number of answers[17] we could ruminate on.

What was the meaning of Rachel’s death? Could God have done something about it without changing Rachel’s life-story? I don’t think so. In a sense, Rachel was the architect of her life. (And I am not in any way denying influences such as genes, family, friends, etc.) She chose this man—and she committed her share of sins. There is no need to deny the responsibilities that fell on Rachel, her lover Tim, and her husband. All three figures played their cards in this thing called life. None were “without blood,” so to speak. Could God have intervened? I don’t think so. To limit Rachel’s freedom—or what little freedom she had—would have meant to eliminate Rachel’s existence itself. The suffering of God was not, even in God’s own case, eliminated. To hearken back to my mention of Buechner’s work, God did not “push the button.” Like a parent watching a child die slowly from the consumption of illegal drugs, so does God watch—in the most pathetic of manners—the death of His beloveds. In freedom, in letting God be God and humans be humans, there is also the possibility of love and hate, of intimacy and loneliness, of life and of death. “Morally honest joy must be joy had while our eyes remain open to evil,” wrote the philosophical theologian William Greenway.[18] To experience love in all of its grandeur and in all of its tombstone-glory, one must keep one’s eyes open to evil. The beloved remains—always remains—one final exhalation away from death. To deny this is to deny the wholeness of love. To deny the pain that is and the pain that is to come is to deny what is central to love: a pain that aches secondary to, and in proportion to, a love that burns.

Where was God in all of this? Was He distantly removed, somewhere safe in the environs of His Ivory Tower. Or was He deeply immersed in the suffering of Rachel, in the rage of Matthew, in the tears of friends and family? The biblical portrait of God—whether it is the YHWH of the Old Testament or the Jesus of the New—is one: God suffers with. The suffering is not always suffering “for”; sometimes it is simply a suffering “with.” Returning to our earlier analogy of God as hopeless romantic within the metaphor of marital love, God may have simply been present. There is a reason why couples that say their traditional vows invoke the possibility of evil and suffering. It is because it is a very real possibility—and sometimes all one needs is a partner in suffering. “In sickness and in health, till death do us part.” The relationship brings with it the promise—and I do think it is a promise—that you two will suffer. The suffering may be caused by none other than that arch-villain itself, Love. You may lose someone you deeply love in a car accident. You may worry if your spouse is ever late. You may care endlessly about your spouse’s wellbeing. All in all, there will be some level of heartache involved—if one has a soul, that is.

Maybe C. S. Lewis was right:

To love anything is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”[19]

If one wants to avoid tragedy in general, or the loss of a spouse in particular, one must simply choose not to engage in any loving endeavors at all. Where there is no such love; where there is no such freedom to love (or not to love); where there is no possibility of intimate relations, there you will find a god who does not cry. But here we are on earth, in the most earthly of manners, infinitely entangled in the arms of a God who cries…


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to Terrence E. Fretheim—for all of the outbursts in class and for our conversations regarding God & suffering…




[1] Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 111.

[2] Ibid., 115.

[3] Also cited in Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 118.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Douglas John Hall, God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), 106.

[6] Ibid., 96.

[7] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. and eds. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, rev. 4th ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 57.

[8] Hall, God and Human Suffering, 97. Italics original.

[9] Ibid., 98.

[10] Cited in Hall, God and Human Suffering, 99.

[11] I use the word “merely” here quite loosely. That is, I am setting this vision of God in contradistinction to a vision in which God functions as a warrior-king that rules by might.

[12] John Polkinghorne, Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2005), 60.

[13] Ibid., 61.

[14] Ibid., 75.

[15] Ibid., 70-2.

[16] Ibid., 70.

[17] I use the term “answer” here very loosely. I sympathize with Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. That is, I don’t think I’d accept God’s invitation to go to the theater in which God provided “an explanation” of suffering. I’m pretty sure I’d turn down the offer. No, I’m certain I would.

[18] William Greenway, The Challenge of Evil: Grace and the Problem of Suffering (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 31.

[19] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1988), 121.

The Names of God: Exodus 3:14-15 and the Answer

Thousands of years ago, so the story goes, an old man met god in a fiery bush that refused to be consumed. The god took interest in the old man—who went by the name Moses—and decided to send him so that he may help save a group of people whom the god called his own. “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians” (Ex. 3:7-8 NIV). Before Moses accepted this unknown god’s proposition, he first asked the god for its name—for if “they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (3:13 NIV). The response this god provided Moses has continued to perplex layman and scholar alike to this very day. In this paper, I will examine various interpretations of “the answer” the god gave in the hopes of finding a syncretic approach that makes sense of the answer both within its (a) historical context and (b) its current biblical, canonical context. In my concluding reflections, I will argue that the names of God, as revealed to Moses, are as elusive now as they were then.

In the Ancient Near East, names were thought to have magical properties.[1] Cassuto, summarizing the prevailing view, writes, “[T]he designation of any entity was to be equated, as it were, with its existence: whatever is without an appellation does not exist, but whatever has a denomination has existence.”[2] Already in the second creation myth found in Genesis 2, Adam was seen giving names to the recently created animals brought into existence.[3] Existence and having a name went hand-in-hand. The “magical element” of knowing the name of an object or person was grounded in the ancient idea, as Gordis points out, that “knowing the name of any person or object is tantamount to comprehending its nature.”[4] The language of the Hebrew Bible itself—including our text from Exodus—was conducive to such magical thinking. “In Biblical Hebrew, sëm [שֵׁם, “name”] means ‘essence.’”[5] In addition to this, knowing the name of a god, and “calling on its name,” meant you were able to invoke that god’s attention.[6] But attention itself was not granted unless you knew the god’s name. The “magical element,” however, is best epitomized by the ancients’ idea that “to ‘call a name’ [was] sometimes equivalent to ‘create.’”[7] Given the ancients’ concern for knowing the correct name for a correct object, animal, or god, it should come to us as no surprise that Moses was predominantly concerned with figuring out the god’s name—who, in fact, was speaking with him?

The answer the god gave appears to be as elusive as ever:

“I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:14-15 NIV).

At first blush, it appears that there are at least three[8] separate but related answers the god, identifying himself as YHWH, gave Moses: (1) “I am who I am”; (2) “I Am”; and (3) “The Lord” [YHWH]. Numerous theories have arisen because of the seemingly various “answers” YHWH gave Moses; the scholars usually assign the different names to different sources.[9] In this paper, however, I will focus on the canonical text at hand without dealing with the complicated theories catalyzed by source criticism.

YHWH[10] first answers Moses’ question with the cryptic phrase: “I am who I am.” In Hebrew the phrase is אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה. The first word—namely, אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה [ehyeh]—is the first-person imperfect masculine singular verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”]. Generally speaking, the word could be translated “I will be,” being an imperfect verb that conveys an incomplete action that could occur in the past, present, or future. The particle following the initial ehyeh is אֲשֶׁ֣ר, which is normally translated in this passage as “who.” What does YHWH mean by saying of himself “I will be who I will be” or, as most translations have it, “I am who I am”? Numerous answers have been given; I will present three interpretations of this enigmatic phrase.

The first interpretation I will call “the unknowable explanation.” According to this interpretation, YHWH, in fact, does not answer Moses’ question; that is, YHWH does not give Moses a “name.” What YHWH does instead is give Moses a phrase—an idem per idem[11] syntactical construction, to be exact—alluding to the impossibility of placing God in a box. Zimmerli, one such exponent of this view, writes, “In the only passage where the Old Testament itself attempts to provide an explanation of the name ‘Yahweh’ it refuses to explain the name in a way that could confine it within the cage of definition.”[12] God remains, in this view, the deus absconditus—that is, “the hidden God.” Several good reasons seem to support this interpretation. In light of the earlier comments I made regarding names and their “magical elements,” this view prevents humans from knowing God’s name “because man should not know God’s name and acquire power over him, for God is not to be man’s slave.”[13] Also, this interpretation seems to suggest that the finite human mind cannot possibly understand God and his nature. Even if a name were given, it would be an illusory shell: the name could never contain God. Since a human could not possibly understand God, God and his name must forever remain a mystery.

The second interpretation I shall call “the ontological explanation.” In this view, YHWH is essentially saying, “I am because I am.” When Moses asked YHWH his name, YHWH gave him a name, but it was made in reference to the name itself. That is, outside of the name given—which is elusive as it is, meaning simply “I will be” or “I am”—is itself not supported by anything external to it, functioning, in a sense, as the grounding of being itself. “There is no cause for God’s existence outside himself.”[14] This is a very popular view, being supported by numerous scholars, both ancient and modern.[15] The problem with this view, from a Hebrew exegesis perspective, is that it assumes the particle here should be translated as “because,” and, in addition to this, the imperfect verb should be thoroughly read as a present perfect; that is, the “I will be” (imperfect) should be translated, with certainty, as “I am” (present perfect).[16]

The third interpretation I shall call “the covenantal-loyalty explanation.” In this view, one that seems to be favored by Cassuto, YHWH, by stating the “I am who I am,” means to relate to Moses that he is a god who is. He is one who is actively present in the life of his people. Prior to Exodus 3:14, this god tells Moses: “…For I will be with you [עִמָּ֔ךְ כִּֽי־אֶֽהְיֶ֣ה]” (v.12, my trans.). He is a god who is loyal to a people he calls his own. (Later on, he will tell Moses that he is the god of his ancestors [3:15].) Interpreting this passage, Cassuto writes, regarding what Moses would say to the people, “He Himself sent me to you; although we forgot his name, He did not forget us. He remembered His covenant with our ancestors, and has sent me to you to fulfill His covenant.”[17] In support of this view is Mowinckel’s assertion that “[t]o the Hebrew ‘to be’ does not just mean to exist—as all other beings and things do exist as well—but to be active, to express oneself in active being…”[18] Noth, likewise, writes, “הָיָה [“to be”] does not express pure being but active being.”[19]

After YHWH’s first answer—“I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am”—he further tells Moses that he is simply the “I am.” In this case, the verb seems to be functioning entirely as a title. But YHWH does not stop there. He then introduces another name for himself, providing a third reply: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [יְהוָ֞ה], the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’” In the third reply, God has now used yet another verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”], namely, יְהוָ֞ה [yhwh, “he is”].[20] The difference between the two words being that of person: the first being in first-person, the second being in third-person. Perhaps when God speaks of himself, he refers to himself in the first-person ehyeh; however, when others refer to God, and speak of him, he is referred to in the third-person yhwh. In any case, God is a god linked to the verb for “to be.” Having looked at various interpretations of “the answer” to Moses’ question, I now want to turn my attention to the Exodus narrative as a whole, looking to see which of these various interpretations make sense of the most data.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the narrator presents us with a strange picture. Calling to mind the first command given by God in Genesis 1:28—“be fruitful and multiply”—the book displays before our eyes a people who, indeed, had been fruitful (Ex. 1:7, 9). But in their fruitfulness, the people also made enemies: the Pharaoh felt threatened precisely because of it (1:9). The fruitfulness was either a blessing or a curse; it was either responsible for the growth of the nation, or it was the very curse that reduced them to their slavery. However, what appears evident is that God was intimately involved with his people in their struggle to survive tyranny. The midwives, the narrator tells us, “feared the God” (1:17, my trans.). In addition to this, the narrator makes us cognizant of God’s [elohim, אֱלֹהִ֔ים] early involvement in the Israelites’ reproductive efforts. “God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous” (1:20 NIV).

The tale suggests that, already, God was present with his people. We are not told whether the Israelites knew God as the “I am” or as the “He is”; what we do know is that God—in the generic sense conveyed by אֱלֹהִ֔ים—was with the Israelites. In addition to this, we are reminded right at the end chapter two, “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (2:24 NIV). God, then, was both present and covenantal, both faithful and loyal.

Moses, having run away from Pharaoh’s court, and having settled into a nomadic lifestyle in a place called Midian on the Arabian peninsula, is confronted, years later, by a relatively commonplace scene in such desert regions: a burning bush. The not-so-commonplace sight was the fact that the bush didn’t just burn; it refused to be consumed (3:3). Midrash Rabba offers an intriguing commentary on this passage:

“Why did God show Moses such a symbol? Because he (Moses) had thought to himself that the Egyptians might consume Israel; hence did God show him a fire, which burnt but did not consume, saying to him, “Just as the thorn-bush is burning and is not consumed, so the Egyptians will not be able to destroy Israel.”[21]

Again, the covenantal-loyalty of YHWH is exuded here. If this is the message YHWH was trying to convey to Moses, then he was certainly trying to tell him that he, their God, his people’s God, was faithfully looking after them. Though they may be in the process of being burned by fire, they shall not be consumed—for YHWH remembers his covenants.

Just moments prior to giving Moses “the answer” to his question—namely, what is God’s name?—YHWH[22] said: “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (3:12 NIV). The promise is already there. First, YHWH says, “I will be with you.” He is the god of covenantal loyalty. Second, YHWH says what will happen with Israel: “you will worship God on this mountain.” He is the god of the future.

It is in this biblical, canonical context in which Moses first hears God’s reply (or “replies,” if you will). Who is God? and What is his name? Instead of seeing the various interpretations as mostly in conflict with each other, I think a syncretic approach works rather well in the interpretation of this passage. Why shouldn’t a first-person verb such as ehyeh convey (a) an “unknowable name”; (b) the grounding of being; and (c) covenantal loyalty? All of these interpretations have come from engagement with the verb in the middle of it all: hyh [“to be”]. What does it mean for something “to be”? What does it mean for God to say that he is (or was, or will be) this “to be”? In a way, then, I see all of these as tentatively valid interpretations. They all have been borne out of an authentic wrestling with the biblical text at hand.

Therefore, on that fateful day on Sinai, it seems likely to me that Moses was given an answer that involved complexity and nuance. A generic name for a god was not thrown out, but neither was no name given. Instead, what Moses discovered was, perhaps, that he was dealing with a God who didn’t like labels, a God who “fear[ed] the magical use of His Name…”[23] Later on in Exodus 33:19, this very same God would remark, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.”[24] The enigma is being perpetrated even here. Who will receive God’s mercy? The answer is not to be found in the answer given. The human subject remains at a kind of distance; he or she is never directly manipulating God’s behavior. Answers qua answers are not given; instead, YHWH speaks in cryptic terms. Maybe if the human subject could know God’s actions, could know whom God would show mercy, maybe then could the human exercise some control over this God.

If the name had to do with some other verb, could humans make sense of this deity then? Maybe if God was not a “to be” but a “to love,” maybe then would he be predictable.[25] But, as it is, no such verb was given. What was given was a verb scholar and layman alike continue to struggle with. In Exodus 3:14, we had come face-to-face with a passage one scholar has called “one of the unsolved difficulties for both translators and exegetes.”[26] Like the ancients of old who sought out names so that they might magically abracadabra various gods into existence, we, too, demand accurate knowledge. Like Moses, being presented with an answer he could not cope with, we meander around the ashes of a burnt out bush, hoping to find “the answer.” And what is our question? “What is the name of God?” In the commentaries and in the academic journals we went looking—only to return with a plethora of so-called “answers.” Under every rock we’ve looked only to come up empty-handed. Somewhere, buried in a long-forgotten commentary written by some nomad, another answer awaits to be discovered. And the names of God continue to puzzle and perplex us today as much as ever, evading us like elusive fireflies burning now and disappearing later. In every scholar, in every reader of the Bible, there lurks a Moses asking an age-old question: “What is his name?”


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev



Albrektson, Bertil. “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14.” Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible. Burlington: Ashgate, 2010.

Cassuto, Umberto. A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. Translated by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967.

Gianotti, Charles R. “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH.” Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985): 38-51.

Gordis, Robert. “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls.” Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957).

Hyatt, J. Philip. Commentary on Exodus. New Century Bible. London: Oliphants, 1971.

Janzen, Gerald J. “And the Bush Was Not Consumed.” Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003): 219-225.

Noth, Martin. Exodus: A Commentary. Translated by J. S. Bowden. London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962.

Reisel, M. The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H. Studia Semitica Neerlandica. Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957.


[1] M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., Studia Semitica Neerlandica (Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957), 1. “[I]n the view of primitive man forces are active in Nature that can be influenced and controlled by magical means, such as rites of protection or propitiation, by worship, as also by the giving or avoiding of certain names” (italics original).

[2] Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967), 37.

[3] Genesis 2:20.

[4] Robert Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957), 125.

[5] Ibid.

[6] J. Philip Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, New Century Bible (London: Oliphants, 1971), 75. “To pronounce the name of a deity meant to call upon his power.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Such is the view of M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 5. “To this single question he surprisingly receives as many as three answers…”

[9] Noth does this (cf. Martin Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, trans. J. S. Bowden [London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962], 42) as does Hyatt (cf. Commentary on Exodus, 75-8). For a list of scholars who advocate some source theory derived from the different names of god in the Hebrew Bible, I refer my readers to the numerous commentaries available. It is not the purpose of this paper to engage with various source theories robustly, as I am more interested in dealing with the interpretation of Exodus as the text currently stands, warts and all.

[10] I will refer to “the god” throughout the text as YHWH from this point forward. While it may cause some difficulties to my readers—perhaps various sources meant different gods when they mentioned either YHWH or elohim? and I have, as it were, caused some confusion by collapsing the alleged “distinction”—it would have been relatively strange, aesthetically speaking, for me to continue to refer to god as “the god” for the remainder of the paper.

[11] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 76-7. “In this construction the speaker (or writer) is intentionally indefinite , because he is either unwilling or unable to be definite and precise.” For examples of other such constructions in Exodus, see 4:13; 16:23; and 33:19.

[12] Cited in Charles R. Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” in Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985), 41.

[13] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 75.

[14] Ibid., 76.

[15] See Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 41.

[16] Ibid., 42-3.

[17] Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 39.

[18] Cited in Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 42.

[19] Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, 45.

[20] This verb is translated here as the Qal verbal stem third-person imperfect masculine singular.

[21] Cited in Gerald J. Janzen, “And the Bush Was Not Consumed,” in Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003), 225.

[22] Technically the word here is elohim.

[23] Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H, 11. Italics original.

[24] NIV.

[25] Interestingly enough, S. D. Goitein makes the argument that the Hebrew root hyh is related to the Arabic “hawiya” which means “to love.” He then interprets Exodus 3:14 as saying, “I shall (passionately) love whom I love” (see Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 17).

[26] These are the words of W. A. Irwin cited in Bertil Albrektson, “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14,” in Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible (Burlington: Ashgate, 2010), 41.

“And There It Stood”: A Short Horror

On an eccentric November night, mostly one hundred years ago, at a time when the strange seemed rather charming, a boy child was born to an unlikely couple. The year was 1910. The Titanic had not yet sunk (but it was about to). And the First World War had not yet been started.

The boy’s parents were both engineers at Cambridge.

His mother sunk into trepidation the moment she first beheld his eyes. All she could see were eyes—big, looming eyes. Eyes that could swallow an entire horizon. Eyes that were like two overgrown moons floating effortlessly in a fluorescent night sky. She fell immediately in love with the boy.

They named him Wesley. But he preferred Wezel. He was a precocious child who spent most of his days studying his immediate surroundings.

At the age of seven he thought himself to be Vincent van Gogh’s “spirit-child.”

So he painted The Starry Night. An art historian came to see it. He walked around the room in a most elegant manner, now pacing up and now pacing down the entirety of the room. “Humm—pff!” he would exclaim as he’d pivot on his heels. “It is peculiarly unique relative to other replicas of the work in that the brush stokes are exact, measured with modest reserve, and pedantically calculated.”

The little Wezel loved perfection, and his artwork became a Cambridge sensation. It was rumored that during the First World War, when Cambridge’s own art department housed Van Gogh’s painting at the Fitzwilliam Museum it was actually Wenzel’s artwork that was on display—for the museum curators were “afraid of a loss of the original artwork during a potential air raid.” And so, in a matter of a mere eight years—by now it was 1918—Wezel’s fame grew beyond the confines of a single bedroom apartment that housed the two professors and their big-eyed child.

During his years at a local primary school, Wezel made two friends: one was the teacher and the other a kitchen rat. The teacher shared her lunchtime cookies with him, and he shared his portion with the kitchen rat.

The students didn’t like Wezel for several reasons. One, he looked like a disheveled old soul—whose entire physiognomy was reduced to an emphasis that was placed on his eyes and his “death-glare.” Two, he could not understand ordinary human language. He struggled to talk the baby-talk of his fellow peers, and so, in a most necessary manner, engaged his teachers in dialogue regarding math, logic, and a myriad of oil-on-canvas painting techniques.

His third friend need not be mentioned here, since, if I recall correctly, she never returned the favor. Her name was Katherine, and she avoided Wezel’s impulsive romantic approaches. He once tried to share the teacher’s half-cookie with her but she refused. So he went to the kitchen and gave it to the rat instead. Such was the result of his first dreamy endeavor.

Because the students feared him, Wezel had to reallocate his energy-expenditures in a more fitting manner. By the summer of 1920, Wezel—then being a decade old—locked himself in his parent’s attic (they had moved a few blocks into a small home) and vowed to never reappear unless he had produced a masterpiece. His parents fed him through a tiny crack in the wall, sustaining him for six weeks and three days with crackers, chocolate and prenatal multivitamins. Every third day he requested a large, boiling pot of coffee for “mental energy.” His parents complied. Staying true to his word, Wezel emerged—six weeks and three days later—with the art in his hand a dark and forlorn figure, bearing the anguish of a tortured genius.

His parents rushed to greet their wild-eyed child. His mother fell to the ground kissing his dimpled cheeks and swearing that she would never let him do this to her again. His father stood by silently watching the strange emotions take over his mostly rational wife.

“What did you create this time, Wes,” his mother asked tenderly.

The boy looked into her eyes without blinking.

“Is he horrified by us?” his mother thought to herself. “Why, surely, he knows we love him dearly!”

Wezel walked past his parents, as if in a daze, with an old cloth-sheet covering his hidden masterpiece. During dinner, after he had broken the silence, and having alleviated his mother’s fears, Wezel requested the presence of Sydney Cockerell, who was, at the time, the director of the Fitzwilliam.

The following day, with an eye-loop in hand, Director Cockerell came to see Wezel. He walked up and down the room like the last art historian.

“Aren’t all these art historian creatures the same?” Wezel silently asked himself. “They walk in the same manner; no two are different!”

“Yes, yes—indeed! Yes! Hmm. Wow. Yes, indeed!” the Director kept mumbling to himself. “Yes, very particular. Almost real. Yes, yes! Real. As real as rain in London!”

The piece measured one hundred sixty centimeters by two hundred. It was a large oil-on-canvas painting depicting Wezel’s last place of residence: the attic. It was an accurate depiction of reality. So accurate, in fact, that Cockerell spent the following days speaking about it incessantly.

“You should have seen it. The attic. Oh, god. How authentic it was! The sheer splendor of the piece,” he told everyone he met. “I was transported there—and have not left since!”

The piece was purchased by the museum for millions of pounds, allowing Wezel to drop out of primary school, pay for his parent’s first honeymoon vacation, and resume all artistic activity immediately and forever.

Within weeks, word got out that the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was seeking out the company of none other than our very own Wezel. At the time, Wezel was unfamiliar with Wittgenstein’s thinking. He had, however, gone through Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, a book he criticized for “fatalistic logical errors in its presentation of the foundation of mathematics.” Wittgenstein, having heard and having seen Wezel’s work became all the more interested in meeting the decade-old human being who criticized—quite accurately, in his own opinion—the Principia.

As fate would have it, on an August evening, Wezel met with Wittgenstein. To this day, nobody knows the exact contents of the conversation, but from what I could gather, it seems that Wezel encouraged Wittgenstein to write his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Moreover, it was rumored that Wezel wrote parts of it. For example aphorism 2.12 reads: “The picture is a model of reality.”[1] The “picture” Wittgenstein had in mind—or, if Wezel wrote this, then “the picture Wezel had in his own mind”—was none other than The Attic (as Wezel’s masterpiece was later called). Per Wezel’s own account, the first remark Wittgenstein made upon his meeting him was: “But your eyes! How large must the world appear to them!” To which Wezel replied, “I can see the world accurately.”

In 1922, the year Wezel turned twelve, was the year Wittgenstein published his work. It became a philosophical sensation overnight. Wittgenstein became famous, while Wezel became a historical relic of the past.

In 1931, during a meeting at the Vienna Circle, in which Kurt Gödel was expounding his recently published ideas on the “incompleteness theorems,” Wezel met Wittgenstein yet again. The years had done nothing but shed their blessings on Wittgenstein; he was cheerful, optimistic, and open to new ideas. Upon seeing Wezel, he hugged the now grown, young lad.

“How is your work coming along?” he asked after the discussions were over.

“I became a professor of philosophy, Ludwig,” Wezel replied nostalgically. “I gave up art when I met you.”

No, you cannot say that. I would not encourage the study of philosophy,” Wittgenstein replied tersely and with peculiar force. “You must resume your art. You have a talent.”

“You don’t understand, Ludwig,” Wezel said in a hushed voice. “I’m now depicting reality with language—just as you suggested!”

“Why language?!” Wittgenstein moaned out loud. “The world is going to suffer much having lost you.”

With that, Wittgenstein angrily walked out, leaving the Circle. He never spoke with Wezel again.

In 1932, Wezel published an article titled “The Impossibility of Atheism.” In it he argued what he had argued ever since he met Wittgenstein: language is a depiction of objective reality. “In our minds we create a pictorial representation of the world. This picture of reality corresponds with the real world. There is a direct relationship between the picture in our minds and the world around us. Words refer to things in the world. An apple is an apple because there is the word ‘apple’ and its objective referent: an apple in the real world. Unicorns imagined in our mind are not an accurate picture of reality because there are no unicorns in the world. For words to have meaning, they must be grounded in reality.”

That was the beginning of the paper. Professor Wezel argued that Wittgenstein was right in his Tractatus: only that which exists in the real world should have words in our language. Since God did not exist in our world, there was no use having a mental image of God. Where did this image come from? If not from the world, then where from?

The second part of the paper proved the impossibility of atheism. “Since God is thought to be a metaphysical Being existing outside of the post-Einsteinian space-time continuum, it is, in fact, impossible to speak about God’s existence or non-existence thereof. God, as understood by some authors of the Bible, for example, does not exist in this world; He is above the world, above the natural order of things. Since God is outside of the world, being eternal and non-objective, language cannot be used either against God or for God: ‘whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.’”[2]

The paper caused a sensation amongst both the scientists and theologians. The theologians were angered at the fact that Wezel attacked positive statements about God, while relishing his attacks on the atheists for their positive claims regarding God’s non-existence. The atheists, on the other hand, while happy that Wezel supported their thesis that religion was meaningless, were angered by the fact that he debunked the possibility of atheism. And so neither side was happy or unhappy: they were both equally miserable. Wezel, for his part, rejoiced tremendously that he could irritate people.

In 1933, a young professor by the name of Dolly, specializing in a secret field pioneered by her called micro-tectonic astro-physiology, heard Wezel’s paper being read at some academic society of sorts. In a matter of hours she arranged for a meeting with that “most dazzling of minds.” Wezel proposed to Dolly the following day; they were married the following weekend.


And this is where our story truly begins.

You see, Wezel’s eccentric gaze frightened many people out of many nights of peaceful rest. Some even avoided walking past him on their way to Cambridge just to dodge his “piercing, eerie stare.” His wife, however, a simple beauty of extraordinary mental capacities, was blind. And this was, perhaps, the only reason she never left Wezel: she never had a chance to be frightened by him.

On their first night together, Wezel awakened at three in the morning to find his wife tranquilly sleeping. He had, for many years, struggled with imagined demons. Every time he closed his voluptuous eyes, he would immediately begin sensing the presence of toxic evil. Not only did he feel the company of the demonic, he also imagined it. Demons of various shapes and sizes resided in his mind, swimming out from their lagoons every time his eyelids shut.

On this summer night, in early September, it was no different. Wezel kept imagining the demonic. He would blink only to be bolted back into the wide-eyed and terrified.

He praised God that his wife was blind. “If only she knew the demons I struggle with…and what I’m about to do…” he thought to himself.

He reached over the bed and quietly opened his drawer. He fumbled around for the duct tape.

Having found it, he gently brought it in to his chest. The roll of tape felt cool against his nervously hot skin. His sore fingers dug into the worn edges, seeking out a place where he could grip the tape.

He counted to ten under his breath.

And slowly made noiseless progress. “Good,” he muttered under his breath in the most silent of manners. “At least she can’t hear me.”

The project continued. He slowly removed two pieces of tape measuring two centimeters a piece in length.

Without disturbing his wife, he placed a single piece on his eyebrow, taping his eyelid to it to keep his eye from closing. He did the same with the other eye.

In a matter of minutes, he was fast asleep.


The following night, around two thirty in the morning, Wezel awakened to the sound of heavy breathing. Once he trained his ears to listen—to really listen—he heard nothing but silence. The breathing was all an illusion. What he thought was not real; it did not correspond with reality.

He closed his eyes again—and rested.

Only moments later, he imagined a beast of tremendous terror standing before him. He opened his eyes.

There was nothing there.

“Professor Wezel,” he reassured himself professionally in the most cool and academic of ways. “Your language, your imagination does not correspond to reality. There are no demons—not even gods.”

He convinced himself of this—and fell back asleep.


After a few weeks of living with his wife, Wezel began to realize the uncertainty of reality. His wife was, according to him, a schizophrenic. One minute she wanted Italian for dinner; the next minute, she wanted French. One second she felt cold next to him; the next second, she felt too hot. He would close his eyes, imagine her wanting Italian food—only to open them and have her state something entirely different.

And it drove him mad. She made no sense to him.

One night, before bed, he imagined they would make love. It was a Wednesday, and they always had sex on Wednesdays. He closed his eyes and imagined his wife’s naked body. Then he opened them.

She was still dressed in her nightgown.

“Maybe we will have sex next Wednesday,” he said to himself. “Maybe she just forgot. It is, after all, November—and people don’t make any sense during the holidays.”


The following Wednesday, Wezel, by means of induction, decided that his wife would not have sex with him tonight either. He closed his eyes and imagined that, when he’d open them, she’d be fully dressed.

And so he opened them.

She was naked.


For the rest of the week, Wezel slept relatively peacefully. He asked the leading sexologist at Cambridge what the reason was for his unusual calm and discovered that sex was, indeed, the reason. Wezel made note of this in his journals.


On a stormy night in December, just before Christmas, Wezel’s unrest returned. For the past few weeks, he had been lecturing his students on the certainty of reality. And, having come clean with his academic peers, he was not entirely certain of the certainty that he so expounded. “It is entirely possible that I know nothing,” he once said out loud to them in exasperation.

His demons were haunting him—changing him as a person. They began speaking to him, telling him to kill his wife. He found her to be too unpredictable. And so, if the demons were on the side of certainty, then surely they were right. She was, after all, a very uncertain creature.

He closed his eyes and imagined the demonic persuading him.

He opened his eyes and there was nothing there.

He counted to ten while taking a deep breath. “This is all just a bad dream—an inaccurate picture of reality,” he restlessly convinced himself.

He thought he heard a voice—it was directly addressing him.

He opened his eyes.

And there it stood.


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev



NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Wittgenstein obviously existed. I can assure you: he never met Professor Wezel. 




[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999), 33.

[2] Ibid., 108.

Miracles and Falsification: The Myth of Miracles

I had heard about miracles ever since I had been a child. I have heard—and continue to hear—about people being healed of diseases, big, bad, ugly diseases. People pray on many continents asking for a miracle. A two-year-old struck with leukemia—that demon of the blood. A five-year-old run over by a car by his own mother. A twenty-one year old girl, fresh out of college, killed instantly in a head on collision by a drunk-driver. A boy diving during the hot summer season strikes a rock, losing control of his upper and lower body forever. A missionary bitten by a mosquito suffers for weeks on end, fevers paralyzing his shaken body. A terrorist enters a building someplace in the Middle East, blasting hundreds to smithereens; hundreds who either were killed or who would spend the rest of their lives in dark misery. Then there’s the little girl living in Iraq who happened to be in a particular time and place in which a particular foreign empire (read: The United States of America) decided to drop bombs on her place of residence. Her only question, while hospitalized, with her body torn to shreds—yet with breath in her lungs—“Why does America hate me so much?”[1]

I, too, have dreamed of miracles.

But miracles seldom come.

The little girl suffering from leukemia dies, being buried on a damp April night under torrential rain. Her parents huddle closely, aching for death to take them too. They mumble prayers to the sound of raindrops bulleting the last of their hopes. Their god leaves them to their sorrows, offering them not so much as an ounce, a flicker, of comfort; a god who only wears black. The parents listen to the monotonous sermon being preached to the monotonous thunderclaps under a banal sky. “What a eulogy!” they think to themselves. “This, this is what we get for bringing life into this world! An entire two years of manipulative baiting. God, yes God, he baits us with illusions of happiness, of family—then his claws take all that has life away!” But those thoughts, yes, those faint glimmers of truth, remain unspoken. Forever they are silent. The mother goes back to her mundane day job. She goes through the motions. She listens to the repetitive sermons…of hope. Some future kingdom where tears remain fossilized forever, relics of the god-forsaken, fuck-inducing life upon a pathetic planet we used to call earth. It’s only after the sermons end. After all the bullshit stops—the lies, the longing for miracles, the promise of something good—it is only then that she goes home, as Jesus so tactfully recommends doing, and prays behind closed doors. “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6 NIV). And still. What is asked in the quiet of the home remains—unbeknownst to the world—in the quiet of the home. It is as if Jesus knew that what she would ask would be impossible. Incomprehensible. Why ask in public if it’ll never happen publicly? Keep your prayers to yourselves! Your hope for the Promised Land is just that: hope. It is wishful thinking. The mother spends her days reminiscing of what could have been. Maybe her two-year-old could have graduated college. Maybe she could have gotten married. Maybe the two of them could have spent time together, sipping coffee under a red-soaked sun.


How many more such maybes will there be? How many more such mothers? Fathers? The prayers never end, along with the problems. The disasters. One disease leaves you the moment two take over. Or maybe it was three? You walk restlessly between states of health and epochs of madness.

God never comes to you. You never hear anything anymore. Not from God, that is. You hear the piercing cries of mothers and fathers in your church, synagogue, mosque, temple—all gasping, as if for the first time, for some miracle.

Then you have the children. The thirteen-year-old girl whose father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She wants her daddy to be there at her wedding. So they throw her a make-believe wedding (almost as make-believe as the miracles, the gods, the hopes of a better world). She walks down the aisle drenched in tears. A day of rejoicing, they said, it would be. Her little hands holding—no, clenching fiercely—the strong arms of a soon-to-be-dead father. She is only thirteen. She doesn’t know what it all means. Not at all. All she knows is that daddy will never be there. There won’t be another Father’s Day for her. There won’t be another walk in the rain with him. There won’t be that excitement, those nights where she runs home to tell him about the boy she just met. There’ll be none of that.


That’s what religion promises.


But all you see, all you really feel and hear is nothing but the hum-drum preaching of the eulogist. But what were we all—really—expecting? Could it really be that God the Healer was a hoax? Is it possible that god wears black, day in and day out, preparing eulogies?

“It’s all too terrible,” they say. “Don’t make us think of it. Stay silent. What you are describing is heart-wrenchingly suicidal.” “Don’t make me sit here and put up with your rants,” someone thinks. “Is it really so?” a thought flashes through another’s mind.

The existential problem of miracles is, perhaps, the most persuasive. One could not but be moved by the stories. I, too, have dreamed of a miracle. However, there is also the philosophical problem with miracles. I turn to this particular issue now.

Religious people—be they Muslim, Hindu, or Christian—claim that their god is capable of miracles. But what is a miracle? By definition, a miracle is a supernatural event. By definition, a miracle is a supra-natural event; it is an event which is “above nature.” It is an event that does not go in accordance with the known (and unknown) rules of physics. It is something that happens which no physical law could explain. A miracle is not the disappearance of a headache. It happens to the rest of us all the time. A miracle is not the curing of cancer—it happens enough of the times. A miracle is not the healing of insanity. A miracle is not the healing of fractured bones. All of these things happen naturally. So what is a miracle?

A miracle would be a person who walks on water without the aid of any kind of special shoes, footwear, or underwater bridges (you get the point). A miracle would, most simply, be an amputee with their amputated limb appearing, rematerializing, spontaneously. (Notice that I did not say “re-growing.” It will probably be possible, in the future, for us to do that.) A miracle would be such an event which, again, by definition, would convince any person capable of seeing and thinking along physical lines that this is not normal; that the event is strange, unheard of, physically impossible—in other words, simply in violation of natural law. The resurrection of Jesus, for example, would, theoretically, constitute a miracle.

Given such a very loaded, strict, and robust definition of miracle (by “strict,” I mean that it excludes [possibly] every event that has ever occurred in history—excepting the origin of life and of the universe), how is it that people today still speak of miracles? You hear it all the time.[2] I have discovered one of the reasons. It comes from one of Christianity’s greatest liberal theologians, Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Schleiermacher defined miracles in an unfalsifiable way. When someone makes something, like miracles, unfalsifiable this means two things: (a) every event becomes a “miracle” and (b) there is no way to prove nor disprove the event. Schleiermacher writes:

“Miracle is simply the religious name for event. Every event, even the most natural and usual, becomes a miracle, as soon as the religious view of it can be the dominant. To me all is miracle. In your sense the inexplicable and strange alone is miracle, in mine it is no miracle. The more religious you are, the more miracle would you see everywhere.”[3]

I could not have said it better. Schleiermacher and I agree: religion makes everything a miracle. Because everything becomes a miracle, nothing is miraculous anymore. Because everything becomes a miracle, the term “miracle” becomes devoid of meaning.

People do experience miracles today. Believe me, they do. All of life may be seen as one continuous miracle. From the Big Bang to the evolution of human life, all of this, even by a skeptic, is seen as a miracle. But miracles are not really events that happen; they are not singular events occurring in history on a daily, interventionist basis. Miracles are probably things like the origin of DNA. They are isolated events that appear miraculous. For just a moment. And then the scientific mind—be it religious or secular—finds a way to unravel the miraculous and make it the mundane.

Such is the world we live in. It is full of mystery, of pain, of suffering, and of miracles. While the miracles we experience are probably non-existent, the one miracle we can claim is the miracle of today.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1] This is my own retelling of the story. For this, and other such stories, see Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), esp. 163-175.

[2] I have purposefully used the verb “hear” many times in this article. The reason being that miracles are, in my opinion, non-existent; they don’t happen. This means that nobody has documentation, empirical evidence, etc., of a miracle to date. All you have is hearsay. Hence my use of the word “hear.”

[3] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, trans. John Oman (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 88.

Marcion and Tertullian: A Tale of a god Who Wouldn’t Be

In the middle of the second-century there developed within Christianity a rival movement that would consume virtually the whole of nascent Christendom. Christianity would employ some of its greatest intellectuals in order to defend itself against this enormous and all-consuming heresy. Irenaeus would write scathing critiques of it. Justin Martyr would mock it. However, the death blow to this movement would come from the pen of Tertullian of Carthage. He would write lengthy volumes covering virtually every aspect of Christian existence—whether it would be issues concerning baptism or the veiling of virgins. Of all the lengthy works that he had written, the longest one of all—which consumed his energies for a number of years—was Adversus Marcionem. It was his five-volume work that would take Marcion of Sinope to task, forever carving notches on Tertullian’s theological pistol. This work, almost single-handedly, responded to Marcion’s theology and killed it; it was thorough, fought Marcionism on its own terms, and engaged in dialogue with various Marcionite responses to orthodox Christianity’s critiques. Tertullian had the advantage of watching Marcionism flourish for over half a century—he was a giant standing on the shoulders of giants who, too, had written critiques of Marcionism.

Marcion of Sinope originated from a region situated on the south shores of the Black Sea called Pontus. He was born around the year 85 C.E.[1] and would later bring his version of the gospel to Rome around the years 140-150. He may have come from a Jewish background, as the city that he came from was also home to Aquila, the great Jewish biblical translator. According to Adolf von Harnack, Marcion was familiar with Jewish interpretations of the Old Testament (OT) and was rooted in a very literal approach—which is not to be surprising since Aquila also translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek very literally, following a word-for-word approach. [2] Christians were apparently in Pontus since the beginnings of Christian evangelization. The First Epistle of Peter presupposes Christians in Pontus, as do the famous letters written between Pliny the Younger and the emperor Trajan around the year 111. Not only was Marcion familiar with Judaism, he appears to have been brought up a Christian from his earliest years. His father, according to Hippolytus, was the bishop of Sinope.[3] His father would later excommunicate Marcion from his own home; thus forcing Marcion to flee to Rome. When Marcion came to Rome, he did not come as a poor outcast; he came loaded with money, donating 200,000 Roman sesterces to the Roman church. He was a shipbuilder and probably sailed into Rome on his own ship. Before coming to Rome, he experienced a number of unsuccessful attempts to preach his version of the gospel message to Christians located in Asia Minor. It may have been at Ephesus that Marcion encountered Polycarp, as reported to us by Irenaeus, and was rejected by him as the “first-born of Satan.”[4] Within a period of time, Marcion probably began to infiltrate the Christians at Rome with his teachings. It appears that he took a modest approach at first, giving people the necessary time to digest his teachings. We have reason to believe that the Roman church probably was initially sympathetic towards him, as he donated a large sum of money, came with letters of recommendation from his brother, and was the son of a Christian bishop. Notwithstanding all of the above, once Marcion had summoned key leaders of the Roman church and presented his version of the gospel, he was immediately excommunicated and his money was returned. The Christians of Rome wanted to have nothing to do with the likes of his teachings. The break with the church most likely happened around the year 144.[5] Apparently, Marcion had presented to the leaders of the Roman church a version of the gospel that sounded a little bit too Gnostic and dualistic.

Marcion took as his point of departure Luke 6:43. He believed that, if Jesus is to be taken seriously, the “good tree” produced good fruit and the “bad tree” produced bad fruit. Since the Creator God created human flesh, which is obviously evil (with all of its sinful inclinations), Marcion believed that Jesus’ saying implied that the Creator God created bad fruit (i.e., human flesh). Since the fruit was bad, the Creator, too, was bad. This implied a whole lot theologically. If Marcion was to be taken seriously by the Roman church, the Christians of Rome would have had to eliminate the OT as sacred Scripture and would have had to do away with references to the Creator God in the New Testament (NT). The presbyters that were gathered on that fateful day decided that Marcion was wrong.

Marcion took his money and began his own Christian world mission. His was the first massive, world-scale religious proselytizing mission rivaling the work of the Apostles. Within merely five years of his break with the Roman church, Justin Martyr was able to say that Marcion’s gospel had flooded the entire human race.[6] Fifty years or so later, Tertullian would likewise remark, “Marcion’s heretical teaching has filled the whole world” (Adv. Marc. V. 19).[7] Despite what anyone thinks about Marcion’s theological credentials, he was a man who was energetic, productive, extremely smart, and an able leader. The church that he would produce (called the Marcionite church) would inundate virtually the entire known-world and would have a united theology and united front. Whereas the early Christians of the time were too busy bickering amongst one another about peripheral matters like veiling and whether or not one should add vanilla flavoring to the Eucharist wafer,[8] Marcion was out conquering the world in an Alexander-the-Great manner. What made Marcion’s church so great? How did Marcion set about preaching his gospel and what were the contents of what he preached? To this I now turn my attention.

Marcion appears to have recognized the existence of at least two gods: the righteous/bad Creator God and the loving/good father god of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was the Son of God in the Marcionite sense that He came from a father who was not of this world: Jesus’ father was not the Creator God but an alien god. This alien god was completely unknown and would always remain unknown. The only thing people could know about this god had been revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth. Marcion believed that the OT contained the actions and story of the bad Creator God, while the NT contained the actions of an alien god. Because of this strong and mutually-exclusive dichotomy which Marcion had set up, the OT and the NT had virtually nothing to do with each other. They should not both be read at one and the same time as sacred literature. Marcion, inevitably, removed the OT from his canon; in the process, he was the first known Christian to have had created a definite canon of Scripture. Moreover, if the Creator God gave the Jews a canon of Scripture, why weren’t the Christians in possession of one? “[F]or a littera scriptura must be available, and if the creator of the world had provided such, then the alien God must all the more do so.”[9] His canon of Scripture was authoritative, set-in-stone, impenetrable, and theologically “all-consuming” in the Hegelian sense—for his canon was “truth” that would “swallow” everything else up. His canon would filter all Scripture through its own highly-idiosyncratic microscope. Marcion comes across as an all-or-nothing type of man: either you accept his canon as truth or you go to hell! Theologically speaking, the lines that he drew between “Law” and “Gospel” were permanent, bold, and huge. Where did Marcion get this idea of breaking with the OT? Apparently, according to Marcion, from Jesus Himself.

Marcion believed that Jesus broke the law again and again in His lifetime. In the words of Harnack, “Did he [Jesus] not declare war against the teachers of the law? Did he not call the sinners, while those teachers desired only righteous men as their pupils?”[10] Jesus was starkly set against the OT from the beginning. Moreover, did not Jesus Himself preach that you could not patch up old wineskins with new? (In Marcion’s mind, this was Jesus declaring that His teaching not be mixed and “patched” onto the OT.) “[F]or [Marcion] the God of the Jews, together with all his book, the Old Testament, had to become the actual enemy.”[11]

Marcon’s hero also happened to be Paul the Apostle. Reading his Epistle to the Galatians, Marcion was able to discover that Paul battled Judaizing apostles. Who were these Judaizing apostles? Marcion believed that they were, most likely, Jesus’ original disciples themselves. Doesn’t the Gospel of Mark in particular portray the Apostles as a bunch of ignorant hillbillies who misunderstood Jesus all the time? Marcion connected the dots and formed the “original idea” that only Paul truly understood Jesus because Jesus had to commission him after His Resurrection (Adv. Marc. IV. 21, 22). To Marcion’s mind, it seemed somewhat ridiculous that Jesus would need to bring in another apostle into the fold had the original disciples been doing their job. So why did Jesus call Paul? “Aha!” Marcion probably thought, “Jesus called Paul because the original disciples had misunderstood Jesus and had not taken His words seriously about the bad Creator God.” Marcion believed that only Paul could be trusted out of all of the disciples, as he alone claims that his gospel came not from man but from Jesus Himself (Gal. 1:12). But Marcion faced an enormous textual problem that would consume the rest of his miserable existence: Paul’s very own letters.

Paul had written some 10 letters which Marcion appeared to be aware of (excluding the Pastoral Epistles). In those letters, any reader finds Paul citing OT texts left and right. He sees Jesus Christ fulfilling the OT. Marcion was dumbfounded. How did this all happen? Why would Paul do away with the OT, as Jesus had secretly commanded, and yet cite the OT? Marcion searched his brains for an answer—and found one.[12] He believed that the letters of Paul were corrupted by Judaizers. In his opinion, these Jewish opponents of Paul were so good and so thorough, they even edited the letters of Paul and made them look as if Paul were Jewish. Not only that, Marcion believed that “the entire apostolic age had been moved exclusively by one major topic, that of the struggle of the Judaistic Christians against the true (i.e., Pauline) gospel.”[13] Marcion also saw that the Christians read roughly four gospels. He looked at them and found none of them appealing. He decided that, since Luke was Paul’s companion, Luke’s Gospel must have been more original to the authentic gospel message. But even Luke’s version of things has way too much Jewish material in it. Marcion was not moved by this: the Jews got to it before he did! He believed that the Gospel of Luke must have been corrupted by these same Judaizing false apostles. But Marcion was not as arrogant and autocratic as he initially seems to be; you see, he was actually somewhat of a modest man. Marcion wanted to have an authentic gospel and suffered the “temptation to write such a gospel himself”[14] and yet it is “[h]ere in particular there is shown with special clarity and remarkable interweaving of criticism and fidelity to history.”[15] Marcion did not write a gospel on his own authority, though he certainly could have, but worked tirelessly to “restore” the texts he had before him. Marcionites were, as Origen would later put it, “slaves to pure history” (Comm. XV.3 in Matt., T. III).[16] He worked hard to restore the biblical texts he set out to restore—he would later leave the task of “restoring” to his devoted followers. The texts he had chosen to include in his canon were eleven in number: ten of Paul’s epistles and the Gospel of Luke (all of which were combed for “corruption”; thus being, to our mind, “highly-edited”).

Marcion saw himself as a restorer of the text and felt that this was his special calling in life—he truly was a man that “thought with his blood.” He was, arguably, the first protestant reformer in Christian church history; albeit, a heretical one at that! Being a self-proclaimed textual critic, he set about editing the texts before him in a thorough-going manner. References to Peter and Paul in Galatians 1:18-24 were excised wholesale; Peter could not be seen as in agreement with Paul.[17] The text about Abraham and all that “Old Testament gibberish” was removed from Galatians 3:15-25. The reference to the “seed of Abraham” in verse 29 was also deleted. Since the alien god of Jesus Christ was non-judgmental, loving and good, he would not— as in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:17— “destroy” any man. Where the text read “God will destroy him” Marcion felt obligated to convert this phrase into “he will be destroyed.” There simply was no room in Marcion’s theology for a “destroying” God who was tied to Jesus.[18] In 2 Corinthians 7:1 Paul writes “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit.”[19] Marcion would have nothing to do with this—he changed “spirit” into “blood.”[20] References to the OT like phrases such as “as it is written” in places like Romans 1:17 were deleted; how could Paul, who knew that the OT was from the bad god, cite the bad god’s text?[21] Marcion believed that Jesus was not born of Mary since He could not participate in the Creator God’s matter. So in Luke 8:19 the reference to Jesus’ mother and brothers was deleted.[22] Many such emendations were made to the Marcionite Canon.

But why did Marcion refuse to believe that Jesus took on a human physical body? The reason was simple: Jesus had come from an alien god and He was not about to put on any bad “fruit” created by the bad Creator God. Marcionite ethics were as radical as Marcionite “textual criticism.” Marcion’s theology had huge implications for human daily activity. For example, if a couple were interested in getting married, Marcion would object and tell the couple to refrain from the evil inclinations of the flesh. In fact, to participate in communion, Marcionite Christians had to either be widowed, eunuchs, or single virgins; one could not be married.[23] To participate in sexual union was to obey the commands of the bad Creator God who had said, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Moreover, to reproduce would be to produce more human beings that would be trapped in this evil world and evil body. One could not satisfy the flesh in eating habits also. For Marcion, even enjoying created food was sinful; how could a true Marcionite Christian enjoy the “bad fruit” of the Creator God? Impossible! This meant that Marcionite Christians would, essentially, be extremely ascetic. They rejected wealth, marriage, family, sex, enjoyment, bodily pleasures, etc. After learning about such ascetic manners, modern western-raised Christians may find such asceticism and hate for human life repulsive. One is pressed to ask the question: Why was Marcionism so attractive to the second and third-century mind? It is to this question that I now turn.

During the first-century, there arose a movement within Christianity that would later become known under the umbrella term Gnosticism.[24] (Though “full-blown” Gnosticism is recognized—by predominantly American scholars—as coming on the scene in the second-century.) It was a dualistic religion that emphasized the dichotomy and separation between good and evil. The world was ultimately evil and the spirit was ultimately good. The Gnostics were preoccupied with the problem of evil and pushed it “upstairs”; they believed that evil originated with the evil Creator God. Moreover, the Gnostics lived in the problem and paradox of human existence; they saw themselves as exiles in an unknown and foreign land. This was not home. The spirit was good and it was trapped in our created body. And not only that, there could simply be no resurrection of the human body: the good god would not suffer to raise the flesh—that would be unnecessary. From an ethical perspective, the Gnostics generally fell into two groups: libertines and ascetics. Both groups had the same premises but vastly different conclusions. Both believed that everything in the world was created by a bad (lesser) god; however, the ascetics argued that a true Gnostic Christian must abstain from the evil pleasures of this world, while the libertines argued that since the good god did not create the flesh and that only the spirit mattered, one could do anything while being in the flesh. Already in the NT we find Paul battling Gnostic thinking in his epistles. Whether it be the question of food or resurrection, the Gnostics were a thorn in Paul’s side.[25] In 1 Timothy 6:20, Gnosticism is out-rightly named and attacked mockingly as “gnosis so-called.” The Epistle of 1 John is adamant about attacking a movement within the congregation that claims that Christ did not come in the flesh (cf. 4:2). Because Gnosticism was already either a nascent faith in the first-century or somewhat more fully developed, it was most probably the launching pad for Marcion’s thinking. Tertullian relates that Marcion was taught by a certain Cerdo. Taken at face value, this indicates that Marcion’s ideas were not second-century at all and neither were they innovative and “new” in their entirety. Marcionism came into a world that was already very familiar with the problem of evil, fleshly inclination, dissatisfaction with human life, and the problem of marriage. Women were often times left to the wills and whims of their husbands—seeing themselves as restrained, they joined the Gnostic movement and bought into it hook, line and sinker. Why? Because Gnosticism was very women-friendly. The author of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, undoubtedly a Gnostic (contra Tertullian), reveals to us just how “liberating” Gnosticism was. Marriage is seen as a barrier to progress in an individual woman’s life, so Thecla is told by “Paul” not to marry her fiancé—she is rather to escape with Paul and preach the gospel. It is against such Gnosticism that the author of 1 Timothy writes the following words: “She [i.e., woman] will be saved through childbearing (2:15). The author here was combating a form of Gnosticism that forbade marriage (which is why the author reminds woman that childbearing is both good and actually salvific!). All of these things would eventually come into play when Marcion came around. He was not exactly the “new kid on the block”; he came pulling baggage from the first-century. So what made Marcionism so attractive? Its familiarity. Marcionism was a variant form of Gnosticism. Whereas the Gnostics retained the OT and reread it in light of the coming savior Jesus Christ, Marcion did away with all of the so-called “Jewish myths.” In other words, Marcion was bolder than his Gnostic contemporaries and predecessors; he alone was willing to single-handedly remove the OT from the canon of accepted Christian Scripture—and he almost succeeded. But in removing the OT, he did not reject its contents entirely; no, he believed that his followers should continue reading it in order to know what the bad Creator God was up to.

Seen in its entirety, being set within its own historical context, Marcionism is a religious philosophy and way of life that helped explain away some of man’s greatest fears. In the second-century, children were being left “exposed” on a Roman hillside. Mothers would die in labor. Marriage was seen, at least for woman, as a threat to existential freedom. In such an environment, Marcionism seemed like a very enticing option. It reduced all of the world’s problems to a series of pithy categorical imperatives: do not get married, do not have sex, do not have children, do not enjoy pleasures, do not worry about this world, do not be concerned about wealth, etc., etc. All the things people had trouble obtaining (health, children, food, etc.) were rejected as unnecessary. All of man’s hopes and dreams for a better life were rendered useless. Marcionism offered an explanation for this world’s evil. It preoccupied itself with the problem of evil because the world was seen at that time as being predominantly evil. Gnostics roamed the streets the world over. And along came Marcion. He was not an outcast in any usual sense of the word; he was an ordinary individual who thought mostly like half of the other population populating earth in the second-century. Because evil appears to have been on everybody’s mind, Marcionism was welcomed in. As a bonus, it did away with the issue of race, class and sex. If the Creator God was wrong in creating us, He too was wrong in making us black, white, male, or female. Marcionism was able to provide people with a sense of complete unity and identity. There was no longer an us-against-them mentality—anybody and everybody could and should be welcomed in. It did not matter whether you were a Jew or a pagan: Jesus came to save us from this world. (Of course, many people chose to ignore this message, but they were merely “deceived.”) If ever a problem was presented to a Marcionite Christian, one could simply resort to excision: excise the verse (or problem or whatever) out! All this goes to show that Marcionism was very much at home with a large portion of the second-century population. However, despite its attractiveness, an equally large amount of people found problems with Marcion’s thinking. It is now that I turn my attention to Marcion’s greatest critic: Tertullian of Carthage.

Tertullian was a fiery second and third-century writer who composed his five-volume work against Marcion around the first few years of the third century. He was allegedly a lawyer, well-trained in philosophy and rhetoric. He may have begun his first edition around 198 C.E. but would not have completed the entire work—entering its third edition—until April 207 or 208.[26] His work drew upon his predecessors Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and maybe Theophilus of Antioch. Tertullian’s originality is brilliantly distilled in the fourth and fifth volumes of the work, where Tertullian goes practically verse-by-verse through Marcion’s Antitheses and biblical canon (with all of its deletions and corruptions). Tertullian summarizes what his thesis is in book in the following words: “I have set before you Jesus as the Christ of the prophets in his doctrines, his judgments, his affections, his feelings, his miracles, his sufferings, as also in his resurrection, none other than the Christ of the Creator” (Adv. Marc. IV. 43). Tertullian sets out to argue a number of things concerning Marcion’s theology: (1) Jesus of Nazareth was prophesied in the OT; (2) Jesus of Nazareth is the Creator’s Messiah; (3) The Creator is good; (4) Jesus is judgmental too; and (5) Jesus may, at times, appear more harsh than the Creator and His prophets. All of this goes to show that Tertullian is willing to accept Marcion’s theology on its own terms and then he finds multitudes of problems with it. In the five-volume work, simply known as Adversus Marcionem (“Against Marcion”) and being written in Latin, Tertullian attacks Marcion’s theology and ethical system in the first three books. In the fourth volume, he writes an anti-Marcionite commentary on Marcion’s version of Luke’s gospel, and in the fifth volume he does the same with Marcion’s ten edited Pauline letters. With that being said, I would like to examine the contents of the five-volume work and summarize its basic arguments. (As a note of caution I would like to add that my presentation of Marcion will, inevitably, follow Tertullian’s representation of him. For example, if Tertullian’s version of Marcion contradicts Harnack’s, then you must use scholarly judgment to ascertain who is in the right, be it Harnack or Tertullian.)

In the first volume, Tertullian begins by poking fun at Marcion’s birthplace and heritage. Using his usual wit, he situates Marcion amongst the cold, winter peaks of Pontus. He introduces Marcion to us with the following description: “Marcion was…more unsettled than a wagon dweller…darker than fog, colder than winter, more brittle than ice…” (Adv. Marc. I. 1). He relates to us that “Marcion had an unhealthy interest in the problem of evil—the origin of it—and his perceptions were numbed by the very excess of his curiosity” (I. 2). Marcion, according to Tertullian, argued that God creates evil. Citing Isaiah 45:7 as his proof text, he demonstrates that the Creator God, therefore, must be evil. Tertullian will argue that “evil” here should be taken to mean punishment for sin. There are “two sorts of evils” for “not only sins but also punishments are described as evil”; that is, Christians “take note of the difference between evils of sin and evils of punishment…” (II. 14). Moving on past this argument, Tertullian develops his idea of the oneness of God. He argues that “God is an entity supremely great” and that “Christian verity has decisively asserted that if God is not one only, he does not exist” (I. 3). Tertullian believes that if the definition of “God” is “supreme being,” then there cannot be two “supreme beings”—either one is supreme or none are supreme. If one is supreme (as is the Christian God), then He is one and He is alone in His supremacy. Moreover, “[t]he reasoning which could admit two could admit also a great many: for after two comes a multitude, once unity had been exceeded.” (I. 5). Thus, for Tertullian, the supremacy and unity of God must be maintained in opposition to pantheism. He does not believe that other gods exist beside the Creator God within the Trinity. Tertullian points out that if the OT speaks of other so-called “gods” it is merely mocking so-called gods. “[T]here are large numbers of worthless slaves who bring discredit on the names of kings, being called Alexander or Darius or Holophernes: yet this will not degrade the kings from being what they are. Also the idols of the heathen are gods to the vulgar, yet none of them is a god simply by having the name of ‘god’” (I. 7). Tertullian then goes on to argue that “All new gods are false gods” (I. 9). Because Marcion’s alien god appeared so late in salvation history, he must, admittedly, be false. Tertullian sees God—the true God—as always being present in the minds of men; the knowledge of Him being innate. “The knowledge inherent in the soul since the beginning is God’s endowment, the same and no other whether in Egyptians or Syrians or men of Pontus. It is the God of the Jews whom men’s soul’s call God” (I. 11). He argues that the alien god could not be God since our knowledge of God had existed prior to his so-called revelatory work in the person of Jesus; no, Tertullian believes that Jesus preached the same God that we innately worshipped since the beginning of time. Marcion’s alien god is not God. “God can never keep himself hidden, can never be unattainable: he must at all times be understood, be heard, even be seen, in such manner as he will. God has his evidences, all this that we are, and in which we are. Such is the proof that he is God, is the one God, this fact that he is not unknown, while that other one is even yet struggling after recognition” (I. 11). Not only is God known, but he is known through nature (i.e., natural theology). As for Marcion’s god, “[o]ne solitary little chick-pea of his own ought Marcion’s god to have brought to light, and he might then have been proclaimed a sort of new Triptolemus”[27] (I. 11). This then brings us full-circle: “And so it follows that just as no one doubts that the Creator is God—for he has created all this—so no one has the right to believe the godhead of that other, who has created nothing…” (I. 11).

After demonstrating that God is one and that He was known before Jesus’ coming, Tertullian sets out to demonstrate the Creator’s goodness. He exclaims, “[L]ook at man, within and without[,] at least this work of our God will obtain your approval, a work upon which your lord, your superior god, has set his affection…” (I. 14). Not only that, Marcion’s alien Jesus has “not even yet rejected the Creator’s water.” Moreover, even in his rites and ceremonies, the alien Jesus “cannot do without things begged and borrowed from the Creator” (I. 14). All of this goes to show how dependent Marcion’s alien Jesus—sent from an alien god—was upon the Creator’s products. The Marcionites were not only interested in the Creator’s material things, they also, apparently, guided their lives according to the Creator’s stars—being amateur astrologers (I. 18).

Tertullian goes on to show that even where the Gospel (NT) appears to contradict the Law (OT), the Creator God Himself had already foretold such changes. The Creator had issues with sacrifices and Sabbaths already in the OT (cf. Jer. 7:22, Ezk. 20:25-26, Isa. 1:14, etc.), therefore, the fact that the Gospel stands in stark contrast to the Law was already prophesied and instituted—not by some alien god—but by the Creator Himself! Paul the Apostle was not preaching a different God either. “[The] Creator had long ago rejected all these [i.e., sacrifices and Sabbaths], and the apostle’s pronouncement was that they must now be rejected, evidently the fact that the apostle’s judgment is in agreement with the Creator’s decrees, proves that no other god was the subject of the apostle’s preaching…” (I. 21). Not to mention the fact—but Tertullian does!—that Marcionite Christianity appeared late on the scene and was not apostolic in origin. “[Y]ou will find no church of apostolic origin whose Christianity repudiates the Creator” (I. 21).

Tertullian also finds problems with Marcion’s claim that this alien god—the alleged “father” of Jesus—is any better than the Creator God. If the alien god was really “good” in any meaningful sense of that word he would have come and saved the whole of humanity. Why does he only save a few, Tertullian asks? Moreover, why is this alien god only doing his salvific work now? Why didn’t he come earlier—let us say, at creation? Either he was powerless to overcome the creator (which would make him a lesser god) or he was evil and wanted to see humanity suffer under the alleged “cruelties” of the Creator God (I. 22, 24). Tertullian puts it succinctly: “What would your opinion be of a physician who by delaying treatment should strengthen the disease, and by deferring remedy should prolong the danger, so that his services might command a larger fee and enhance his own repute?” (I. 23). Moreover, once this idiotic construct “Jesus” of Marcion’s—coming from a stupid alien god—breaks into the Creator’s world to save human life, what does he really save Marcionites from exactly? “[T]he Marcionite still gets malaria, and the aches and pains of his flesh still bring forth for him those other thorns and briers: he is exposed not only to the Creator’s lightening, with his wars and pestilences and other chastisements, but even to his scorpions. In what respect do you suppose yourself set free from his kingdom, when his flies still tread upon you?” (I. 25).

Tertullian saves his best critique for last before ending his first volume: if this alien god is good and non-judgmental, “[w]hy does he forbid the commission of an act he does not penalize when committed?” (I. 26). For example, if I was to join the Marcionite church, learn about this non-judging, all-loving, heavenly Santa Claus—and I was, at the same time, to get married and have sex—what would this non-judging god do? Punish me? Since Marcion’s god forbids marriage, sex, riches, reproduction, etc., this means that he, too, is a judge (just like the Creator God). “For by not wishing it he forbade it. And has he not also become a judge, by wishing it not to be, and therefore forbidding it? For that it must not be done was a judgment, and that it must be forbidden was a sentence. So then he too is now a judge” (I. 27). In other words, “he forbids you to sin—but only in writing” (I. 27).

Not only is this alien god a judge, it appears that Marcionites fear him too. “Why also during persecution do you not at once offer your incense, and so gain your life by denial? On no, you answer, far from it. In that case you are already in fear—of doing wrong: and by your fear you have admitted your fear of him who forbids the wrong” (I. 27). But even in his judgments, this alien god is idiotic—for “he washes a man never to his mind defiled [in the waters of baptism]” (I. 28). “Not even a rustic will go and water land which is to return no fruit—unless he is as stupid as Marcion’s god” (I. 28). And, last but not least, even Marcion—that alien god’s favorite human being—was born of marital intercourse. “How can he show affection to one of whose origin he does not approve?” (I. 29). This “god” of Marcion’s has as many paradoxes and contradictions as Marcion’s version of the Creator God. In fact, one could say that this alien god is stupid and more so bewildering in his actions!

In the second volume, Tertullian further develops the idea that God the Creator was good (II. 4) and that evil is to be found in human freewill (II. 6). “[O]nce God had granted the man freedom he must withdraw from his own freedom, restraining within himself that foreknowledge and superior power by which he might have been able to intervene to prevent the man from presuming to use his freedom badly, and so falling into peril. For if he had intervened he would have cancelled that freedom of choice which in reason and goodness he had granted.” Then Tertullian continues, “[S]uppose him to have intervened, suppose him to have cancelled that freedom of choice, by calling the man away from the tree…” (II. 7). Tertullian wants Marcion to say “Yes!”— for he knows that the moment the Creator cancels out freewill is the moment that Marcion would exclaim “Look! A god full of contradictions! He gives freewill only to take it back again!” This Tertullian does to show that God could not be blamed for the evils of mankind. Even in breathing into us, when God gave us His Spirit, this did not make us insusceptible to evil. “You yourself do not by blowing into a flute make the flute into a man” (II. 9). Just because God, a sinless being, breathes into a man and gives him life does not mean that the man would be sinless too—all because of freewill. God has the right to judge sin because He has given man the ability to fulfill His commands. When man sins, God can function as the judge; He is a just God. Criticizing God for judging people is stupid. “Justice is an evil thing only if injustice is a good one” (II. 12).

After making such arguments, Tertullian tries to synthesize a theology of the OT. “One should rather see there that careful interest by which, when the people were prone to idolatry and transgression, God was content to attach them to his own religion by the same sort of observances in which this world’s superstition was engaged, hoping to detach them from this by commanding them to do these things for him, as though he were in need of them, and so keep that people from the sin of making images” (II. 18). Tertullian, in a way, agrees with Marcion that the laws and commands of the OT are not what God desires; however, he believes that God commanded these things out of genuine concern and love for His people. When Marcion attacks the OT God as being evil for commanding the theft of Egyptian gold, Tertullian wittingly responds that—since God is just, and since the Egyptians had not paid the Jews for four hundred years of labor—God was simply commanding the Hebrews to take their wages (II. 21)! Remember: the laborer is worthy of his wages (Luke 10:7). And not only that, but even where God commands the Hebrews to “work” on the Sabbath (as on the day when they marched around Jericho), Tertullian differentiates between doing “man’s work” and “divine work” (II. 22).

After answering these Marcionite critiques of the OT, Tertullian looks at God “repenting” in the OT. Tertullian believes that God doesn’t “repent” in the sense of committing a sin and then trying to change sinful behavior; that is, God doesn’t change His mind because He “sinned.” Rather, Tertullian suggests that “[i]t is to be understood as neither more nor less than a simple reversal of a previous decision” (II. 24). In fact, if Marcion is blaming the OT God for repentance—when He acts in a certain way and then changes His behavior—Marcion is actually condemning his own alien god. For this alien god at first did not care for mankind for thousands of years; he came only in the 15th year of the emperor Tiberius. This means that he, too, “repented” and changed his previous decision not to save mankind from the bad Creator God. “For the fact that he did at length have respect for man’s salvation was an act of repentance for his initial disregard—such repentance as is owed to an evil deed” (II. 28).

In the third volume, Tertullian turns his attention to the fact that Marcion’s alien god came so unexpectedly. He argues that God should come announced and expected (III. 3). Not only that, Tertullian believes that a son of god should come after a father god. In Marcion’s theology, you have a son figure coming before a father figure (who remains unknown and unannounced throughout). Tertullian then looks at Marcion’s hate for allegorical readings of the OT. He points out that even Paul, Marcion’s favorite apostle, used allegory in his own epistles (III. 6). Tertullian calls Marcionitic theology “antichrist” because it denied the fleshly reality of Jesus’ body. “[L]et him [i.e., Marcion] from now on belch forth the slime of his own particular devices, as he maintains that Christ was a phantasm: except that this opinion too will have had other inventors, those so to speak premature and abortive Marcionites whom the apostle John pronounced antichrists, who denied that Christ came in the flesh…” (III. 8). Marcion, according to Tertullian’s report, denied the fleshly body of Jesus Christ. He chides Marcion for preaching a Christ who “being flesh and not flesh, man and not man, and in consequence a Christ [who was] god and not god” (III. 8). Tertullian then argues that such a phantom Christ could not have actually bore our sins and suffered. “[T]he sufferings of Marcion’s Christ will fail to find credence: one who has not truly suffered, has not suffered at all, and a phantasm cannot have suffered at all (III. 8). Throughout his entire discussion, Tertullian cites generously from the OT texts. He wants to ground the Creator’s Christ in the OT. For example, at one point in his argument he writes, citing Psalm 96:10, “The Lord hath reigned from a tree,[28] I wonder what you understand by it…why should not Christ be said to have reigned from the tree?” (III. 19). He argues that Jesus of Nazareth was the OT Christ prophesied by the Creator God. Marcion, on the other hand, believes that the OT Messiah is yet to come. According to him, he will be a Jewish Messiah who will merely save the Jewish race and not be concerned with the whole of humanity (III. 21). After debunking Marcion’s “two Christ theory” and his idea of a docetic Christ, Tertullian concludes his third book by saying, “As things are, you are giving invitations to dinner, but not showing at which house: you are telling of a kingdom, but not pointing out the palace. Is this because your Christ promises a heavenly kingdom when he has no heaven, in the same way as he made profession of humanity without having a body? What a phantasm it all is!” (III. 24).

The fourth volume is essentially commentary on Marcion’s version of the Gospel of Luke. Tertullian points out textual emendations that Marcion made and objects to Marcionite interpretations of the Gospel. Tertullian points out that, despite what Marcion thinks of the so-called “Judaizing corruptions” of both the Gospel of Luke and the Pauline letters, Paul himself is guilty of “Judaizing.” For example, “Paul himself made himself all things to all men so that he might gain them all” (IV. 3). For Tertullian, then, if Paul sounds Jewish it is because he himself assimilated for the Jews! This implies that nobody corrupted his epistles! Making his way to the Lukan text, Tertullian reminds Marcionites that “it was only when Marcion laid his hands upon [the Gospel of Luke], that it became different from the apostolic gospels, and in opposition to them” (IV. 5). It was not “corrupted” and emended by Judaizing Christians; rather, it had been Jewish all along. Tertullian points out that if the alien god of Jesus was adamant about destroying the Jewish Creator, why, then, did he send Jesus to the Jews first? Isn’t it idiotic to believe that Jesus was not a Jew when He was a Jew (IV. 7)?

Surveying the gospel text, Tertullian looks at how Jesus cast out demons. He examines Luke 4:16-43 and points out that even in the Marcionite version the demons still flee in fear and trembling. But doesn’t this make Jesus a God to be feared? “Yet how did he expect them to come out—a thing they would not have done except from fear?” (IV. 8). Tertullian points out that even in Marcion’s gospel, Jesus still remains silent when people He heals go and fulfill the OT law by offering gifts in the Temple (IV. 9). Moreover, the Jewishness of Jesus does not stop there: He also calls Himself by that Jewish epithet “son of man.” Why would an alien Jesus—who came to destroy the OT law—take up an OT name? Tertullian is baffled by this (IV. 10). To top it all off, this Jesus of Marcion’s does not look any different for Tertullian than the Creator God: He forgives sin as well. Tertullian reasons, if Jesus forgives sin, has He not also “judged” something to be a sin in order to call it sin? Marcion also liked to play the “Jesus-broke-the-Sabbath” card: he would point out how Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Tertullian’s response is that “the work of healing or of rescue is not properly man’s work but God’s” (IV. 12). Therefore, Jesus did not do any of His own (human) work on the Sabbath, but God’s work.

Coming to Luke 8:16, Tertullian cites Jesus saying about the hiding of a lamp in a jar. How could Jesus have said that? “I wonder how one can talk about a lamp never being hidden, who through all those long ages had hidden himself, a greater and more essential light: and how can he promise that all things secret shall be made manifest, when he is all the while keeping his god in darkness, waiting I suppose for Marcion to be born” (IV. 19). Recalling that Marcion blamed the OT God for being “ignorant” in the Garden of Eden, when He asked Adam “Where art thou?” (Gen. 3:9), Tertullian responds by pointing out that in Marcion’s gospel, Jesus too asked the woman who was hemorrhaging, “Who touched me?” (IV. 20). Using such an approach, Tertullian is able to apply Marcion’s own logic to Marcion’s very own scriptural canon and destroy it. He grounds Jesus in the OT and reminds his readers that what Marcion has said about the OT God could just as easily be said about Jesus. This, however, should only lead to the conclusion that Jesus and the Creator are actually of one and the same nature. With such argumentation, Tertullian goes through the Gospel of Luke and concludes his fourth volume.

In his last and final fifth volume, Tertullian comes to the highly edited ten Pauline epistles. He begins by pointing out that Paul the Apostle was prophesied in Genesis under the code name “Benjamin,” the one who would come like a ravening wolf during the morning and would distribute food at night. Tertullian argues (V. 1) that this is Paul; he came killing Christians in the beginning of his life (i.e., morning) and then would repent and spread the gospel (i.e., the food) at the end of his life (i.e., night).[29] Tertullian begins by examining Marcion’s interpretations and emendations of Galatians. Apparently, Marcion interpreted 1:8 (“if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you”) as referring to a “gospel of the angels”—the “angels” in this case belonging to the Creator God. Thus, Marcion saw in this passage a Paul who foresaw that the Creator God would even send His own angels to proclaim a gospel message contrary to Paul’s (this message being the message of the Jewish false-apostles). Tertullian, quite naturally, responds that Marcion’s approach to this passage is coming straight out of his rear-end (V. 3). For reasons unknown to us, Marcion apparently left Galatians 3:11, which has Paul citing Habakkuk 2:4 (“the just shall live by faith”). Tertullian takes this passage and points out that Paul was “expressing agreement with the prophets” (V. 3). Marcion deleted the reference to Abraham in 3:29 and had the text read instead “you are all sons of faith” (V. 3)—it should have been “sons of Abraham.” At 4:3 Paul writes that “while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.”[30] Marcion took this passage to mean that the OT was given to the Hebrews by the god of this world, who used evil “elemental spirits” as his mediators (allegedly Moses would have been in contact with them). Tertullian responds by arguing that the phrase “elemental spirits” actually means “early instruction” (V. 4). Such elements are equivalent to “that early schooling in the law.” The OT law would then be seen as a guardian that kept the Hebrews safe from any extreme errors. Yes, Tertullian would agree with Marcion that the OT law was not perfect; no, he would not agree with Marcion that it was given by a different god and inherently evil.

When Tertullian comes to the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Marcion’s entire worldview comes undone. In this epistle, we have a direct critique of pro-Gnostic thinking and, most probably, an attack upon the docetic Gnostics of Corinth. What is bewildering to the modern mind is that—despite all of the deletions and emendations of Marcion—he kept this particular epistle somewhat intact. It still dealt with marriage and resurrection. Tertullian criticizes Marcion for not allowing marriage when Paul allows it and so does Jesus (V. 7). Regarding the resurrection, Marcion apparently had to reinterpret the whole of chapter 15 in the epistle through the phrase “flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” He took this as his point of departure and filtered the rest of Paul’s writings on the afterlife and resurrection through this phrase. Tertullian makes ingenious comments regarding the entire episode, trying his best to point out how stupid Marcion’s canon within a canon really is. For example, Paul uses the analogy of wheat falling into the ground, dying, and then rising up again. Tertullian argues that if Paul was preaching an escape from the evil flesh, why then was he using examples given us by the Creator (V. 10)? Using this form of argumentation, Tertullian goes through the entire Pauline corpus, as found in Marcion’s canon, and concludes his research by pointing out that only Philemon, Paul’s shortest writing, was left untouched by Marcion.

Tertullian wrote his five-volume work because he felt an urgent need to combat a heresy that was in some ways ridiculous and yet so captivating. “By the year A.D. 200 Marcionitism had called forth attacks in three languages—Greek, Latin, and Syriac.”[31] Marcionism was in some ways very much rooted in the NT, and yet—from an orthodox perspective—completely in opposition to it. Christians living in the second and third-centuries would not have been as informed about Marcionism as we are now. Many could not see the differences. “The content of the Marcionite divine service must have been very similar to that of an orthodox one, so much so that orthodox Christians had to be careful not to go into a Marcionite church by mistake.”[32] Upon examination, one could see the world of difference between Marcionism and orthodox Christianity, but to the untrained eye, they were the same thing. Moreover, in a world of hierarchy and subjugation—where slave was set against master and husband against wife—Marcionism gave the lower class folk a sense of heightened equality and importance. Tertullian obviously felt obligated to respond to this growing threat within Christianity. As someone who was educated amidst a people who were predominantly illiterate (90-95 percent of the population were illiterate), Tertullian had the advantage of reading Marcion’s Antitheses first-hand. He wrote because they wrote. But what if he had not written his five-volume set? What if he chose to ignore Marcionism as too stupid to hold its own? Marcionism would have, most likely, died out nonetheless. What began as a quest for knowledge of the problem of evil, ended in the abyss of infinite evil itself. “If Marcion’s god is good and kind, why did he ignore human suffering for so many centuries? thereby showing that the problem of evil still exists for Marcion.”[33] The problem of evil never disappeared—sadly, even for Marcion. The whole of human existence was filtered through Marcion’s lenses—and yet they, too, failed. “He did not realize that his own rigidly literal exegesis might also miss the truth, and that it was possible to fail to see rightly a whole picture because parts of it were viewed in too great detail.”[34] Marcion’s theology, with its emphasis on evil, turned a beautiful picture—with a small scratch in it—into one that was holocaustically horrendous and terrifyingly evil: only the “scratch” became visible in Marcion’s theology. In all of this, “Marcion is a typical representative of Gnosticism.”[35] He may have thought he was somewhat innovative, but he ended up being just another Gnostic looking out for God, trying to solve evil. And when he was confronted with the problem of sin and why Marcionites still avoided it (if the alien god was never going to punish and judge anyhow), Marcion replied, paradoxically, “Absit, absit” (“God forbid! God forbid!”).[36] Anybody who would have confronted this sort of religious philosophy would have found problems with it at some point. A god who didn’t punish and yet forbade you to sin sounded…strange (to say the least). “Marcion’s thinking is superficial; to the deepest things in religion he is insensitive. He is the slave of dualistic presuppositions, seeing everything antithetically, incapable of perceiving the subtleties which are the very essence of human experience and which cannot be pressed into a rigid classification, dualistic or otherwise. His temperament fitted him to be an organizer and a textual critic, but not to be a prophet or pastor or comforter of sin-sick souls.”[37] And so, Marcion has died twice: he died when he died and he died when his philosophy was incapable of sustaining the human individual living in a world full of beauty, good food, beautiful marriages, children swinging on trees, flowers blooming in May, and all of that other stuff that makes life worthwhile. Marcion is no longer remembered because his philosophy could not sustain itself—it simply could not stand on its own two feet (for it was ghostly and had none!).

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to Jerry Sittser (of Whitworth University) – for being “the monk who wouldn’t be”!


Blackman, E. C. Marcion and His Influence. London: S.P.C.K., 1948.

Bultmann, Rudolf. Theology of the New Testament. Translated by Kendrick Grobel. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951.

Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.

Harnack, Adolf von. Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God. Translated by John E. Steely and      Lyle D. Bierma. Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1990.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Viking, 2009.

Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. Translated by Robert McLachlan            Wilson. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983.

Schmithals, Walter. Gnosticism in Corinth: An Investigation of the Letters to the Corinthians.        Translated by John E. Steely. New York: Abingdon Press, 1971.

Schmithals, Walter. Paul and the Gnostics. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972.

Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3. Oxford Early Christian Texts. Translated and       Edited by Ernest Evans. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Tertullian. Adversus Marcionem: Books 4 and 5. Oxford Early Christian Texts. Translated and    Edited by Ernest Evans. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.


[1] Adolf von Harnack, Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, trans. John E. Steely and Lyle D. Bierma (Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1990), 15.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Ibid., 17-18.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The vanilla flavoring is not to be taken seriously; it is “scholarly humor” that probably has some truth to it.

[9] Harnack, Marcion, 28. Italics original.

[10]Harnack, Marcion, 22.

[11] Ibid., 23. Words italicized in the original.

[12] According to Tertullian, Marcion had no brains. “Evidently you could more easily discover a man born without heart or brains, like Marcion, than without a body, like Marcion’s Christ” (Adv. Marc. IV. 10). Translation taken from Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem: Books 4 and 5, Oxford Early Christian Texts, trans. and ed. Ernest Evans, vol. 2, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 304-305. All following citations from Tertullian’s Adversus Marcionem come from Evans’ 2 volume translation.

[13] Harnack, Marcion, 26. Italics original.

[14] Ibid., 28.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 46. Citation taken directly from Harnack.

[17] Ibid., 31.

[18] Ibid., 32.

[19] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

[20] Harnack, Marcion, 33.

[21] Ibid., 34.

[22] Ibid., 37.

[23] Ibid., 72.

[24] For scholars who think that Gnosticism can be traced to the first-century see Walter Schmithals, Gnosticism in Corinth: An Investigation of the Letters to the Corinthians, trans. John E. Steely (New York: Abingdon Press, 1971); Paul and the Gnostics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972); Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, trans. Robert McLachlan Wilson (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983), see esp. pp. 299-306; Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel, vol. 1, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), see esp. pp. 167-183.

[25] “The troubles at Corinth over the resurrection and enthusiastic spiritual gifts have also been traced to Gnostic thinking” (Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993], 292.

[26] Ernest Evans, introduction to Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3, Oxford Early Christian Texts, trans. and ed. Ernest Evans, vol. 1, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), xviii.

[27] Triptolemus was a hero sent to teach men agriculture (Ovid, Metam. V. 645 sqq.).

[28][28] Ernest Evans writes a footnote here that reads: “’From the tree’ is not in the Hebrew or the LXX or Latin Vulgate of Ps. 96:10: but it was known to Justin, apol. i. 41, 42; dial. 73; and the epistle of Barnabas (8.5) seems to be aware of it” (Adversus Marcionem: Books 1 to 3, 227).

[29] This tradition was already present in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.

[30] NRSV.

[31] E. C. Blackman, Marcion and His Influence (London: S.P.C.K., 1948), 3.

[32] Ibid., 7.

[33] Ibid., 73.

[34] Ibid., 82.

[35] Ibid., 85.

[36] Ibid., 97.

[37] Ibid., 106.

Schleiermacher’s Doctrine of Atonement: An Historical Introduction and Examination of Schleiermacher’s Sermon The Dying Savior Our Example

Friedrich Schleiermacher was a late 18th century and early 19th century theologian and philosopher. He was born into a Prussian household of Reformed pastors; his parents later became Moravians and sent their son to a Moravian Brethren school in Niesky on June 14, 1783. While there, he successfully studied Latin and Greek, later becoming a well-known translator of Plato’s writings into German.[1] He labored tirelessly in theological and philosophical literature throughout his life, attempting to make sense of his Christian faith. During his lifetime, Kant’s critical philosophy had wiped away any hope for traditional Enlightenment views of God and Christ, and atomically destructive work would later be carried out by the likes of David Strauss on the historical Jesus.[2] Adding to this critically poisonous atmosphere, Schleiermacher began his lifelong affair with Baruch Spinoza, flirting endlessly with his pantheistic philosophy (which later, understandably, had his critics wrongly accuse him of being a pantheist—err, practically an atheist).[3]

Two years later, he and ten other graduates left Niesky for Barnaby, a small community where the Moravians had their theological seminary.[4] While there, he read Goethe’s Werther and Wieland’s writings. His teachers also introduced him—from a polemical perspective—to Semler’s biblical criticism. It wasn’t long before the youthful Schleiermacher, along with his group of “independent thinkers,” had a falling out with the Moravians, resulting in his leaving to attend the liberal Halle University, where he would encounter the critical musings of Johann August Eberhard, a philosophy professor and disciple of Christian Wolff. He taught Schleiermacher Kant’s philosophical system, along with Kant’s “rational” religion—who, as many know, was probably committing the logical fallacy of false equal by making “religion” and “God” essentially identical to ethics.[5] Schleiermacher’s leaving of the Moravian seminary did not come without existential angst. His father, whom he loved dearly, argued passionately with his son, trying to convince him not to ever leave the faith. Schleiermacher’s father saw in his son “only pride, a defective love for Jesus, and a worldly longing,” as succinctly summarized in the words of Martin Redeker.[6] Despite his father’s wishes, Schleiermacher allowed doubt and despair to settle in; years later, he would recount “I have again become a Moravian, only of a higher order.”[7] His father would not live to hear his son say those words.

After two years at Halle, Schleiermacher stopped studying at Halle and instead retreated to Drossen (living with his uncle Samuel), where he began leisurely reading works in philosophy, despite the pleadings of his father to finish his theological education.[8] It is at this point in his life that Schleiermacher began thinking of religion along mostly ethical lines. He wanted a theory of virtue—something like Kantian ethics—to replace Christianity. What was important was how one lived—and Kantian ethics, surely, was in complete accord with Christian teaching. Schleiermacher found holes in Christian teaching about the afterlife too. He refused to accept that a hope for a hereafter as a motivating factor in an ethical theory was valid; doing good simply because Jesus told you that you will be rewarded in heaven brought what Redeker calls “a false eudaemonistic motive into Christian ethics.”[9] However, with his eyes inflamed from too much reading, Schleiermacher reluctantly agreed to complete his theology examinations in Berlin at the Directorate of the Reformed Church in the year 1790.

After becoming a tutor to the Count Dohna family, Schleiermacher’s spirit began a period of rejuvenation from youthful arrogance, rebellion, and disillusionment. It was here at Schlobitten that he, only within a mere two years, began preaching. He wrote his father on August 6, 1791: “Here my heart is properly nurtured…Here I enjoy the family life for which man is made and this warms my heart…You surely must thank God with me for his gracious providence and send me your blessings that I may widely profit by them.”[10] Here was a maturing theologian—a man who had come to terms with his God, his philosophy, and his religious past. One of his sermons in the year 1792 was an exercise in moral philosophy and theology, dealing with happiness and unhappiness as false definitions of a well-lived life. “The young preacher was filled with a vigorous sense for the moral ethos discovered in Kant’s concept of duty.”[11] At this point in his life, Schleiermacher believed that the telos of life was to become morally perfect, like God.

After completing his second theological examinations at Berlin in 1794, he became an assistant pastor in Landsberg. By 1796, he was appointed a pastor of the Charite Hospital in Berlin, a post he kept for six years, until the age of thirty-four.[12] After these years, he would begin writing some of his most well-known works, teaching classes first at Halle then at the University of Berlin (which he helped found), all along preaching sermons. Schleiermacher

“created the classic theological statement of liberal Protestantism in The Christian Faith and ushered in a new period of systematic theology by applying to theology the method of transcendental philosophy. He was an untiring academician and teacher, lecturing almost every morning from 7:00 to 10:00. Nearly every Sunday for forty years he devoted himself to the service of the Christian community as a preacher of the gospel.”[13]

This summarizes Schleiermacher’s life as a thinker. His life was essentially a reflection of a man thoroughly committed to preaching the Gospel and attempting to build bridges between those who despised religion and Christianity. He tried his best to make Christianity palatable to his hearers. With that being said, I would like to briefly examine Schleiermacher’s theology, later specifically focusing on his views of Christ and atonement.

Schleiermacher’s theology is somewhat difficult to explain for the uninitiated. Despite this fact, I will attempt clarity possibly at the expense of robust depth and accuracy. Schleiermacher obviously believed that God existed. God, for Schleiermacher, was that Being upon whom all life depends. The universe is absolutely dependent upon God. Redeker relates how Schleiermacher “referred to God as the ultimate power active not simply in a supernatural realm but permeating the whole of reality.”[14] God was, quite literally and biblically, “all in all” (see Ephesians 4:6). But could humans possibly know this God? Could they somehow come to know God by natural theology or by means of reason alone? Schleiermacher thought not. He did not think—and here he seemed to agree with Kant—that knowing God was possible. Schleiermacher viewed God, to use an anachronistic term over-used by Karl Barth, “wholly Other.” God was out there to our sinful, unredeemed minds. But in reality, God was omnipresent: He was everywhere. Space did not confine Him. Schleiermacher accepted “the basis of critical transcendental philosophy” in which “God cannot be the object of human knowledge, since human knowledge is bound to space and time and the categories of reason, i.e., the finite world.”[15] Here lies a most crucial point in understanding Schleiermacher’s theology: God is infinite and we are finite. Between the two lies a vast abyss of absolute nothingness. Our reason cannot cross over from the realm of the finite into the realm of the infinite. All we can do is hope to God that God does something. God, being infinite, cannot be understood by finite creatures. The reason being, for Schleiermacher, quite simple: God is not a part of the space-time continuum. God is infinite, thus time does not exist for Him, and neither does space. This also brings us to Schleiermacher’s next point: for God there are no subject-object distinctions. In the realm of the infinite “reality is not yet divided into subject and object.”[16] Human beings usually deal with past, present, and future—being bound by space-time—and objectification of the Other, being bound by subjectivity and the limitations of human reason. Essential to Schleiermacher’s theology, therefore, is the utter “non-objectifiability of God.”[17] The question then arises: how do we know God? Schleiermacher responds: we don’t. We never know God nor do we know anything about God. To talk about the “about-ness” of God is ridiculous; the moment we do this, we are immediately objectifying God, the infinite, and wrenching Him into the realm of space-time finitude. No, God is to be left alone. All Christians can do is participate in “God-consciousness,” which is strictly different than what we would call “consciousness about God.”

But then a miracle happens.

God decides, graciously (and please do note my use of “grace-filled” terminology), to instill in human beings a feeling. Note that this is not God instilling a particular logic or a particular form of reasoning; no, God instills in human beings a feeling. This is Schleiermacher’s most oft-cited phrase: “the feeling of absolute dependence.” In its entirety, Schleiermacher actually wrote in The Christian Faith: “The feeling of absolute dependence is in and of itself God’s co-presence in self-consciousness.”[18] But what did he mean by that phrase? Redeker sees, at the very least, two truths being conveyed here: (1) “God, as Creator, creates and preserves our human existence and instills in us the religious feeling of creatureliness”; and (2) “In this feeling of creatureliness we became certain that God vitally permeates the entire world.”[19] Our ability to feel dependent upon God arises from God Himself. We do not feel anything on our own at all. All humans can do is participate in “universal God-consciousness.” In some ways, for Schleiermacher, God-consciousness is to be understood as encompassing this “feeling of absolute dependence.” Without participating in God-consciousness, one cannot feel anything towards God. God exists and is conscious, and for us to be a part of that consciousness, we must participate in revealed God-consciousness. It is revealed because it comes only from God and to whom God chooses. And how do we come to participate in this so-called “God-consciousness”? Jesus Christ. Jesus is the embodiment of the fullness and perfection of God-consciousness here on earth. As “Jesus” is the answer to most Barthian questions, so is Jesus the answer to restoring our lost God-consciousness. And how did we lose God-consciousness?

Schleiermacher believed that the Fall marked a period in human history in which humans had damaged their God-consciousness. We started sinning. Sin was defined by him as being the “complete incapacity for the good.”[20] Once humans began sinning, they became less and less dependent upon God; their thinking and feelings became clouded by sin. They lost the ability to feel that feeling of absolute dependence. Moreover, in Schleiermacher’s theology, there was even room for original sin. Redeker succinctly defines original sin, as Schleiermacher saw it, as “the internal and timeless predisposition toward sin.”[21] Schleiermacher’s theology, which still accepted sin, did not sit well with many a Romantic. Sin was a nasty subject to be taught by primal man; it was not supposed to be peddled by such a cultured man as Schleiermacher. “His teachings of the need for redemption and the sinfulness of men contradicted the optimistic, moralistic self-regard of the Enlightenment as well as the prevailing philosophy of humanity.”[22] Precisely because of this belief (i.e., that men were ultimately sinful), Schleiermacher’s theology had room for a savior: enter Jesus Christ.

For Schleiermacher, Jesus was the embodiment of tangible God-consciousness. Jesus came to earth to help restore our God-consciousness. He did this by allowing us to participate in Him (in participating in Christ, Christians participate in God-consciousness). Once that occurs, three things happen: (1) The person is immediately aware of his or her state of sin; (2) The person becomes aware of the need for a savior and the need for grace; and (3) The person then responds by having the feeling of absolute dependence restored. Redemption occurs only by means of God’s grace and His revelation. His revelation of Himself is entirely gracious. Our response must be nothing but humble thankfulness.

To recapitulate: God, through Jesus Christ’s incarnation, allows human beings to witness God-consciousness in all of its glorious fullness, and, in response, humans participate in God-consciousness, becoming aware of their sinfulness, their need for redemption, and their dependence upon God.

Schleiermacher believed that both sin and grace were, in a sense, “created” by God. “[S]ince we never have a consciousness of grace without a consciousness of sin, God has ordained the reality of sin with and alongside grace,” comments Redeker.[23] This means that sin must only be seen in relation to grace. “God has ordained sin not in and for itself but only in relation to redemption.”[24] It may be better to think of the dichotomy between sin and grace as being separated by a wall which has a one-way street. That is, sin is contingent upon grace, but grace is not contingent upon sin. Humans have chosen sin—hence sin exists. Yet, grace could exist apart from sin, while sin could not exist apart from grace. Moreover, Schleiermacher added the qualification that sin was, at the end of time, to be completely annihilated into white hot nothingness. Sin will not prevail against God’s act of creation and redemption; at the end of time, when all is said and done, it will be God who reigns over all—not sin.[25] Finally, it would be good to note that Schleiermacher, because of this view that God ultimately wins (even with all the nasty warts of sin), refrained from talking much about God’s wrath. Redeker cites Schleiermacher as saying, rather dryly: “Nothing need be taught concerning the wrath of God.”[26] Such a statement makes sense only in light of a Schleiermacher’s belief that sin is only a temporary stage in human development. It is all transitory. If God, being a loving God, sees human beings, running around like chickens with their heads chopped off and sinning, He would not speak of wrath. He would mostly speak of perfection. God understands that humans are merely, to use Kierkegaard’s and Heidegger’s word, in a state of “becoming.” We are not perfect. We do not have our God-consciousness fully restored yet. Only in Jesus do we see a fully operational God-consciousness. In participating in Christ, we, as Christians, are merely “becoming” like Christ. Given this reality, sin should be viewed as (a) evil and (b) temporary. This would further suggest that wrath is, in some ways, probably unnecessary. God will conquer sin whether sin likes it or not. God will turn sin into nothingness. Becoming perfect presupposes that nasty and brutal fact that one is not perfect…yet. Given this, Schleiermacher can, when viewing history from a holistic perspective, in which sin is merely a bleep on God’s radar, do away with wrath and spend time lecturing his students and parishioners on imitating Christ.

However, Schleiermacher’s theology did demand a savior, for, as Redeker notes, “where God-consciousness has not been restored through redemption, the destructive consequences of sin continue.”[27] Schleiermacher ultimately believed that Jesus had come to leave behind a legacy, a legacy we should all imitate. The world-renowned historian Diarmaid MacCulloch summarizes Schleiermacher’s theology in the following manner: “The unique gift of Christianity was the person of Jesus, who revealed his own divinity by representing the most perfect consciousness of God that there could be.”[28] Jesus was ultimately sent to have followers. Followers after God’s own consciousness. Schleiermacher, then, viewed Jesus’ death not as substitutionary but as exemplary. But not—as some interpreters wrongly assume—only exemplary. Schleiermacher criticized those who viewed Jesus’ death as merely exemplary. The feminist theologian Mary J. Streufert points this out succinctly. “Schleiermacher’s criticism of exemplary christology [was the following:] if Jesus is divine because he does good earthly activity, are those who do good among us divine?”[29] For Schleiermacher, then, salvation-redemption was a process that was ongoing; it was not something to be identified with a singular event which occurred in the past—like sacrificial appeasement. “[R]edemption is a present process and is no longer located in a single act of sacrifice in the past.”[30] Because of this, some theologians are right in noting how Schleiermacher’s view of atonement and salvation has more in common with Paul than with, say, the author of Hebrews. He understands redemption as being “mystical” and sees it “as a union with Christ through the redeemer’s ‘influence’ (Wirkung).”[31] Hence, while Schleiermacher certainly has more affinity with a “moral influence theory of atonement,” it is also just as certainly wrong to see him as endorsing only an “exemplary” view of atonement.

Given the aforementioned views regarding Jesus, Schleiermacher could certainly point to Jesus as being a life we should model—without getting rid of the need for a real savior. Jesus lived a life in which because he was God, he was humble. And yet, as one of the earliest Christian hymns so beautifully states, “he emptied himself, taking the ‘form’ of a slave…” (Philippians 2:7, my trans.). Paul also admonishes his readers to “have the same mindset as Jesus Christ” (v. 5). If Paul could ask his hearers to imitate Christ, surely Schleiermacher was orthodox in doing so likewise. In my own words, I would say that, for Schleiermacher, Christians who accepted Jesus, along with his God-consciousness and ethical system, accepted God-conscious ethics. Hence, it followed that they, too, should live a life worthy of their savior’s. With that being said, I now turn my attention to Schleiermacher’s sermon.

The Dying Savior Our Example was preached in the presence of the King possibly sometime in 1799. In this sermon, Schleiermacher set out to do three things. “I desire, then, that in dying we may all have, in the first place, the same sorrow over unaccomplished deeds; secondly, the same calmness under the unjust judgments of the world; and thirdly, that we may be in the same way surrounded by tender and faithful friends.”[32] As strange as it sounds, Schleiermacher took Christ’s death—an event few Christians today look to for ethical recommendations, to say the least—and placed it on display before his congregants eyes. It is as if Schleiermacher had said, “Look! Here is Jesus Christ on the Cross before you. Imitate Him even in His death!” But what did Schleiermacher mean by imitation? I think he meant it literally. “[W]e all set before us His life even to death as the pattern which we seek to follow; yes, His life even to death, not even excluding the last experiences of His holy soul.”[33] Schleiermacher could not help but see Christ’s life as a model for our own. “[L]et us learn to die in seeing Christ die! It is no small thing that I expect from you in calling on you to do this; for it is with the death of the Saviour as it was with His life; let him who seeks only happiness and joy shun likeness to Him.”[34] Schleiermacher even had time to sneak in a little bit of his anti-utilitarianism—“let him who seeks only happiness…shun likeness to Him.” For Schleiermacher, Kantian ethics were still better tasting than utilitarian ethics, though in his later life he focused on a final telos in which ethics, being goal-oriented, arrives at a summum bonum (“the highest good,” to be identified with participating in God-consciousness by becoming like Jesus).[35]

After clearly stating his thesis and his beliefs about following Christ’s pattern of life, Schleiermacher returns to his first claim (i.e., having sorrow over unaccomplished deeds). This claim, Schleiermacher holds, is grounded most poignantly in Christ’s almost final cry-out: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” In these words, Schleiermacher saw the God-man sorrowful not over God’s inability to bring about His Kingdom and His Glory; rather, Schleiermacher sees these words as reflecting Christ’s sorrow over his failure to accomplish the work which he set out to do. Christ died young. And that sucked. “He loved His duty with His whole heart; the thought of the great work to which He had devoted His life still filled His soul. And when He reflected how far that work still was from completion…[He began experiencing sorrow].”[36] Christ died of a broken heart. Schleiermacher, instead of talking about blood and guts, as most modern theologians and preachers would, immediately begins discussing practical matters, such as ethics.

Are you servants of the State, administrators of public regulations; may you grieve that you cannot still reform abuses and introduce improvements! Are you independent and wealthy; may you grieve that you cannot set agoing one more benevolent institution, or do this thing and that for the unfortunate whom you protect! Are you scholars and philosophers; may you be reluctant to interrupt an instructive presentation of your thoughts, or to turn away from a new field of human knowledge! Are you artists and workmen; may it grieve you that you are not to bestow on one more piece of work at least the new perfection that you have planned or practised![37]

Schleiermacher took one of Jesus’ final cries and turned it into an ethical imperative: Go and do likewise.

Schleiermacher’s second point need not much commentary. He wishes for his congregants to leave the world in a state of calmness. “It is therefore with good reason that I wish for us all in this event the Saviour’s calmness and equanimity; for it is the result of the most mature wisdom and the most genuine piety.”[38] He recognizes that Christians will be persecuted. And, despite this, he asks them to suffer with joy.

Schleiermacher’s third and final point is, perhaps, his most brilliant, original, and ecclesiological: Be surrounded by friends, for friendship is the greatest gift one can give and receive. For Schleiermacher, friendship was axiomatic both for his life and theology. In fact, he even seen the Church as nothing less than a great gathering of friends. “We could all desire to die surrounded, as the Saviour was, with loving and suffering friends.”[39] For Schleiermacher, the imperative to have friends became an absolute demand, and rightly so.

“[T]his love and faithfulness, enduring even to death, were the best testimony that He, with His loving heart, had enjoyed in His whole sphere of work the highest happiness of life. And it is for such reasons that I wish for ourselves, above all things, to die in such company; nay, as much as lies with ourselves, I demand it of every one.”[40]

The “highest happiness” was dying surrounded by friends. Schleiermacher’s love for human friendship is soberly summarized in his comment on the loss of a friend: “It is true, a friend whom you have lost will never be replaced.”[41] Outside of friendship, to mimic Paul’s language on love in 1 Corinthians 13, lies nothing but a “resounding gong or clanging cymbal.” Hold on to friends, says Schleiermacher, for you never know the day of your death. “Even in happy youth does not the feeling of the transitory nature of all earthly things arise? Are we not often involuntarily seized by the thought that each joy may be the last [?]”[42] Indeed, this may be our very last joy shared together: the joy of friendship. And, finally, in his most sentimental moments, Schleiermacher concludes his sermon by returning to the reality of congregants inhabiting church pews.

“And what should be the nursery of sincere and faithful friends, if not the Church of Christ, the association of men with whom unselfishness and benevolence, sympathy and helpful love are natural sentiments, among whom every kind of wisdom and perfection ought to exist and to be ready for the service of each?”[43]

Can Schleiermacher teach us something about sermons, churches, and Jesus? Most certainly! As I’ve already pointed out, Schleiermacher’s concerns about friendship within the body of Christ (formally known as “the Church”) are as relevant today as they were over two-hundred and sixteen years ago. The modern experience of “church” in America on any given Sunday is about as detached as one can get. The point of many modern churches is precisely detachment. If we had the will to experience friendship in church, we wouldn’t be so desperately seeking to be lost in the non-existent Kierkegaardian “crowd.” As Kierkegaard so cogently reminds us: “In eternity you will look in vain for the crowd. You will listen in vain to find whether you cannot hear where the noise and the gathering is, so that you may run to it. In eternity you, too, will be forsaken by the crowd.”[44] We run into the crowd to avoid responsibilities. We seek crowds in order to be hidden. Like modern terrorists who wrap their bodies in dynamite sticks, large coats, and hoodies, we run into the safety of the crowd so that our true identities—along with all of our sins and insecurities—may remain forever hidden. And so the world never knows us. Schleiermacher knew all too well the nothingness of “the crowd” (even a “church crowd”). He wrote:

“Today the sermon is the only means of having a personal impact on the common outlook of a large number of people. In reality its effect is not great for it does not achieve much. But if one takes up and deals with the matter as it should be—not just as it is—and if there should be only two or three who really listen, even then the result may still be beautiful.”[45]

Schleiermacher was acutely aware of the fact that crowds cannot be taught, neither do they listen. Only individuals—two or three at best—are taught. To allow ourselves, as the body of Christ, to disappear in the nauseating dizziness of the crowd, would be equivalent to denying Jesus the one thing that he demanded of his followers: “Love one another.” But how can we love if we don’t even know who you are?[46]

Schleiermacher’s own theory of atonement, which could easily—with noted qualifications—be identified under one of the subsets of a “moral influence theory of atonement,” reflects not only the reality of the categorical imperatives which are embodied in Jesus Christ but also the reality of the Church. Richard Niebuhr coined the phrase “Christo-morphism”[47] in order to explain the general thrust of Schleiermacher’s theology. That is, the point of Schleiermacher’s theology was to get people to morph into being Christ-like. (This term can just as easily be applied to his own, unique theory of atonement.) Christ was in the business of “person-forming” work.[48] The Church, which should also be a reflection of this calling, needs to continue creating new persons in the image of Christ. That is the point of Christian theology. It is the very reason why a Church even exists. If Christo-morphism is not going on in churches, if person-forming work is not being carried out, we have not only failed Jesus, we have also failed to heed the voice of one of the most important theologians of the 18th and 19th centuries: Schleiermacher.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to Karen Petersen Finch (of Whitworth University) – for being a good theologian and scholar.


Kierkegaard, Søren. Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. Translated by Douglas V. Steere. New York: HarperOne, 1956.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Viking, 2010.

Niebuhr, Richard R. Schleiermacher On Christ and Religion: A New Introduction. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964.

Redeker, Martin. Schleiermacher: Life and Thought. Translated by John Walhausser. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Selected Sermons of Schleiermacher. Translated by Mary F. Wilson. 1886. Reprint, Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004.

Streufert, Mary J. “Reclaiming Schleiermacher for Twenty-First Century Atonement Theory: The Human and the Divine in Feminist Christology.” Feminist Theology 15/1 (2006): 98-120.


[1] Martin Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, trans. John Walhausser (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), 9.

[2] Schleiermacher accepted the fact that the Bible was corrupted (to some degree) and that myth was present in it. Niebuhr, reflecting the scholarly consensus in a post-Enlightenment era, correctly summarizes what Schleiermacher (and those following him) certainly felt (and feel); namely, “No one today will contest the presence of myth in the New Testament” (Richard R. Niebuhr, Schleiermacher On Christ and Religion: A New Introduction [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964], 223, n. 17.

[3] An affair that would not begin until he had become an assistant pastor at Landsberg in 1794. When Schleiermacher was appointed a professor of theology at Halle University in 1804, Eberhard, his childhood philosophy professor, would remark: “It has not come to the point that an open atheist has been called to Halle as a theologian and preacher” (cited in Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, 77). To call this infantile caricaturing would be an understatement. It is no wonder that Schleiermacher’s personal friends were forced to come to his defense. Henriette Herz, for example, would come out arguing for his orthodoxy: “Schleiermacher is far removed from rationalism and genuinely believes in God and the Savior…He does not adhere to the letter, not to the dead word—he believes rather in the living spirit” (Ibid., 28-29).

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Ibid., 15.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Ibid., 9.

[8] Ibid., 16.

[9] Ibid., 17.

[10] Ibid., 19-20.

[11] Ibid., 21.

[12] Ibid., 25.

[13] Ibid., 5.

[14] Ibid., 39. Perhaps it is this particular belief of Schleiermacher’s which is responsible for his being called a “pantheist” and, later, an “atheist.”

[15] Ibid., 38.

[16] Ibid., 39.

[17] Ibid., 120-21.

[18] Cited in Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, 42.

[19] Ibid., 123.

[20] Cited in Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, 125.

[21] Ibid., 125.

[22] Ibid., 125.

[23] Ibid., 127.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 128.

[26] Ibid., 130.

[27] Ibid., 126.

[28] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking, 2010), 832.

[29] Mary J. Streufert, “Reclaiming Schleiermacher for Twenty-First Century Atonement Theory: The Human and the Divine in Feminist Christology,” Feminist Theology 15/1 (2006): 116.

[30] Ibid., 102.

[31] Ibid., 105.

[32] Friedrich Schleiermacher, “The Dying Savior Our Example,” in Selected Sermons of Schleiermacher, trans. Mary F. Wilson (1886; reprint, Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 54.

[33] Ibid., 53.

[34] Ibid.

[35] For a discussion of this see Richard R. Niebuhr, Schleiermacher On Christ and Religion: A New Introduction, 93-97. He writes that Schleiermacher “rejected the Kantian-Fichtean accent on duty as the principal phenomenon of the moral life and of our sense of humanity and instead organized his own ethical reflections around the idea of the highest good” (pp. 93-94). Moreover, Niebuhr believes that “Schleiermacher chose to identify the highest good with the content of ethical activity and to deny that reason can entertain a pure, a priori idea of it” (p. 94). Though Niebuhr does not explicitly state this, Schleiermacher seems to have understood the highest good to be identified with God-consciousness which permeated the whole of reality. Since Jesus embodied that consciousness, it is safe to say that, for Schleiermacher, a life patterned on Jesus’ own would reflect, at the very least, the highest good.

[36] Ibid., 55.

[37] Ibid., 55-6.

[38] Ibid., 60.

[39] Ibid., 61.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid., 63.

[42] Ibid., 64.

[43] Ibid., 65.

[44] Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, trans. Douglas V. Steere (New York: HarperOne, 1956), 191.

[45] Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought, 73.

[46] It may be good here to point out that Schleiermacher believed in a world where the I stood in relation to the Thou (and was, in some ways, dependent upon it). This implied that human beings must be social creatures. A church should exist made up of Is and Thous. “We may also recall at this point Schleiermacher’s observation in his psychology of the fact that the consciousness of being an “I” always presupposes a “thou,” since memory cannot reach back to the absolute origins of the individual; and, therefore, beyond the point at which memory falters, the individual is dependent on the descriptions of himself furnished by others” (Richard R. Niebuhr, Schleiermacher On Christ and Religion: A New Introduction, 239). Given this reality, a “you” cannot exist in isolation (read: hidden) from the view of others. This further implies the fact that, at least for Schleiermacher, the Church could not exist as a detached community.

[47] Ibid., 215. Niebuhr also notes—in relation to our discussion regarding Schleiermacher’s theory of atonement—how “Schleiermacher speaks of Christ as the exemplar (Vorbild) of perfected human nature” (p. 218, italics original).

[48] Ibid., 214.

The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology: A Brief Summary and Evaluation of Alvin Plantinga’s Argument

In his article “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology,” Plantinga argues that the Reformed tradition has had a tendency to refuse to succumb to natural theology. The reason being that the Reformed tradition views the idea of God as properly basic. By properly basic, Plantinga means that this belief (i.e., the idea of God) is not grounded nor supported by anything else—it merely is (with or without arguments). A properly basic belief is a belief that is not contingent upon anything else; it is not a belief that needs an argument or a proof to support it. Most people throughout history had believed in God—with or without evidence. This seems to suggest that the idea of God is a “natural” starting point for most humans; it is the “default position” with which most of us function in the world.

Plantinga begins his article by mentioning briefly the diverse views the Reformed tradition has had towards natural theology. Citing Herman Bavinck, Plantinga summarizes his anti-natural theology view: “[A]rguments or proofs are not, in general, the source of the believer’s confidence in God” and “[A]rgument is not needed for rational justification; the believer is entirely within his epistemic right in believing that God has created the world, even if he has no argument at all for that conclusion.”[1] Plantinga, as a Christian himself, also points to the Bible as a template for how natural theology should be done: it shouldnt. He writes, “There is nothing by way of proofs or arguments for God’s existence in the Bible; that is simply presupposed.[2] The Bible itself does not respect natural theology. If so, why should we?

John Calvin, the reformer of reformers, writes that “we conclude that it [belief in the existence of God] is not a doctrine that must first be learned in school, but one of which each of us is a master from his mother’s womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget.”[3] What about those who are “naturally” atheists and unbelievers, what explains there predicament? Calvin has a ready-made answer for that: sin. Our minds have been clouded by sin so much that some of us no longer even have this allegedly “properly basic belief” in God. Plantinga, summarizing Calvin’s views, bitingly suggests that “one who doesn’t believe in God is in an epistemically substandard position—rather like a man who doesn’t believe that his wife exists, or thinks she is like a cleverly constructed robot and has not thoughts, feelings, or consciousness.”[4] Ouch! It seems that all atheists potentially may be denying not only God’s but even their spouses’ existence! So much for those who reject properly basic beliefs. He who has this so-called properly basic belief doesn’t hold belief in the existence of God as being made rational by virtue of supporting arguments, be they the teleological, ontological, or cosmological arguments; no, “he doesn’t need any argument for justification or rationality.”[5]

Plantinga then goes on to speak of epistemic foundationalism. He defines classical foundationalism as being a noetic structure in which belief B is founded upon belief A; where beliefs can be right or wrong; where there are “responsibilities and duties that pertain to believings as well as to actions…”[6] In classical foundationalism, “[t]o criticize a person as irrational, then, is to criticize her for failing to fulfill these duties or responsibilities.”[7] However, the problem with classical foundationalism is that some of our beliefs are, well, properly basic. For example, “I believe that 2+1=3…and don’t believe it on the basis of other propositions.”[8] Moreover, one can believe one loves another human being on the basis of nothing—I can meet a girl I’ve never seen before and have such feelings for her that may be rationally unjustifiable. I can feel pain in my body and not have to believe that I have the pain because of something else—I simply believe I have the pain without resorting to arguments for or against such a properly basic belief. Plantinga also mentions how some of our properly basic beliefs have different “depths of ingression.” Some of our beliefs—like the belief that I have pain in my neck—will not have any repercussions if, say, I awake and find the pain was an illusion. Losing such a properly basic belief will not cause me to undergo a paradigm shift.

Plantinga points out that when the Reformers rejected classical foundationalism, they were not, by any means, rejecting everything these guys taught. Rather, they rejected the idea that all our beliefs needed to be grounded (read: founded) upon something else. All of our beliefs need reasons, arguments, justifications, other beliefs, etc., in order to be “rational.” One may call such Reformers “weak foundationalists.”

An objection here could be made to Plantinga’s claims. He foresees this and finishes his article by dealing with “the great pumpkin objection.” The objection goes like this: if people have properly basic beliefs, how do we know which beliefs they are? For example, what if someone were to argue that belief in the great pumpkin is basic? How do we go about arguing with that? Planting believes that we must inductively decide whether beliefs are properly basic or not. Of course such a method is not definitive—it is by no means deductive. “We must assemble examples of beliefs and condition such that the former are obviously properly basic in the latter, and the examples of beliefs and conditions such that the former are obviously not properly basic in the latter. We must then form hypotheses as to the necessary and sufficient conditions of proper basicality and test these hypotheses by reference to those examples.”[9] In other words, if you see another human being walking towards you, and you are not on any known hallucination-inducing medications, you’re probably right in thinking there really is a person there. Finally, there is no way we’ll even reach a consensus. People will simply disagree regarding which beliefs are basic or not. Most of us, as history has shown, will simply take belief in God as properly basic, whether other people agree with us or not.

I, myself, find Plantinga’s argument, overall, as being rather convincing for several reasons. First, Plantinga is right in concluding that we’ll probably never reach a consensus regarding what is basic and what is not. After seeing many, many debates throughout my life, I only get the feeling—which is now bordering on certainty—that human beings are not capable of consensus in regards to that which is or is not “rational.” We have inherent differences in the way we reason. Foundational principles for some of us are entirely different than those around us. What for some passes as “self-evident,” passes as “self-delusion” for others; what one sees as “rational,” another sees as empirically and logically “irrational.” Certainly, our brains are structurally different—we have brain-prints that are simply unique; we each have brains full of neurons wired differently from the wiring of the next person standing next to us. No two of us agree on everything. And those of us who don’t agree, clearly are in the right and are rational! It is that one who is not rational. Therefore, the belief in a universal logic or a universal foundational principle is absurd—the empirical evidence has been in for thousands of years in human history, and humans are guaranteed one thing: they will disagree (while arguing that their side is more “rational.”). I will have nothing to do with a utopian belief that a universal rationality exists—I remain thoroughly unconvinced by philosophers who argue otherwise.

Second, there is hardly a reason to think that logically a universal logic exists. Kurt Gödel, surely, had shown the “impossibility of proof” even within such a stringently certain field as mathematics. Even math has axioms which remain self-referential. If self-referential, there is no way to ultimately prove them—all one can do is assume they are true. One can only say that 0 equals 0—all the while believing one understands what 0 actually means (since, in the example, it is self-referential). Elements of paradox and, potentially, faith exist even in formal logic. Given the reality of Gödel’s two incompleteness theorems, I believe it’s fair to extend the implications to rationality as commonsense. What one deems is rational in one’s own subjective logical “noetic structures,” may be the very thing that another—subjectively—rejects as axiomatic. For example, in thinking about what constitutes proof, some of us—both “rational” theists and “rational” atheists—disagree. On the one hand, the theists take for granted some key axiomatic beliefs, such as the critical belief that there exists something potentially outside the empirical world of our senses. The atheists, on the other hand, are uncritically accepting of the empirical senses. While they may (or may not) reject some aspects of their empirical certainties, most uncritically assume that what they see is really true and real. Given these realities, realities in which I see different noetic structures operating on vastly different and unabashedly contradictory faith-based unprovable axioms, it is impossible—at least for me—to uncritically accept and sustain the untenable belief that universal rationality and a “universal logic” exists. With that, I must remain in complete agreement with Plantinga: there are properly basic beliefs, and we will never agree on them.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


[1] Alvin Plantinga, “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology,” in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, eds. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 208. Italics original.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 209.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 211.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 210.

[9] Ibid., 214.

Arguing with God: Deuteronomic Paradox and Habakkukian Critiques

The prophet Habakkuk was active sometime around 605 BC. He was most likely a contemporary of Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Zephaniah. The context within which Habakkuk issued forth his complaints against YHWH is essential to understanding his message. Twenty-four years prior to Habukkuk’s complaints against YHWH, the prophet Jeremiah began his own similar activities in 629 BC. It was not until a few years later, in 621 BC, that the “book of the Torah” was found and brought to the attention of the youthful king of Judah, Josiah. The “book of the Torah,” usually identified with (probably) Deuteronomy 12-26, was brought to the prophetess Huldah. She exclaimed that the curses within the “book of the Torah,” which faithless Israel had brought upon herself, would come upon Jerusalem (2 Kings 22:15-20).[1] Josiah responded by seeking to go back to a more conservative and less “modern” Mosaic religion. “[T]he paganism against which Zephaniah had protested (Zeph. 1:4-6) was abolished…”[2] Moreover, “[t]he practices of sacred prostitution, child sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom, and the consultation of mediums and wizards were discontinued.”[3] The most novel response being the centralization of YHWHistic worship in the Jerusalem Temple. While Josiah was on a rampage to restore primitive Mosaic faith, Assyria was losing its clutch on power; in a decisive battle, Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was overthrown by the combined forces of Babylon, Scythia, and Media in 612 BC.[4] Three years later, Necho, the ruler of Egypt, seeing an opportunity to help out Assyria, sent his troops in 609 BC. On their way north to Assyria, Josiah decided to play dice and come to Babylon’s rescue—he attempted to prevent the passage of Egyptian troops. Ultimately, he ended up dying and Judah would become a temporary vassal of Egypt.[5] For roughly another four miserable years, Judah is a slave to Egypt. Then, in 605 BC, the epic battle of Carchemish takes place, in which Babylonian troops put to waste Egyptian troops. In a matter of time, Judah is made a vassal of Babylon, and would remain so until its utter destruction in 587/6 BC. Thus, within a mere twenty years of Josiah’s initial reform, Judah is once again a slave to evil empires.

The theology of this period has been dubbed by modern scholarship “deuteronomic.”[6] It is a very retributive theology that is cut-and-dried: if you obey YHWH, good will follow; if you disobey YHWH, evil will follow. “In the popular view, Yahweh’s justice meant that good consequences would came from good actions, that obedience would result in security on the land, victory against foes, and abundant life. But the cruel facts of history seemed to contradict this belief.”[7] Within a matter of years, Jeremiah’s hopeful approach towards Josiah’s reform and deuteronomic theology withered away and became a bittersweet song; “[h]e came to see that  it did not result in a circumcision of the heart or a breaking up of fallow ground.”[8] Habakkuk, likewise, was greatly frustrated by this “health and wealth gospel.” How could it be that the children of YHWH, who did commit righteous acts, be visited by an utterly evil nation? Where was the deuteronomic righteousness of YHWH? Within these profound, paradoxical turmoils were born the complaints of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk wrote his complaints just after the battle of Carchemish.[9] “No one living in Jerusalem about the year 600 could fail to see that world-shaping events were already in preparation.”[10] Yes, he probably did witness the collapse of an evil Assyria—but that evil empire was soon replaced by one no different than it: Babylon. Habakkuk was not sure how one could approach this deuteronomic God. If evil is the result of disobeying YHWH, is it possible that those who were deemed “righteous” were somehow deceived? Maybe evil followed them precisely because they unknowingly sinned. But such thinking surely fled Habakkuk’s mind; he knew that the righteous were righteous—and, yet, they were being punished by the unrighteous. This deuteronomic paradox forced Habakkuk to cry out to YHWH: “How long, YHWH, will I call out and you will not listen? Or when I shout to you ‘Violence!’ and you do not save?” (1:2). Habakkuk expects a message from YHWH precisely because he knows that he is righteous. His contemporary, Jeremiah, likewise reiterated this fact: “When these people, or a prophet or a priest, ask you, ‘What is the message[11] from the LORD?’ say to them, ‘What message? I will forsake you, declares the LORD’” (23:33 NIV). Habakkuk had received a “message” and knew that, for whatever reason, he was not yet forsaken by YHWH. In the same vein, Job would cry out:

               הֵ֤ן אֶצְעַ֣ק חָ֭מָס וְלֹ֣א אֵעָנֶ֑ה אֲ֝שַׁוַּ֗ע וְאֵ֣ין מִשְׁפָּֽט

“Though I cry out ‘Violence!’ I get no reply; I cry out for help and there is no justice.”

Virtually the same language is used in both verses. Habakkuk cries חָמָ֖ס (“violence”) and so does Job; Habakkuk later (1:4) sees this as an attack on מִשְׁפָּ֑ט (“justice”) as does Job.[12] Job, it is presumed, was a righteous man.[13] Like Habakkuk, he too could not understand why YHWH would allow such a thing. How could it be that righteous men of YHWH could not get a response from YHWH?

Habakkuk was surely confused: isn’t YHWH too holy to behold any atrocities being committed against the righteous? “Why do you make me look at wickedness and trouble? Why do you make me gaze at death and at the violence before me? A dispute and a quarreling go up (to you)…” (1:3). Surely, YHWH was aware that “dispute and quarreling” were “going up” (i.e., being witnessed) by him. Habakkuk then calls to YHWH’s mind his own torah (“teachings”): “Therefore, the torah is paralyzed. Will justice never prevail? For the wicked siege the righteous; on this account, justice is perverted” (1:4). Habakkuk is directing his anger at YHWH, using his own torah, “Your very own laws, YHWH, are now paralyzed. They are no more. They are ineffective. You who defined yourself as just[14] have let justice fail. Justice has been perverted!” In what seems to be a statement vis-a-vis Deuteronomy 32:4, Habakkuk exclaims: “(Your) eyes are too pure to look at evil—they cannot gaze at trouble. Why, then, do you gaze at those who deal treacherously? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous (צַדִּ֥יק) than him?” (1:13).  The YHWH who defined himself as being “righteous” (צַדִּ֥יק) in Deut. 32:4 has allowed those who are like him to perish.

Out of this “doom and gloom,” in contrast to the “health and wealth gospel” of Habakkuk’s day, YHWH revealed something entirely new. “Behold,” YHWH tells Habakkuk, “I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe (לֹ֥א תַאֲמִ֖ינוּ) even if you were told” (1:5). The root for “believe” being used here is אָמַן. (It is the same root word that is being used to describe the “righteous” in Habakkuk 2:4.) What YHWH tells Habakkuk shocks him. YHWH is the very one who is raising up the Babylonians (1:6). For what is he raising them up? To execute justice? We are never told. All that Habakkuk gets in reply is this: “Behold! The soul of the unrighteous is puffed up in him; but the righteous will live by faithfulness (בֶּאֱמוּנָתֹ֥ו) in it (i.e., the vision/revelation of YHWH)” (2:4). Habakkuk was given a חָזֹ֔ון (“vision,” “revelation”) and YHWH expects Habakkuk to simply place his faith in it.

While it is true that an explicit answer is never given to Habakkuk as to what exactly YHWH would be doing that people would “not believe,” there are some clues in the text that may suggest a slightly different version of events. Some scholars argue that the answer to Habakkuk’s critiques lies in the fact that the first part of the book is addressing internal problems, while later passages address external (i.e., Babylon) problems. Because Habakkuk uses such words as חָמָ֖ס (“violence”), אָ֨וֶן֙ וְעָמָ֣ל (“iniquity and trouble”), and שֹׁ֥ד (“death” or “pillage”), some think that this indicates “native oppression and not a foreign invader.”[15] In other words, it may be that the “revelation” which Habakkuk is receiving from YHWH is that YHWH will destroy internal evil, within the gates of Jerusalem, by the hands of external—and more evil—Babylonians. Even if this may be the case, the problem still remains for Habakkuk: will YHWH punish the righteous along with the wicked? And even if justice will come, how long must one wait for that to happen?

In the most critical time of his life, Habakkuk was told by YHWH what would come to pass. Against all expectations, Habakkuk received what appears to be a “non-answer answer”: simply put faith in my revelation. Later on in the book, Habakkuk reminds YHWH of his previous deeds and actions. He wants YHWH to act as he had acted in the past. “YHWH, I have heard of your fame, I have feared your deeds; make them come to life in our day…” (3:2a). He is attempting one last try, one last argument he is offering YHWH. This one is an argument of old; it was used so many times, YHWH was probably tired of hearing it. “Do what you have done in the past,” begs Habakkuk, “Please!” The author of Psalm 44:2 used a similar technique:

                        אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ בְּאָזְנֵ֬ינוּ שָׁמַ֗עְנוּ אֲבֹותֵ֥ינוּ סִפְּרוּ־לָ֑נוּ פֹּ֥עַל פָּעַ֥לְתָּ בִֽ֝ימֵיהֶ֗ם בִּ֣ימֵי קֶֽדֶם

“Oh God, with our ears we have heard, and our fathers have recounted to us deeds which you have done in their days, in the days of old.”

The ability to remind YHWH of his previous actions was founded on the assumption that YHWH was “reliable.” He was, as Deut. 32:4 put it, אֱמוּנָה֙. Anything that was not אֱמוּנָה֙ was not constant nor reliable. It is precisely because of this that Jeremiah likewise could say (15:18):

                        תִֽהְיֶ֥ה לִי֙ כְּמֹ֣ו אַכְזָ֔ב מַ֖יִם לֹ֥א נֶאֱמָֽנוּ

“Will you be to me like deceptive waters that are not reliable?”

The word for “unreliable” is the same root (and derivatives) we have seen being used before; it is the Niphal stem of the root אָמַן. In this particular case, the waters are not “reliable” in the sense that they are not “continual” or “lasting.” The expectation is that the spring or creek would have water whenever one would approach it; for Jeremiah, it is this “un-lastingness” that makes the waters “unreliable”—at one time there’s water, at another there isn’t. Like Jeremiah and the Psalmist, Habakkuk expects YHWH to be reliable (אֱמוּנָה֙). A derivative of this root אָמַן is the noun/adverb אֱמֶת, which basically translates as “true” or “trustworthy.” In Psalm 119:43, the Psalmist exclaims:

                        אַל־תַּצֵּ֬ל מִפִּ֣י דְבַר־אֱמֶ֣ת עַד־מְאֹ֑ד כִּ֖י לְמִשְׁפָּטֶָ֣ יִחָֽלְתִּי

“Do not utterly take/rescue from my mouth the word of truth, for in your judgments I have hoped.”

When the Psalmist uses this particular word, he “celebrates Yahweh’s torah and commandments as [אֱמֶת]…he does not just mean that they are true as opposed to false, but that they also have the character of being trustworthy and reliable for people to base their lives on.”[16] To be a trustworthy God is to be אֱמֶת. In fact, this particular derivative of אֱמוּנָה֙ is used in reference to God quite often. One can see the use of this word in one of the most divine statements in all of Scripture, Exodus 34:5-7, where God himself reveals his character and describes himself as וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת (“abounding in love and faithfulness”). To fully appreciate the moral uprightness of this word, one can look at its synonyms and antonyms, as found in the Hebrew Bible. The word is used in conjunction with חֶ֫סֶד (“covenantal faithfulness,” “love”), as was seen in the Exodus passage cited, צֶ֫דֶק (“righteousness”), and מִשְׁפָּט (“judgment,” “justice”) [e.g., Jer. 4:2, Ps. 15:2]. Its Hiphil form appears in parallelism with another Hebrew word בָּטַח (“trust”) [Micah 7:5]. The word is contrasted with שֶׁ֫קֶר (“lie,” “deception”) in Proverbs 12:22. The word אֱמוּנָה֙ (and its derivative noun אֱמֶת) has quite a moral character in the Hebrew Bible! It is no wonder, then, that Habakkuk could place such great faith in YHWH. If YHWH is the opposite of “deception,” if YHWH is equated with “reliability” and “steadfast love,” how could he allow a righteous person’s prayer go unheard? “Israel assigns to (or recognizes in) Yahweh elements of constancy and substance that make Yahweh in some ways knowable and available to Israel.”[17] And, yet, the strange thing about Habakkuk’s message is that YHWH does not really work in a way that seems, at least to Habakkuk, consistent with his character. In the words of the Psalmist, the deeds that YHWH had done were done (past tense) “in the days of old.” And that, precisely, is where they remained.

Habakkuk is no different than any one of us today. We are, to be blunt, all in the same boat. The fact that Pentecostals pray all day long, exceeding the volume of a rock concert, virtually does nothing to the way things really are. Even the good people are still falling prey to cancer at age thirty, dying in car accidents committed by drunk fools, or simply losing their jobs to more ruthlessly conniving individuals. The “faithful” people today still see the loud mouth, die-hard atheists using their vocal cords to cast curses upon YHWH. Just as in Habakkuk’s time, we still have our deuteronomic theologies—though they go by fancy names like “health and wealth gospel” or “success theology”—which teach people that, if one follows God, one will inherit the pearls of the Kingdom right here and right now. We still have our Joel Osteens, Joyce Meyers, Benny Hinns, regurgitating a worn-out theology; a theology of mere cut-and-dried retribution. Whether we like it or not, this sort of thinking was accepted by Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Moses, and a thousand others. It is the initial theology of all school children. But then we all grow up. Like Ecclesiastes, we shed our teenage mentality and we see that “things are not so.” Maybe along with his version of the categorical imperative—אַל־תְּהִ֤י צַדִּיק֙ הַרְבֵּ֔ה (“Do not be righteous too much!” [7:16])—we, too, will find rest in knowing that, no matter what you do, you will suffer. You can be good or bad, fat or thin, American or Russian, white or black, believer or atheist, you will still probably get cancer at some point in your life, and you may, or may not, live to see your grandchildren. One could relate to a lament made by people within Zephaniah’s time, a contemporary of Habakkuk’s, who had the audacity to say that YHWH “does neither good nor evil” (1:12). Von Rad makes the following remark about Zephaniah’s contemporaries, “[T]hese were no atheists, but they no longer reckoned with divine action in the present day; and when the storm broke, and the Southern Kingdom suffered the same fate as had the Northern, and saw its upper class deported to Babylon [in 586/7 BC], the question of Jahweh’s relationship to his people became completely uncertain.”[18] In Habakkuk’s time, deuteronomic theology became a theology of paradox—it could not even stand on its own two feet. And when the Babylonian captivity took place, after Habakkuk’s time, it completely fell beneath the weight of human experience. As I’ve stated earlier, even in the time of severe personal crisis and doubt, YHWH gave Habakkuk no real answer. “[T]he answer to the question why there should be such great and mysterious suffering is so remarkably veiled and obscure that it makes one feel as if Jahweh were retreating before the question, and withdrawing into ever deeper seclusion.”[19]

Habakkuk’s three-chapter book is one long sustained argument with YHWH, with a number of interjections made by YHWH. The prophet attempts to get YHWH to recognize that justice must be served at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner. YHWH responds by making Habakkuk aware of, what appears to be, an uncertainty principle. Habakkuk is to trust that YHWH is, essentially, in control. All one has to do is trust in YHWH despite any given circumstances. No longer must one judge oneself as good or bad in relation to what one has or does not have. YHWH is not really about rewarding the righteous people, after all—at least not on planet earth. The methods Habakkuk uses to argue with YHWH are standard Old Testament methods that sometimes work (Moses and the Children of Israel in Exodus 32) and sometimes do not (Abraham and Sodom in Genesis18-19). We can plead with YHWH all we want, but Habakkuk is right, “the righteous will live by placing their faith in YHWH’s vision.” In the end, YHWH wins and you lose. You can either be on YHWH’s side or you can hold a sustained argument against YHWH, but it will be faith that gets you through on either side. As Paul once remarked, “Everything not done in faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). To argue or not to argue, to use Kierkegaardian language, “you will regret both.”


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev



Translation and Textual Notes

עַד־אָ֧נָה יְהוָ֛ה שִׁוַּ֖עְתִּי וְלֹ֣א תִשְׁמָ֑ע אֶזְעַ֥ק אֵלֶ֛יךָ חָמָ֖ס וְלֹ֥א תֹושִֽׁיעַ׃

לָ֣מָּה תַרְאֵ֤נִי אָ֨וֶן֙ וְעָמָ֣ל תַּבִּ֔יט וְשֹׁ֥ד וְחָמָ֖ס לְנֶגְדִּ֑י וַיְהִ֧י רִ֦יב וּמָדֹ֖ון יִשָּֽׂא׃

עַל־כֵּן֙ תָּפ֣וּג תֹּורָ֔ה וְלֹֽא־יֵצֵ֥א לָנֶ֖צַח מִשְׁפָּ֑ט כִּ֤י רָשָׁע֙ מַכְתִּ֣יר אֶת־הַצַּדִּ֔יק עַל־כֵּ֛ן יֵצֵ֥א מִשְׁפָּ֖ט


טְהֹ֤ור עֵינַ֨יִם֙ מֵרְאֹ֣ות רָ֔ע וְהַבִּ֥יט אֶל־עָמָ֖ל לֹ֣א תוּכָ֑ל לָ֤מָּה תַבִּיט֙ בֹּֽוגְדִ֔ים תַּחֲרִ֕ישׁ בְּבַלַּ֥ע רָשָׁ֖ע

צַדִּ֥יק מִמֶּֽנּוּ

הִנֵּ֣ה עֻפְּלָ֔ה[20] לֹא־יָשְׁרָ֥ה נַפְשֹׁ֖ו בֹּ֑ו וְצַדִּ֖יק בֶּאֱמוּנָתֹ֥ו יִחְיֶֽה

יְהוָ֗ה שָׁמַ֣עְתִּי שִׁמְעֲךָ֮ יָרֵאתִי֒ יְהוָ֗ה פָּֽעָלְךָ֙ בְּקֶ֤רֶב שָׁנִים֙ חַיֵּ֔יהוּ

How long, YHWH, will I call out and you will not listen? Or when I shout to you ‘Violence!’ and you do not save?

Why do you make me look at wickedness and trouble? Why do you make me gaze at death and at the violence before me? A dispute and a quarreling go up (to you)…

Therefore, the torah is paralyzed. Will justice never prevail? For the wicked siege the righteous; on this account, justice is perverted.

(Your) eyes are too pure to look at evil—they cannot gaze at trouble. Why, then, do you gaze at those who deal treacherously? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than him?

Behold! The soul of the unrighteous is puffed up in him; but the righteous will live by faithfulness in it (i.e., the vision/revelation of YHWH).

YHWH, I have heard of your fame, I have feared your deeds; make them come to life in our day…

(Habakkuk 1:2-4, 13; 2:4, 3:2a)


Bibliography and Works Cited

Anderson, Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975.

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Goldingay, John. Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life. Vol. 3. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009.

Janzen, J. Gerald. Habakkuk 2:2-4 in the Light of Recent Philological Advances. Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 1-2. (January 1, 1980).

Moberly, R. W. L. “אָמַן,“ in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Ed. Willem A. von Gemeren. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.

Rad, Gerhard von. Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israels Prophetic Traditions. Trans. D. M. G. Stalker. Vol. 2. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Ward, William Hayes. “A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Habakkuk,” in The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Eds. C. A. Briggs, S. R. Driver, and Alfred Plummer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911.



[1] Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975), 348-349.

[2] Ibid., 349.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 362.

[5] Ibid., 363.

[6] Ibid., 362-364.

[7] Ibid., 363.

[8] Ibid., 360.

[9] Ibid., 364.

[10] Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions, trans. D. M. G. Stalker, vol. 2. (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 263.

[11] The word for “message” here is מַשָּׂ֖א. This is the same word which is used to introduce Habakkuk’s prophecy (1:1); it is a מַשָּׂ֖א (“message,” “pronouncement,” or “revelation”).

[12] Another interesting parallel is that both use the same word for “crying out,” צָעַק.

[13] Though the technical word for “the righteous” (הַצַּדִּ֔יק) is not used in relation to Job, similar adjectives are applied to him. He is called “pure and upright, fearing God” (תָּ֧ם וְיָשָׁ֛ר וִירֵ֥א אֱלֹהִ֖ים).

[14] Deut. 32:4 defines YHWH’s actions as “all just”: הַצּוּר֙ תָּמִ֣ים פָּעֳלֹ֔ו כִּ֥י כָל־דְּרָכָ֖יו מִשְׁפָּ֑ט אֵ֤ל אֱמוּנָה֙ וְאֵ֣ין עָ֔וֶל צַדִּ֥יק ויָשָׁ֖ר הֽוּא. YHWH is called “pure” (תָּמִ֣ים), “just” (מִשְׁפָּ֑ט), “faithful” (אֱמוּנָה֙) and “righteous” (צַדִּ֥יק).

[15] William Hayes Ward, “A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Habakkuk,” in The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, eds. C. A. Briggs, S. R. Driver, and Alfred Plummer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911), 4. For a similar line of argument, see John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, vol. 3 (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 786-792.

[16] R. W. L. Moberly, “אָמַן,“ in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. von Gemeren, vol. 1. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 428.

[17] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 229.

[18] Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 263.

[19] Ibid., 267.

[20] The Pual imperfect 3rd person feminine singular verb עֻפְּלָ֔ה (“she/it is puffed up, proud”) has been taken to be, by some, as corrupted. Janzen offers the suggestion that it be reconstructed to a noun to read עָצֵ֑ל (“sluggard”). I do not think that such a change would greatly impact my reading of the text, which is why I have not bothered to emend the Masoretic Text. See J. Gerald Janzen, Habakkuk 2:2-4 in the Light of Recent Philological Advances, Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 1-2 (January 1, 1980): 67-70. Numerous other, somewhat ingenious, emendations have been proposed by virtually any scholar who knows Hebrew, for those guesses, I refer the reader to any critical commentary on Habakkuk. As a rule, for every scholar there is an idiosyncratic emendation.

May 6, 2014

Existence, Existing, and the Philosophy of Being: What Does It Mean “To Be”?

People use various verbs for expressing “being” in the English language. The tree is. The man was. The boys are. I have been. I am being. You were. We all seem to know intuitively what it means for something to be, for something to exist. We look at a black cup sitting on the table and we assume it is a black cup. But, really, what does is mean in that sentence? Anybody who knows a little bit about the way light functions will tell you that the color black is the color being reflected; it is the color which is not absorbed by the object itself. The cup that “is” black is actually everything but black. The cup is not black. It appears black. There is no black cup sitting on the table. What you really have is an object which appears to take the form of a cup, reflecting only black light waves. These light waves hit our retina and give us the illusion that the cup is black. (But we all really mean that the cup is not black.) Confusing? Very.

The problem which any good philosopher should notice is the problem of circular reasoning. We define the verb “is” while referring to it with another “is”; that is, we are trying to pull ourselves out of the mire by our own hair. We attempt to define “is” while using the verb in the attempted definition itself. It’s like defining the color white by calling it, well, white. In other words, we are not really doing anything. We are not really saying anything about the verb “is.” This is known as the Münchhausen trilemma. I’ve made the claim that, “The cup that ‘is’ black is actually everything but black.” In making this statement, within a context where I am trying to define “is,” I am using the very verb I am trying to define. That’s circular.

So what does it really mean for something “to exist”? What does “is” really mean? Is it possible to define the verb “is” without referring to itself in its own definition? Can we ever escape making self-referential statements when discussing the philosophy of being?

The greatest mathematician and logician since Euclid and Bertrand Russell was surely Kurt Gödel. (And, if it really means anything to you, I am not a mathematician; I can only evaluate his logic, reasoning, and philosophy with any kind of “authority.”)  Gödel’s greatest contribution to logic and philosophy was his proof of the impossibility of proof for certain things. He argued, as I understand him, that all logical systems (even Russell’s mathematical-logical philosophy) were inherently flawed: all these systems which appeared “closed” actually had loop holes; they had the problem of self-reference. Any given system which would set out to prove something would either vacuously become self-referential, at some distant point, or would simply be grounded in an unprovable axiom itself. For example, similar to the Liar’s Paradox (where the sentence philosopher’s deal with reads: “This sentence is false” [if the sentence is true, then it is false; however, if the sentence is false, then it is true]), Gödel came up with the following observation, sometimes called the “Gödel sentence”: G is not provable in the theory T. If you try to prove a particular truth within a system that presupposes the existence of that particular truth, the system becomes complete and, therefore, it becomes unprovable. (And, one could add, self-referential.) For example, if I make the following statement, “This statement is unprovable,” how could one go about “proving” its validity? It’s self-referential (and, therefore, incomplete). It refers back to its own truth, being inherently grounded in the presupposition of its own truth. In his 1931 article “On Formally Undecidable Propositions of ‘Principia Mathematica’ and Related Systems” he essentially demonstrated two things:

(1) If the system is consistent, it cannot be complete

(2) The consistency of the axioms cannot be proven within the system

Is it possible to apply Gödel’s logic to the philosophy of existence? While one may find x or y statement as misconstrued or based on misunderstanding, the point here is not, ultimately, whether this is what Gödel meant or talked about; the point is this: we run into the issue of provability/demonstrability even in language and in our dealing with a definition of the verb “to be.” I am arguing that a similar problem is occurring even here. We attempt to talk about the verb “to be” in English while referring to itself. We attempt to make progress while no such progress is really being made. I attempt to “criticize” the verb “is” while using “is.”

If I doubt the meaning of “is,” why am I using “is” to talk about “is”?

Imagine a situation in mathematics. Your mathematics professor attempts to demonstrate what the plus sign (+) means in math. He begins by using the very sign itself to identify the plus sign. Surely students would find such “defining moments” (pun intended) as quite useless.

So where do we go from here? Is existence going to remain elusive forever? I’m not sure we will find an answer, but I can say one thing: Søren Kierkegaard has attempted to offer us an answer in his philosophical magnum opus: Concluding Unscientific Postscript. 

Kierkegaard makes a very strange argument for helping us understand what it means for a human being to exist. He observes casually that existence is really, in the here-and-now, a becoming. “Since the existing subject is existing (and that is the lot of every human being, except the objective ones, who have pure being to be in), he is indeed in the process of becoming.” Kierkegaard is saying one thing here: existence, as we know it, or think of it, is not really a thing to be grasped but only partially understood. Existence is a becoming. In this imperfect world, we really don’t exist. We are not anything definite, concrete, unchanging, set in stone, etc. We are always becoming something else, physically and emotionally. Our atoms are constantly rearranging themselves; our bones are constantly remineralizing; our thoughts and actions are always becoming something. We are already-and-not-yet, to use a theological term.

Furthermore, Kierkegaard writes:

“Every subject is an existing subject, and therefore this must be essentially expressed in all of his knowing and must be expressed by keeping his knowing from an illusory termination in sensate certainty, in historical knowledge, in illusory results…In historical knowledge, he comes to know much about about the world, nothing about himself; he is continually moving in the sphere of approximation-knowledge, while with his presumed positivity he fancies himself to have a certainty that can be had only in infinitude, in which, however, he cannot be as an existing person but at which he is continually arriving. Nothing historical can become infinitely certain to me except this: that I exist…”

What Kierkegaard is getting at is the fact that existence involves certainty. However, in this world we don’t have certainty. If one documents even such things as the atomic weight of gold or uranium, and if one documents all their properties, all such properties are continually open to change. The gold can rust. The uranium can decay. They, too, are in a state of becoming. But Kierkegaard isn’t through just yet. The problem isn’t just the issue of existence; we have another problem too: the problem of infinity. In order for something to be certain – that is, static and unchanging – it must be eternal. In order for something to exist, to really exist, it must be unchanging and eternal. It must simply be. Kierkegaard is certain that our idea of existence originates with God. We have this notion of things that are. But we also know that the things which are are continually changing. This brings us to the problem of the “Ship of Theuseus.” If a ship has had all of its parts replaced over a number of years, is it still the same ship? Likewise, if a human being is continually changing, is our calling him “Peter” warranted throughout all the changes? People go through physical and emotional changes all the time. Are they different people? If so, do they exist? I mean, at which point do we say that Peter, who is always changing, moment to moment, is really “Peter”? I mean, if he’s “Peter” right now, but two seconds later he is in some ways different, is he still “Peter”? Does “Peter” even exist? Kierkegaard is arguing that the idea of being is essentially proof of infinity, certitude, and, because of this, proof of God.

If one is not having a sense of awe at this moment, one should simply go read something else.

“To be continually in the process of becoming in this way is the illusiveness of the infinite in existence. It could bring a sensate person to despair, for one continually feels an urge to have something finished…”

In our very notions of existence and being, we find “the illusiveness of the infinite.” The problem with humanity is that it is stuck in this limbo. We are stuck in the stage between mortality and immortality, temporality and infinity. We are here because God is there. We do not exist because God does exist.

I think our ideas of being and existence are inherently tied, as Kierkegaard points out, to the existence of that Ultimate Mind, which most of us call “God.” Not only is existence tied to God: it is God. “To be” is to be God.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Soli Deo gloria 

The Søren Kierkegaard You Never Knew: Unscientific Philosophical Fragments on “Love’s Hidden Life” in Works of Love

Works of Love is, perhaps, the greatest single piece of literature written in the history of humankind. Astonishingly, it has been greatly ignored by philosophers, laymen, and theologians alike. Unlike its predecessors, Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, or The Sickness Unto Death, Works of Love has largely remained unknown in the Western world. In an attempt to introduce my parents to this masterpiece, I discovered that the Russians had not even bothered to produce a translation to this very day! Reading recent reviews written by modern readers—a bare dozen or so—I recognized in their writings precisely how I felt about the book: mesmerized and changed. Most reviewers were both disturbed by the fact that such a life-altering book could have been given a cold shoulder, lasting a swiftly-approaching two centuries. I, too, could subjectively relate to that experience; I wanted to share my love for this work with someone—anyone—but there were none to be found. It is out of this frustration that I write; my presuppositions and inevitable biases are self-evident. I will mostly engage with the book’s profound first twelve pages (in the Hongs’ English translation). My purpose is modest: to briefly summarize Kierkegaard’s thoughts and provide some of my own unscientific remarks.

Kierkegaard begins his masterpiece by (re)introducing his reader—“that single individual”—to a well-known verse out of Luke’s Gospel: “Every tree is known by its own fruit, for figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush” (6:44). Immediately he launches an attack on all reductionist empirical physicalism: If “we should believe nothing that we cannot see with our physical eyes, then we first and foremost ought to give up believing in love.”[1] He wants nothing to do with naturalistic approaches to reality; he slams his book shut in the face of all such readers. If one is to proceed reading his book on love, one must first begin by assuming the critical[2] position that reality as we know it with our empirical senses should be doubted. This is not all there is to life as we know it. Kierkegaard clearly sees love as something that falls, in some mysterious way, out of the ordinary—it is not to be entirely reduced to physical processes which can be observed with the human eye and mind. This point must be pressed if modern readers, who are almost always grounded in scientific naturalistic approaches to anything and everything, are to understand where Kierkegaard stands on this issue—he would have atomically blasted the likes of Helen Fisher’s Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love[3] out of its turbid waters, no questions asked. Kierkegaard sees those who reduce everything to atoms as incapable of robustly understanding and subjectively embracing love. For such people, love is an “eternal loss, for which there is no compensation…”[4] Those who live such lives are ultimately “deceived.”[5]

Modern readers may find this anti-physicalism to be something which inherently makes Kierkegaard’s conception of love wrong-headed. Is not science the greatest asset humanity has had, well, in a long time? But Kierkegaard is very careful with what he chooses to say and what he does not. He foresees that his approach presupposes the existence of God and that Love is to be ontologically grounded in God. “[A] human being’s love originates mysteriously in God’s love.”[6] Love, which is in God, is the source which fuels all other so-called loves. Kierkegaard makes some further axiomatic statements: Love “connects the temporal and eternity” and is, therefore, “before everything and remains after everything is gone.”[7] Simply put: love is eternal. Why, then, cannot empirical physicalists (or, materialists, if you will) actually really love? Kierkegaard believes that because love is eternal—and since the eternal is what the physicalist disbelieves—he or she has “an enormous relief to cast off this bond of eternity.”[8] The physicalist, in his rejection of the supra-natural eternal, is, by inference, rejecting true love. Christian love, Kierkegaard argues, which is to be identified as the true form of love, has nothing to do with those aesthetic poets. Christian love is eternal and, therefore, never perishes. The poets write about a love which blossoms—if something blossoms, it must die. “What the poet sings about must have the sadness, which is the riddle of his own life, that it must blossom—and, alas, must perish.”[9] In a paradoxical way, in denying true Christian eternal love, the physicalist, who rejects eternity, is stuck recycling “blossoming love” in an ever-increasing state of “sadness”—while he rejects suffering and sorrow, he still ends up wallowing in it! (In this perfect example, one can paraphrase with Kierkegaard, “Do it or do not do it—you will regret both.”)[10] Granted, some of us may disagree with Kierkegaard, but that is all beside the point. (For atheist and theist alike can benefit from his through analyses of love.) However, Kierkegaard does consider these presuppositions important—despite what one ultimately chooses to do with them.

In several tightly-packed sentences, Kierkegaard comments, regarding the physicalist who gave up on love, “That he ‘has seized to sorrow’ we shall not deny, but of what benefit is that when it would be to his salvation to begin in earnest sorrow over himself!”[11] This sentence, if superficially skimmed over, can lead to disastrous results. Kierkegaard is clearly and concisely stating that love is equivalent to sorrow. This observation of his is not to be missed; it is one of the key marks of Christian love. Kierkegaard is here identifying for the readers what the physicalist knew all along: to love someone truly is to suffer, to have sorrow. But from whence did such an idea arise? Kierkegaard, as many already know, was a devout Christian, a reader of the Gospels. And in the Gospels, Kierkegaard saw what it cost God to love the world. He saw what it meant to lay a life down for somebody else. Somebody effectively unworthy. Kierkegaard instinctively knew the price one had to pay to really love. Love has an inverse relationship with power and control: those who have more power and control usually have less love; those who love most have the least amount of influence and power in a relationship. And where exactly does one find such a self-less love?

Kierkegaard insists that “Every tree is known by its own fruit.” He wants the readers to realize the importance of loving intentions, amplified by sound waves used to carry loving words, which result in loving actions. Herein lies the secret to Works of Love. In a similar vein, probably inspired by Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, and I will quote him at length:

“There is an old argument about whether only the will, the act of the mind, the person, can be good, or whether achievement, work, consequence, or condition can be called good as well—and if so, which comes first and which is more important. This argument, which has also seeped into theology, leading there as elsewhere to serious aberrations, proceeds from a basically perverse way of putting the question. It tears apart what is originally and essentially one, namely, the good and the real, the person and the work. The objection that Jesus, too, had this distinction between person and work in mind, when he spoke about the good tree that brings forth good fruits, distorts this saying of Jesus into its exact opposite. Its meaning is not that first the person is good and then the work, but that only the two together, only both as united in one, are to be understood as good or bad.”[12]

Like Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard is not entirely a Kantian deontologist, neither is he a J. S. Mill consequentialist/utilitarian; he is both. He refuses to dichotomize and pit one against the other. He refuses to call “love” that which results in evil. He refuses to call “love” that which is done out of evil, which happens to result in what appears to be a loving action. He refuses to take that step. He sees love as both being done out of a loving heart (deontological approach), spoken with loving words, resulting in loving actions (consequentialist approach). That, for him, is love par excellence. “Every tree is known by its own fruit.” Love must produce fruit; it must result in what is perceived to be a loving action. Kierkegaard, ever the skeptic, rightly delves into the subjectivity (or, inter-subjectivity) of love. What if one is deceived by someone into thinking the fruit is “love” when it is not? What if someone is self-deceived into thinking the fruit is “love” when it is not? How does one know what is love? Do not all of our subjective worldviews come into play? Kierkegaard is completely aware of such subjective elements. It happens “when a person makes the mistake of calling something love that actually is self-love, when he loudly protests that he cannot live without the beloved but does not want to hear anything about the task and requirement of love to deny oneself and to give up this self-love of erotic love.”[13] “Can love be reduced to a particular phrase or word?” Kierkegaard asks. “Words and phrases and the inventions of language may be a mark of love, but that is uncertain.”[14] He continues: “In one person’s mouth the same words can be so full of substance, so trustworthy, and in another person’s mouth they can be like vague whispering of leaves [with no fruit found on the tree].”[15] He believes in speaking loving words, but he is aware of two things: (1) the subjectivity of understanding the spoken and (2) the inability of any human to reduce love to a single word. Kierkegaard asserts that “you should not for that reason hold back your words,” for “ whoever is an object of your love has a claim upon an expression of it also in words…”[16] Kierkegaard sees duty-based (i.e., deontological) ethics at work here. He believes that if one is so moved inwardly to love somebody else, one is bound to express verbally his or her feelings. The object of your affection already has a deontological claim upon your words. What if love results in nothing but Taylor Swift’s lyrics? What if love is nothing but a love song, a poem, a whispered verse from Shakespeare in the ear of the beloved? What if love is only a word? “[I]mmature and deceitful love is known by this, that words and platitudes are its only fruit.”[17] Kierkegaard outright rejects any so-called Taylor Swift approach towards love, which is grounded in nothing but temporal sensuality, obsession with sex, and objectification of the “other-self.” Such verbalizations and erratic gesticulations are nothing but the bastard child of the whore, self-love.

“There is no word in human language, not one single one, not the most sacred one, about which we are able to say: If a person uses this word, it is unconditionally demonstrated that there is love in that person. On the contrary, it is even true that a word from one person can convince us that there is love in him, and the opposite word from another can convince us that there is love in him also.”[18]

Earlier, Kierkegaard remarked that love is “invisible” and that it must simply be “believed” in.[19] Precisely because of its “invisibility,” love cannot be reduced to a particular word or even action. When dealing with the question of reducing love to a particular work, Kierkegaard states that everything “depends on how the work is done.”[20] He rejects the idea that love can be reduced to one, single work.

“[E]ven in charity, visiting the widow, and clothing the naked do not truly demonstrate or make known a person’s love, inasmuch as one can do works of love in an unloving, yes, even in a self-loving way, and if this is so the work of love is no work of love at all.”[21]

Here, precisely, those who ignorantly accuse Kierkegaard of a pietistic works-righteousness approach fail miserably. For Kierkegaard does not believe that works in and of themselves are “good”; they must be done with right intentions, gracefully reflecting the “Initial Love,” which flows eternally from God Himself. Moreover, those who want to accuse Kierkegaard of strict consequentialism or Utilitarianism also fail miserably: no such thing is present in any absolute form here. No, what is of utmost importance is: “How, then, the word is said and above all how it is meant, how, then, the work is done—this is decisive in determining and in recognizing love by its fruits.”[22]

The question then arises: What if somebody’s love is not recognized as such? What if, in loving somebody else, that certain somebody misunderstands me and my actions, and takes them to mean something other than love? Kierkegaard believes that such a person must not “work so that love will be known by the fruits but to work so that it could be known by the fruits.”[23] He is not saying that your love, as such, will be recognized; he is saying that it could be recognized. This is not an imperative to make love known to the other; this is, rather, a statement in the subjunctive: works of love must be done in such a way that they might bring about works which are interpreted to have been done in love. There is no guarantee that such works will be labeled “love.” There is uncertainty here.

What if somebody reads the Gospels and then starts judging how much others love, is that appropriate? Kierkegaard responds with a resounding “No!” For “the one who is busily occupied tracking down hypocrites, whether he succeeds or not, had better see to it that this is not also a hypocrisy, inasmuch as such discoveries are hardly the fruits of love.”[24] In judging others, we are judging ourselves. The Gospel is not a weapon to be used against others; rather, it is a mirror in which one examines oneself.

We are, finally, back to where we initially started. “The first point developed in this discourse was that we must believe in love—otherwise we simply will not notice that it exists…”[25] Here, Kierkegaard insists that only the believers see love; only those seeing love believe.

“Therefore the last, the most blessed, the unconditionally convincing mark of love remains—love itself, the love that becomes known and recognized by the love in another. Like is known only by like; only someone who abides in love can know love, and in the same way his love is to be known.”[26]

Kierkegaard is insisting that love requires the acceptance of this axiomatic statement: believe that love exists. For only in believing that it exists will it actually spring into existence.

To conclude this somewhat lengthy look at only a few pages of the text, I would like to briefly reflect on the overall impression this particular chapter made on me. I am thoroughly convinced that Kierkegaard is right in arguing immediately that love is subjective. That does not mean that love is not absolute. It is absolute, and has its grounding in an objective God. However, love is subjective in the sense that we can all be hearing the same thing from a particular person and only one of us may react in a loving reciprocal manner. That is, only one may actually subjectively feel love being conveyed. Romeo may objectively be verbalizing feelings of love—feelings which none of us could subjectively relate to. An objective event may be taking place (in fact, it is) but not all of us have subjective access to that objective reality. We all know that Romeo directed his loving words, carried on sound waves, to one person and one person only: Juliet. While those sound waves could have been recorded and examined objectively by a team of empirical scientists, love would never be conveyed in their thorough analysis. Not a single scientist would fall in love with Romeo. Not a single scientist would intuitively and subjectively know and experience the love contained in those words. In this sense—in this thoroughly Kierkegaardian approach—the love which is ejected from the innermost part of a human being is specifically directed, like a beam of light, at a particular person in a particular moment. Apart from all of these tautological statements (e.g., statements such as “loving is believing, believing is loving”), at least that is how some may view them, Kierkegaard correctly observes that, paradoxically, love begins with belief. One begins by believing in love—one presupposes that love exists in the other human being. Once love is presupposed in the other, then love is experienced by the one presupposing. “Like is known only by like.” If you want to see love in another human being, first believe that he or she is loving. If you want to receive love from another human being, first believe that he or she is capable of loving you. In such a way, love is an act of faith. If there is one thing Kierkegaard wants you to walk away with from reading the first chapter, it is this: believe in love. Apart from belief, there is nothing but poetic “sadness.” If you want to remain stuck in a never-ending cycle of self-love and a refusal to really love, then you can feed on the “blossoms” of temporal “love.” As for me and my household, we are taking a leap of faith.

Works of Love goes on to develop other ideas about love. Kierkegaard deals with self-love and its inherent problems, the categorical imperative and the “You shall love” command, the problem with preferential love (such as erotic love and friendship), the importance in distinguishing between true “others” and the “other-self,” etc. He does all of this in merely the first few chapters of the work. If you enjoyed this paper, please go out, do yourself a favor, and buy a copy. Read it.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev


Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6. Trans. by Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

Fisher, Helen. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love: Some Christian Deliberations in the Form of Discourses. Kierkegaard’s Writings XVI. Trans. and Ed. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/Or. Trans. by David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Küng, Hans. On Being a Christian. Trans. by Edward Quinn. Garden City: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1976.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love: Some Christian Deliberations in the Form of Discourses, Kierkegaard’s Writings XVI, trans. and ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 5.

[2] Hans Küng correctly observed that naturalistic approaches, which deny any other reality other than that which could be perceived by the senses empirically, are essentially not critical enough. In an ironic manner, they deceptively believe and accept all that which the senses receive. On the other hand, the theist, generally speaking, believes in the possibility of another reality; this implies that the theist is more critical and, therefore, more doubtful—he is more willing to criticize and scrutinize the empirical data (something which the uncritical naturalist simply cannot a priori allow himself to do [for all we have is the natural world, he thinks]). “Belief in God as radical basic trust can therefore point also to the condition of the possibility of uncertain reality. In this sense it displays a radical rationality—which is not the same thing as rationalism” (Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, trans. Edward Quinn [Garden City: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1976], 76. Italics original.

[3] Helen Fisher, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).

[4] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 10.

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 8.

[10] This quote does not occur in Kierkegaard verbatim, contrary to those who repeatedly cite it. It is found in Either/Or in the following form: “If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both…” [trans. David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971)], 37.

[11] Ibid., 7.

[12] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 51. Italics original.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 11.

[15] Ibid., 11-12. Words in brackets are my own added for contextualization purposes.

[16] Ibid., 12. Italics mine.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 13.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. Italics original.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 14.

[23] Ibid. Italics mine.

[24] Ibid., 15.

[25] Ibid., 16.

[26] Ibid.