Delivered from the Elements of the World is vintage Leithart: extraordinary in scope, dense, multilayered, intertextual biblical exegesis, and literary flair. Leithart’s aim with this book is about as bold as a work of theology can get: to answer afresh the basic question of the Christian faith, which St. Anselm framed as Cur Deus Homo?—Why the God-man? Or, as Leithart incisively frames it, “How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century, an event in the putative backwaters of the Roman Empire, be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and crossroads for everything?” (13) Framed this way, Leithart’s question, and his answer, are a rebuke in two directions: to the feeble, alialistic, soul-snatching picture of the gospel, in which the effect of Christ’s death can be readily explained as a spiritual transaction detached from history, and to the liberal humanistic gospel, in which Christ’s death and resurrection cannot be seen as essential and efficacious, since he comes merely as a teacher leading us to “establish institutions that promote peace and justice.” (13) Indeed, Leithart’s book is a broadside against the dichotomies that underwrite both these reductionisms, insisting that the spiritual is the sociological and vice versa, that the reframing of human history and renewing of human nature is part and parcel of the redemption purchased by Christ.
Unfortunately, this book is also vintage Leithart in somewhat less flattering senses: uneven historical-theological asides that sometimes seem more assertion than argument, elusive systematic-theological formulations that claim to be both novel and orthodox and yet which are often imprecise enough to make it unclear whether they are either, and eccentric and underdeveloped aspirations at sweeping philosophical revisionism. It is an unfortunate necessity of a book review that far more of my time will be spent on the latter, less flattering elements than on the former, more flattering ones—after all, when it comes to the book’s singular virtues, readers would do far better to partake of them straight from the source than via my secondhand renditions. And indeed I should state clearly up front that whatever criticisms might follow, this is very much a “Read this book” review. There have been plenty of books that I have reviewed so critically that my verdict was “Don’t waste your time,” but I have difficulty imagining the Leithart book on which I would ever reach that verdict. Read with a wary eye, to be sure, but as I think the summary that follows will show, this is a book fresh and bold enough that it deserves to be grappled with firsthand.
The criticisms, however, must wait until the book has been adequately summarized, and in a book as dense and wide-ranging as this one, that is no little task. This first post, therefore, hopefully the longest I shall have to write, will be dedicated entirely to an overview of the argument. Although I shall occasionally flag in passing points that will warrant more thorough critical discussion later, for the most part I will restrict myself to summary. Following this summary, I anticipate four further posts over the coming month. Part II shall examine the book’s aspirations to innovation and look more closely at Leithart’s approach to penal substitution. Part III shall give close attention to Leithart’s doctrine of justification in relation to the magisterial Protestant doctrine. Part IV shall critique his metaphysical revisionism (his apparent rejection of the category of nature). Finally, Part V will look at his reading of modernity and various miscellaneous issues that deserve critical scrutiny. If there is space, Part V will also wrap up with some thoughts on how classical Protestant two-kingdoms theology would handle some of these issues differently; if not, that may have to be a sixth post.
Summary of the Book
Leithart’s answer to the question Cur Deus Homo? proceeds in three basic stages: Part One, The Physics of the Old Creation identifies the problem that Christ comes to solve, humanity’s bondage to “the elements of the world”; Parts Two and Three, The Good News of God’s Justice, and Justification, sketch out how the life, death, and resurrection of Christ served to free humanity from that bondage; Part Four, Contributions to a Theology of Mission, explores how this fresh understanding of the gospel can inform the practice of the church, its engagement with other world religions, and its confrontation with modernity.
However it’s crucial not to stop there: the three Appendices, far from your usual tedious asides—everything too long to fit in the footnotes—are really where most of the action happens. Ok, “most” might be a bit of a stretch, but certainly a large chunk of the key philosophical, historical, and dogmatic moves are argued out only in appendices 1 and 2, which thus serve not as window-dressing, but really as the foundation for Leithart’s whole project, or at least for its claims to novelty. (We will return to this point in Part II of the review.) Appendix Three, on the other hand is more secondary, offering a dense exegetical re-reading of Romans that complements the reading of Galatians offered in chapter 8.
With that very big-picture roadmap in hand, let’s delve into a somewhat more detailed, though still breezy, walkthrough of the book’s main arguments.
As the title suggests, the the concept of ta stoicheia tou cosmou in Gal. 4:3, 8—“the elementary principles of the world,” as the ESV translates it—serves as the central theme for the book (together with Leithart’s distinctive concept of the “deliverdict,” the delivering verdict rendered in justification, which is introduced in chapter 9). Rather than referring to the physical make-up of the world as such (as this phrase generally did in earlier Greek usage), Leithart argues that the Pauline notion of the stoicheia connotes something more social, cultural, and religious—but a social/cultural/religious ordering that is anchored in the physical stuff of the world. Leithart’s sketch of the elements is rich and multifaceted, occupying much of the four chapters of Part One: The Physics of the Old Creation. But here is an attempt to distill the essence of it: the sacralized, ritualized ordering of the material elements of creation to efficaciously signify within the social order access and lack of access to the divine. Here is a key passage from chapter 1 that fleshes out that definition a bit further:
“Practices of purity imply a cosmos, a way of organizing and construing reality. Distinctions between clean and unclean map the social world into distinct regions. Purity regulations form an economy of signs, a symbolic universe, but the symbolic universe is not self-enclosed. A symbolic map works with the world divvied up in specific ways. Purity regulations trace out a world that comes to seem natural to those who inhabit it.
Rites of purity are not only signs of a cosmology that exists apart from the rites and practices. They are efficacious signs that ensure the coherence, the stability of the social world. Indeed, these practices alone ensure the continuance of the social world they signify. The order of the social cosmos depends on purity practices. . . . Sacred space, purity rules, sacrifice, and priesthood thus constitute the foundational reality of religious and social life in the ancient world, both Jewish and Gentile” (40-41).
Rather than tediously walking us through the specialist literature on ancient religions to illustrate what these stoicheia looked like in action, Leithart cleverly telescopes a comparative sketch of ancient Jewish, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek religion into “an ancient Jewish travelogue,” narrated in first person throughout chapter 3. Here our ancient Jew encounters various pagan rituals on his journey, and argues with representatives of the three rival civilizations about the meaning of these rituals for the organization of social life and the relationship of humanity to the divine. Although I am anything but an expert on ancient near eastern religious ritual, Leithart’s creative exposition here seems very sound, based on the latest specialist scholarship, and his interpretation of the meaning of ancient Jewish rites, although drawing more on some of his own distinctive readings of Leviticus, etc., is also persuasive. The chief purpose of this exposition is to show how completely interwoven the sacred was with every aspect of life in the ancient world, and how this interweaving depended at every point on binary mappings of clean and unclean, sacred and profane, and on sacrifice as the only way of restoring order to a disordered socio-religious cosmos, restoring fellowship between man and man, and between man and God. The whole portrait (and indeed, I should add, a remarkable amount of Leithart’s argument in this book) is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s brilliant fictional portrayal of the logic of pagan religion in his Till We Have Faces. It is important to note, however, that while the Jewish religion is certainly presented as superior in certain respects to its pagan rivals, it is not fundamentally different; it, just as much as them, depended on a stoicheic division and regulation of human social and religious life, that had the same basic building blocks as the pagan religions.
In chapters 4 and 5, “Flesh” and “What Torah Does,” Leithart presents his argument for why this should be the case—why bondage to the stoicheia was so universal, and how Torah served as both remedy to and perpetuation of this bondage. Both chapters are Leithart at his best, brimming over with rich and illuminating insights from a close and intertextual reading of the Biblical narrative, and offering an extremely convincing picture of what the much-debated concepts of flesh and law meant for the Apostle Paul.
Flesh, argues Leithart, is not bad per se—in its signification of human limitation and weakness, it is part of how Adam was created, and that was very good—though imperfect, and destined for growth and glorification. Such fleshly life was regulated from the first by the stoicheia, the sacralized structuring of the Garden by the probationary “taste not, touch not” injunction. Adam’s failure to obey this injunction stemmed from his desire to “transcend fleshly weakness and limitations,” with the ironic result that he was enslaved to such weakness by being given over to the power of death. Henceforward, human history would be dominated by flesh’s struggle to try and transcend its limits and its mortality by any means possible. Flesh then in the Pauline sense has the negative connotation of flesh that seeks not to be flesh, bodily weakness that seeks godlike status by falsely glorying in bodily power, whether by military might, procreational prowess, or other human capacities. Leithart brilliantly summarizes, building off the recent work of Richard Beck,
“The dialectic of fleshly weakness and fleshly prowess is not as paradoxical as it might appear. Vulnerability to loss, lack, death and damage leads to fear, and fear produces protectiveness, protectiveness produces violence and aggression. Weakness is the source of boastful displays of strength and virility [think Donald Trump]. Those who live in fear of death—in fleshly weakness—are thus prone not only to ‘feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, obsessions, perfectionism’ but also to ‘ambitiousness, envy, narcissism, jealousy, rivalry, competitiveness, self-consciousness, guilt, and shame.’ Insofar as it is mortal and vulnerable, flesh desires pleasure and avoids pain. It can express itself in desire for luxuries and wealth, in greed and all the cruelty that greed produces. It can express itself in a desire for power and dominance; it is the source of libido dominandi. Life according to flesh can take the form of confidence in one’s achievements. Jews boast in their zeal for the law. Greeks boast in their potency in battle, in public debate, in sexual conquest” (81).
Fleshly boasting, Leithart also points out, can manifest itself in an obsession with genealogies and ancestry, the power of flesh to perpetuate itself over generations, thus claiming some victory over mortality. Flesh organizes the social and religious world according to this system of values, setting perceived sources of strength and weakness in opposition, and policing boundaries so that the latter cannot pollute the former.
Yahweh, says Leithart, has declared war against flesh in order to save the human race: “Human beings can live as God intended only if flesh is put to death. In opposing flesh, Yahweh is not opposing humanity. He is acting to deliver humanity from everything that makes it bestial, every attempt to become more than human that makes humanity inhuman.” (85) But because we cling so tightly to our flesh, Yahweh’s attempts to put it to death feel like our own deaths (again, think Till We Have Faces: “you must die before you die”); the cure is too much to bear, so we cling to the disease. Yahweh intends to transform flesh into spirit, but since this is something that only he can accomplish, he begins by preparing the human race with an “anti-sarkic pedagogy,” a fleshly regime intended to mortify flesh, a new set of stoicheic boundary-markers that are intended to ironically point to their own limitation, their own provisionality. Circumcision is the first of these, the “cut in flesh” centered on the organ of procreation that is the basis for so much fleshly boasting, signifying to the seed of Abraham that their power came from weakness, their future rested in the divine promise rather than human strength. Again, Leithart neatly summarizes the paradox:
“Paradoxically, this anti-sarkic pedagogy is both more fertile and more fleshly than the fleshly stoicheia of the Gentiles. It is more fertile because in renouncing his own potency, Abram’s flesh became a conduit for infinite divine power. His seed was conceived not by natural means but by a miracle; Isaac was a resurrected child in his birth, not only in his death-and-resurrection at Moriah (cf. Rom. 4). By renouncing flesh, Abram was able to overcome the limitations of flesh. Yet, deprived of flesh, Abraham’s children were more fleshly because circumcision encouraged an honest admission and even embrace of the limitations, weakness, and vulnerability of flesh.” (90)
Torah, argues Leithart, represented an extension of this pedagogy, instituting “a ‘civilization’ of weakness, a culture patterned on renunciation of flesh” (92). In understanding Torah, says Leithart, it is crucial that we understand that the boundary-drawing that we find at every point in the sacrificial system, the temple architecture, the purity code, etc. is not a system for limiting access to God, but enabling access. Again, to quote Leithart, “the building of the tabernacle and later the temple did not create the conditions of exclusion and distance. In fact, the sanctuary was a countermovement to the curse of Eden. Yahweh drove Adam and Eve out of the garden; he invited Aaron and his sons in. For the first time since Eden, a human being stood before the Creator to serve.” (95) Leithart goes on throughout the chapter to show how the various features of the Law served to mortify the flesh, encouraging Israel to renounce its power, and through doing so, to regain access to the divine sanctuary. Perhaps most stimulating of all is Leithart’s treatment of Levitical sacrifice, which is too frequently misunderstood as fundamentally a rite of propitiation aimed at placating a wrathful God. While of course there is a propitiatory element, the overriding objective of sacrifice is to purify the worshipper so that he might become fit for communion with God, to enable the worshipper himself to ascend as smoke before Yahweh. Tying together the marriage-covenantal and the feasting overtones of the sacrificial liturgy, Leithart suggests “When Israel has entered into marriage covenant with Yahweh, she offers herself continuously as bridal food for his delight in a continuous marriage feast.” (109) Or, as Psyche puts it in Till We Have Faces, “And if I am to go to the god, of course it must be through death. That way, even what is strangest in the holy sayings might be true. To be eaten and to be married to the god might not be so different.”
Yahweh’s war against flesh, however, could not ultimately succeed as long as it depended upon fleshly instruments. Israel, in bondage to flesh as they were, could not help perverting the very stoicheic regulations that enacted their weakness and dependence into grounds of boasting. Rather than circumcision signifying the impotence of fleshly descent, it became a prideful marker of the Abrahamic genealogy, and the boundary-markers that separated Jew from Gentile were reworked into a liturgy of exclusion rather than a liturgy of welcome. Accordingly, Christ had to come in the flesh, to condemn sinful flesh and enable it to be raised again as spirit.
In Parts Two and Three of the book, on atonement and justification, Leithart turns to the New Testament, armed with his extensive readings of the New Perspective and Apocalyptic schools as well as the rich background typology he has established from his survey of the Old Testament. The result is a fairly convincing synthesis of many of the best insights in recent New Testament theology that offers a multi-dimensional picture of what Christ came to accomplish.
Chapter 6, “The Justice of God,” begins with some careful attention to the meaning of dikaiosune theou, that all-important phrase that stood at the heart of both Luther’s wrestlings toward the doctrine of justification by faith and the New Perspective’s re-readings of Pauline theology. Leithart concludes, following much recent scholarship, that the term, while not unrelated to either the medieval understanding of God’s retributive judgment against wickedness, or the Protestant understanding of God’s unmerited gift of imputed righteousness, the term’s central meaning lies elsewhere. Using Isaiah to provide background for what first-century Jews would likely have understood by the term, Leithart summarizes “Paul’s good news [as] (1) the good news of God acting justly (2) through a Davidic king and (3) to save humans or some humans from their own disorder and from their enemies in a way that (4) enables humans or some humans to gleam with Yahweh’s own radiant righteousness.” (129) In short, the dikaiosune theou is God’s faithful determination to deliver his people from bondage to themselves and to others. Now, Leithart is clear that this does not exclude retributive wrath; on the contrary, “it is difficult to fathom how this [whether retribution is part of God’s justice] could become a serious question, either for Scripture as a whole or for Paul.” (130) There must be no false dichotomy between retributive and restorative justice: “a sinner before a just God has hope only in God’s justice, which destroys flesh in order somehow to rescue flesh.” (133)
In any case, the righteousness of God, argues Leithart, is not revealed only in Jesus’s death (which he will come to in chapter 7) but in his life. Jesus comes as “the embodiment of Torah-keeping that is not overwhelmed by flesh,” (136) fulfilling the spirit of Torah in a way that Israel could not. Jesus himself acts as a new temple, a place of cleansing and welcome that breaks down the divisions between man and God and between man and man. He established a new Israel among his followers that modeled a “poststoicheic” pattern of life. The establishment of this new society is central, not ancillary, to his ministry, for it is the disruption of human society, and its fracture along lines of binary stoicheic division, that is the most insidious and crippling consequence of the Fall.
The title of chapter 7, “The Faith of Jesus Christ,” is a not-very-subtle indicator that on the much-disputed Pauline question of the meaning of pistis Christou, Leithart sides with the newer “faith of Jesus Christ” translation against the older Protestant “faith in Jesus Christ.” This does not mean, however, he is quick to say, that any fundamental dogmatic questions are decided by the question. It’s a bit like the question of the meaning of “son of God”—many conservative scholars have now granted that this term in the Gospels probably is not meant as an attribution of divine status, but they’re not too worried about making this concession because, they argue, there are plenty of other New Testament texts testifying to Jesus’s divinity. But that doesn’t mean it’s a trivial decision, since failure to grasp the original meaning of the term means failure to grasp what features of Jesus’s vocation are being highlighted. Similarly in this case; the fact that pistis Christou probably means “the faith of Jesus Christ” does not change the Scriptural fact that we appropriate the affects of Christ’s faith by our own faith, but it does affect the emphasis of the gospel proclamations in which the phrase appears. I’m not enough of a New Testament expert to assess the arguments for and against Leithart’s subjective genitive reading; however, I do find his case fairly persuasive, and in any case, I don’t see it as something that traditional Protestants need fear. If anything, the subjective genitive reading can foster a more authentically Protestant understanding of the gospel, one in which all of the focus is on Christ and what he does, rather than introspectively on the believer’s own activity. (Certainly, some Protestant construals of faith have made the gospel feel just as oppressive as that which Luther reacted to, as if we must first summon up a sufficiently anguished and truly authentic movement of faith before the benefits of Christ were ours.)
So what does the faith of Jesus, his faithful obedience to the Father, look like? Well, we all know the story—it looks like innocent sacrifice, laying down his life for his friends, bearing the curse of his people, that by his stripes we might be healed, with the righteousness of Jesus’s stoicheia-ending life and death being vindicated by resurrection, and his transformation from flesh to spirit being perfected in his ascension. The details of Leithart’s account of how all this works are complex and very important, so much so that they must be reserved for a later post and cannot detain us here. So for now I will just quote Leithart’s closing summary:
“Jesus died to form a people, the church, his body and bride. He died to preserve his new temple movement; his death was a day of atonement where he bore the liabilities and punishments of Israel to give them a new past and a new future. His own sacrifice was part of his ordination, and he rose again to preside as an immortal high priest qualified not by flesh but by the power of indestructible resurrection life. Jesus brought forgiveness because his death founded a forgiven temple-people where forgiveness continues to be freely offered: a temple where the single bath of baptism purifies and consecrates; where confession of sins without sacrifice cleanses from all unrighteousness; where the word of absolution is spoken with all the authority of the Son of God; where Jews and Gentiles, male and female, slave and free are invited to share a common sacrificial meal, eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood for the remission of sins.” (173)
In chapter 8, “Justified by the Faith of Jesus,” Leithart finally comes to the heart of his argument in this book, his trademark concept of the “deliverdict,” the delivering verdict that is justification. A lot of the important questions about how this doctrine maps onto the traditional Protestant doctrine of justification will have to wait for a later post, Part III. However, it is worth highlighting the basic shape. First, Leithart argues that justification is first and foremost a description of what happened to Christ in his resurrection, since it was here that the Father issued the verdict of Christ’s innocence and, in issuing the verdict, delivered him from the power of death. In theological-speak, it is primarily a matter of the historia salutis rather than the ordo salutis Christ was justified by the Father, and we are made to share in that justification. This is more of a terminological/emphasis shift from our normal categories than it is a fundamental reworking of soteriology, I would suggest, and has much in common with the work of Richard Gaffin. Leithart goes on to argue that Christ’s justification serves as the prototype and ground of our own, as we are delivered from the death-dealing power of Torah, with its stoicheic divisions, and receive the life-giving Spirit of Christ who has condemned flesh and the fleshly law in his own flesh.
Chapter 9, “Justified from the Elements,” seeks to highlight the sociological dimensions of this deliverance. Following many of the insights of the New Perspective, Leithart stresses the centrality of the formation of the one people of God as the climax of Christ’s work. Since the stoicheia of the post-Fall world erected barriers of separation between peoples, Christ’s destruction of the power of the stoicheia to organize humanity and control humanity’s access to God must involve the establishment of one new people, thus fulfilling the vocation of Israel that Torah could not fulfill. By bearing the curse that was laid on Israel for her failure, Jesus opened the way for God to send his blessings on both Jew and Gentile.
Leithart expounds further on the implications of the post-stoicheic life ushered in by Christ’s work in chapter 10, “In Ranks with the Spirit.” This is the beginning of Part Four, the final section in which Leithart spells out the implications of this new, fuller understanding of the atonement. Since the formation of one people of God is what Christ’s work was meant to achieve, ecclesiology cannot be held apart from atonement theory:
“The atonement is nothing unless it forms a new humanity with a renewed socioreligious physis. To avoid the peculiar jargon of this book: there must be a church if there is to be social transformation, if the damage of flesh is going to be overcome. The church is, in fact, the first form of transformed human society. . . . Atonement theory must be social theory. And if atonement theology is social science, then a theology concerning the social mission of the church is inherent in the theology of the atonement.” (218)
With the rites of the new society reduced to just two, baptism and the Eucharist, both of which institutionalize unity rather than division, the church exemplifies life after stoicheia, and models it to a world that is still obsessed with fleshly status and power, and with in/out boundary markers. “By forming the church, [baptism] plants within the cities of this world a new form of the city; the church stages an eschatological form of social life before the nations and before the principalities and powers. Baptism announces that fleshly society is not the only form of human society, announces not merely the possibility but the reality of a communion that is constituted by the Spirit.” (221) There are a host of questions that present themselves at this point, which demand proper consideration, Lord willing, in a later post (probably Part IV). But for now, I will highlight one part of the argument of this chapter that I do find particularly helpful—the claim that, reborn in the Spirit, Christians are enabled to embrace the fleshliness of flesh as the world cannot, fleshly limitation as an original created good, not as something to violently struggle against:
“The Spirit permits flesh to be flesh, and in that sense those who are ek tou pneumatos are more fleshly than those who walk kata sarka. In the Spirit, people who are in flesh can boast of their weakness, their afflictions, their wounds, because those who are in the Spirit know that their power is not from flesh but from God. . . . Like Solomon in Ecclesiastes, those who walk by the Spirit rejoice in a world of vapor, exult in their wispy weakness, where every achievement is temporary and every life ends in death. The Spirit came so human beings can become comfortable in our own flesh.” (226-27)
This, I think, is exactly right, and indeed strikes a very Luther-ish note. Whatever other hyperboles might dominate Leithart’s ecclesiology and political theology, both in this chapter and in much of his other work, I think he is right to say that simply by being a society that rejoices in weakness, the church cannot help but have a transformative effect on the kingdoms of this world.
Now, let’s race really quickly toward the end. Chapter 11, “Outside the Christian Era,” is something of a reprise of Chapter 3, only a couple thousand years later. Here Leithart gives a whirlwind comparative religion sketch of how non-Christian religions today continue to exhibit the basic features of stoicheia, and how, where they do not do so, it is largely a result of Christian influence and imitation. He argues that a recovery of the original anti-stoicheic character of the gospel proclamation can aid us in more effective missionary witness today. In chapter 12, Leithart applies the same analysis, somewhat less convincingly, to supposedly secular modernity. Adopting the now somewhat clichéd insight of Radical Orthodoxy that modernity isn’t really secular at all, but has its own new sacralizations, its own liturgies of sacrifice, Leithart argues that we should see modernity as a new Galatianism. Some aspects of this picture are convincing, others not so much. More problematic is Leithart’s second contention in this chapter, that the Reformation ushered in its own form of Galatianism that has torn and maimed the new society of the church, and that needs to be confronted and repented of. Finally, he argues that the heresy of nationalism, another product of the Reformation on his reading, is perhaps the worst of the forms of new Galatianism that affect us today. The highly-condensed and controversial arguments in this chapter warrant a post all their own (see Part V for more), however, so I will say no more for now.
Chapter 13, “Cur Deus Homo?” neatly sums up the argument of the whole book, offering a compelling, sweeping narrative of the whole gospel story that leaves one profoundly impressed with the explanatory power of Leithart’s new master metaphors of stoicheia, flesh, and the “deliverdict.” It should be noted that there is considerable ambiguity in Leithart’s discussion of the “new human nature” and “just social order” established by humanity’s liberation from the stoicheia, but we will return to these themes in a later post (Part IV).
For now, we can wrap up this summary with the observation that whatever one thinks about this book, Leithart is clearly to be applauded for achieving a holistic synthesis of Old Testament theology, New Testament theology, systematics, ritual theory, sociology, comparative religion that is rare if not unheard of. Rarely has evangelical scholarship had the scope and creativity to produce a whole-Bible vision of what our faith is all about like this one. Whatever the weaknesses of Leithart’s project in relation to classical Protestant theology, which I will survey in following posts, Leithart’s work certainly has the potential to fruitfully complement older biblical and systematic theologies by its fresh exegetical insights.