Ethereal Faith vs. Corporeal Faith
The answer is rather simple, which Rev. Dr. David Yeago explicated 20 years ago. “That human beings make their inward apprehension of meaning available to others in poetic and symbolic form; that those who share similar spiritual aspirations band together in voluntary association for mutual support; that the inner light of religious experience motivates the way in which individuals and groups make choices amongst public options—these have been widely accepted and welcomed in all but the crudest anti-religious fringes of the dominant culture of the past two centuries” (Yeago, 6).
In other words, contrary to our common thinking, America is not entirely anti-religious. Our society is fine with beautifully constructed churches and cathedrals and beautiful Christian art for their own artistic enjoyment. They’re fine with such religious expressions of art and even living—Christian or not.
Yeago continues, “It is quite different, however, when religious people make claims that involve God’s immediate presence in some concrete shaping or ordering of the public world. Then a whole vocabulary of denigration is brought immediately to bear, and a whole strategy of repression comes into play. Such claims are superstition, fundamentalism; they violate the boundaries of religion and science or religion and public life; they will bring back the wars of religion” (Yeago, 6).
In other words, America is fine with the existence of religion as long as it doesn’t make concrete, public demands on how people should live. As soon as your Christianity crosses the imaginary line between religion and public life or religion and science, it is then that the world becomes hostile to Christianity. Christianity is fine so long as it exists in some separate, ethereal plane; but the moment it becomes corporeal in the public life, you cross the line and have drawn the last straw.
Biden’s Catholicism is the ethereal “faith” in this way: “Oh, he’s Catholic, that’s nice. He’s not telling me how I should live. It’s cool that he’s Catholic.” His Catholicism is pretty and nice to look at because it doesn’t make demands of me. Barrett’s Catholicism, however, is corporeal and real. From her Catholic faith, she knows God demands we live a certain way in our public life. This is what America cannot stand. Thus, they recapitulate the war on religion and attack her Catholic faith because she has the faithful audacity to proclaim God demands us not to kill babies in the womb. That’s “fundamentalism.” That’s going too far. (If saying that killing babies in the womb is wrong is fundamentalism, then by all means, I guess I’m a “fundie.” 🤷🏾♂️
The Corporeality of the Christian Faith
Amy Coney Barrett ought to be applauded for her bold faith. The faith of Christians confesses that Jesus, equally God and equally man, physically died and bodily rose from the dead. Therefore, “The apostolic proclamation of salvation is thus relentlessly corporeal and public. What the New Testament means by salvation is inseparable from bodily adherence to a visible community. One is initiated into this community by a corporeal washing [Baptism], and the center of its life is a thanksgiving meal with bread and wine [the Eucharist]. Within the community constituted by these practices, the faithful are exhorted, not to become virtuosos of the inner life, but to present their bodies to the Lord as instruments of his righteousness (Rom. 6:19; 12:1)” (Yeago, 7).
The Christian’s faith is not a mental exercise; it’s not about “accepting Jesus as my personal Saviour” (where is this written? Nowhere). Faith is lived out bodily in the real world. “The mission of this community [the church] is therefore not fulfilled when something happens only in the heart, in the private inwardness of those it reaches; its aim is rather something that must happen out in public, out in the bodily world: the building up of a new people, whose life together is witness to the claim that the Crucified makes on the whole world, who likewise struggle together to submit their own bodily lives in the world to that lordship” (Yeago, 7).
Yeago here is concerned with the problem of Christian formation. Jesus’ bodily dying and rising from the dead actually do corporeal things, not merely things “in your heart.” When you were baptised, you “were baptised into His death… [You] were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, [you] too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). Baptism is not some ethereal, symbolic thing that places you on a pedestal so you can tell everyone, “Hey look at me, I accepted Jesus” and you continue to live like a pagan Monday through Saturday. No, Baptism does a real, corporeal thing to you. You actually die to sin and become alive in Christ and, therefore, are called to walk in newness of life.
This newness of life is you being formed into Christ—His actual body, which is the church (1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 27).This newness of life is not lived out in your head or “heart”; it is lived out in your public life. From Sunday to Sunday, you live as the Spirit shapes you and forms you in Christ in the community of the church, the body of Christ.
This means you will speak out against injustice, whether done against Black communities or the unborn. This means you will call your friend to repentance when he or she commits adultery. This means you will speak for the biblical foundation of heterosexual, monogamous marriages and not tolerate or elevate the opposite aberration. This means when you’re living out your vocation and witness a co-worker stealing from work, you call them out for theft for the evil it is. This means when Amy Coney Barrett is living out her vocation as a judge, she calls out infanticide for the evil it is.
America hates this corporeal Christianity where Christians actually live out what they say they believe. They are surprised when Christians actually behave like Christians because we haven’t given them any reason to expect anything different due to our capitulation to their ethereal platitudes of the church. The only Christianity they accept is one that believes its tenets in theory but doesn’t do them in actual practice. They approve Christianity as a pretty portrait hanging on the wall; but as soon as that painting comes alive and actually starts doing in the world what the portrait portrays, the world stumbles over one another to tear down the portrait and toss it into the wood shredder.
And as the weak-willed Christians we’ve become these past two or three centuries, we have largely decided to capitulate to this nonsense and preach and teach a faith that is intellectual and emotional rather than the real newness of life in the formation of the corporeal Crucified, Risen, and Ascended Jesus Christ.
Our Modern Antinomian Faith
The world adores a Christianity that doesn’t tell you to do anything, and this thinking has seeped into the church, even the Lutheran Church. We have adopted a law-gospel reductionism where pastors teach their flock they don’t have to do anything—that the Law is always bad and the Gospel is always good. All this despite Paul’s saying, “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12).
We have taken Luther’s Freedom of the Christian and distorted it into, “The freedom of the Gospel frees me to have just one more drink.” That is not the Gospel; that is licentiousness. The Gospel does not tell you what to do and how to live. The Law does. Whenever you turn the Gospel into something you do, it ceases to be the Gospel. The Gospel, simply put, is what has been done for you by Christ’s perfect obedience to the Father in His life, death, and resurrection.
Some would say I’m being legalistic, but this is not legalism. I am not saying you have to do something in order to be saved; that’s legalism. What I am saying is that the Gospel frees you to do the Law. In other words, now that Christ has redeemed you as His creature, He has freed you to do what you’re supposed to do. How do you know what to do? The Law tells you.
Freedom for St. Paul is being a slave of Christ (Romans 6:15-23). A slave doesn’t have a will of his own; he is conformed to the will of his master. Biblically, then, freedom is conforming to the will of God. (Additionally, the Confessions, FC SD VI, says the Law, strictly speaking, is the unchangeable will of God.) Christian freedom is not Christ setting you free so you can do whatever you want and be forgiven, like murder or drunkenness; that’s purely licentiousness and antinomianism (a.k.a. lawlessness). Christian freedom is Christ setting you free to do the goods you were created to do. You are now free to do the Law not for God’s favour, but for the good of your neighbour.
To say that you now do something as a result of Christ’s redemption is not legalism; it is biblical sanctification properly understood. “It is one thing to demand ‘doing something’ as a prerequisite, a qualifying worthiness, for receiving the gift; it is quite another if the gift itself involves the recipient in a new life. Then ‘doing something’ is not a prior condition to be met but the very gift that is to be received. The free gift of God in Christ Jesus, we need to say, is that we get to do all sorts of splendid things as his priestly people” (Yeago, 14).
This is a long way of saying America wants an antinomian Christianity, and the church has largely bought into this rubbish. Rather, Christianity done right is the church and her members actually doing what we believe, teach, and confess in our public lives according to our vocations through the corporeal washing and regeneration of our Baptism.
God has ordered the entire universe to function according to His laws, both his moral Law and the laws of physics. The “problem” of the Law is not that it’s “bad” in our law-gospel reductionist way of thinking. Rather, “the problem of the Law is that it identifies what is expected of us, but does not give us the power to attain it” (Yeago, 12). As we recently saw from Paul, the Law is holy, righteous, and good. The Law only appears to be “bad” because it reveals to us just how bad we are.
Yet we think we’re perfect. Because we’ve accepted a cheap gospel and think we’re perfect just the way we are, or “God accepts me just the way I am,” it’s not me who’s bad but the Law that is bad. Rather, the Law tells us what is perfectly good, right(eous), and holy—rather, who is perfectly good, right(eous), and holy, who is God. Thus, the problem of the Law shows us as in a mirror that we do not measure up to God and there is nothing we can do to ever measure up to Him. In fact, God gave us the Law because He does not accept us the way we are. He gave us the Law to show us that we do not measure up to Him and His expectations. The Law exists because we are not good enough as we are.
Nevertheless, God came to us exactly as we are in Christ. Not because who we are is holy, righteous, and good, but because we are so curved inward upon ourselves (incurvatus in se)—so fundamentally messed up, wrong, and broken. Jesus came “not for the righteous, but sinners” (Luke 5:32). These sinners are you and me. Sinners are not good as they are. Before God, sinners stand as these disgusting, spiritual lepers (FC SD I).
Pagan gods would never consider dwelling in the midst of our muck and grime of sin. Yet the One perfectly holy, righteous, and good God chose not only to dwell in our midst but even to take on our human flesh, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). And by Baptism, He washes us and forms us into His corporeal death and resurrection, bringing us to live in a newness of life that is corporeally shaped by Him in His Spirit. He thus calls us to live differently—free to finally do the Law as we were always meant to do.
If the Good News is that God does not expect us to be different than we are, then Christians can peacefully leave the public world and our bodily life in the world to the regnant powers of state, market, race, class, and sexuality… In such a scheme, the crucified body of Jesus Christ will not be the concrete locus in which the whole embodied life of humankind is painfully reassembled in a new and inexhaustibly hopeful configuration. It will be no more than the symbol of our assurance that God is with us no matter what, a divine presence that enables us to cope with things as they are but does not change anything, and therefore in the end reconciles us to things as they are. The Church likewise will not be the point at which our bodily existence is assumed into the crucified body of Jesus, and receives the form of that body through continual death and resurrection in a Christ-configured mode of life together. It will be smoothly integrated into the consumer society, a service-provider offering individuals the luxury goods of a disembodied inner peace and techniques for stress-management.
Yeago, pp. 12-13
The Good News is not that we can be content with living and being exactly as we are, for that is a licentiousness that rewrites the Gospel. The Good News is that, yes, we have been redeemed from our spiritually leprous ways of living as a free gift; and even more, the bringer and bearer of this Good News has now freed us to live differently, that is, to live the lives of godly people as citizens of His kingdom. Just as Yahweh brought His Hebrew people out of slavery through the baptism of the Red Sea to live as His holy (set apart) and chosen people, so Christ has brought you and me out of the slavery of sin through the Baptism of His Spirit to live as His holy (set apart) and chosen people (cf. 1 Peter 2:9-10; Romans 6:15-19).
After all, Christ Himself said He came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17). The Gospel does not abolish the Law but fulfills it. This is why St. Paul can write that love fulfills the Law (Romans 13:8) since the Law has been fulfilled in the love of Christ. Which is why, Paul continues, “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).
How do we fulfil, that is, do the Law for our neighbour? St. John writes, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So, we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this [that is, God’s love] is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgement [justification by faith], because as He is so also are we in this world [what I’ve been calling the public life]… We love because He first loved us… And this commandment we have from Him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:15-17, 19, 21).
How do you know how to love your brother? The Gospel doesn’t tell you; the Law tells you. The Gospel tells you to what extent God loves you, that He died for you and rose from the dead for you, which is made yours in the corporeal washing of Baptism. The Gospel tells you it is done. The Law tells you how to love your brother, that is, what to do. Jesus loved us in the world; therefore, we have been called into newness of life to love one another in the world, the public life. In the world but not of the world (John 17:15-19).
Let us, therefore, not be antinomian by retreating into a cheap gospel of our hearts and minds. Rather, let us be disciples of Christ whom He has redeemed and sends out into the world to do what He has called us to do, mainly, to love our brother. The Law tells us how to do this; the Gospel has freed us to do this.
Yeago, David S. “Sacramental Lutheranism at the End of the Modern Age.” Lutheran Forum 34, no 4 (Winter 2000): 1-56.