How Does Sanctification Work? by David Powlison, Free for CAPC Members
David Powlison dispels the myth that there is a “key to sanctification” and then lays the biblical groundwork for spiritual growth.
As a culture, we’re basically down the sexual rabbit hole, which is (frustratingly) less fun than it sounds.
We seem to have reached a turning point where we will no longer tolerate sexual harassment and assault from men in positions of authority, which is good, but we also have a proud sexual predator as the president of the United States, which is bad. We also seem to be in general agreement that men ought not to abuse their power to take sexual advantage of the women around them, which is good, but we’re more than willing to make exceptions for men who advance our policy goals in government, which is bad.
As it happens, we also can’t seem to agree on how to prevent men from abusing women in the first place.Jesus’ solution to your own sinful tendencies isn’t presented as inconveniencing, insulting, or harming the people around you — it’s presented as handicapping yourself.
I know I’m wading out into the weeds here, and as white male, I especially need to watch my step, but we all remember earlier this year, when there was an apparent scandal over the so-called “Mike Pence rule” (which used to be the so-called “Billy Graham rule“), right? Mike Pence refuses to eat alone or meet alone with any woman who isn’t his wife, which presumably is fine with his immediate superior since that leaves more vulnerable women for him, but is absolutely not fine with Twitter, which spent multiple days after the scandalous revelation wringing its hands over the women alienated by Pence’s attempts not to victimize them.
No, but I get it. The concern is that the Pence rule, just like our (hopefully former) habit of ignoring and/or shaming the women who speak out about abuse, puts the burden of men’s indiscretions on women instead of on the men themselves. Treating every woman as a potential threat is inherently dehumanizing, and possibly also professionally crippling, to the woman. So I get the objection. But, that being said, since we know everyone experiences temptation, and (let’s be honest) frequently gives in to it, what other solution is there?
Well, I mean, there is one — but it ain’t pretty.
Let me tell you about Origen, one of the earliest Church Fathers. Though many of his ideas (such as the pre-existence of souls) were condemned as heretical by later generations of Christians, he was still arguably the first important Christian theologian to come along after the Apostles and was directly responsible for the present entanglement of Christian theology and classical philosophy — for good or for ill. Oh, and he also cut off his junk.
Like most important early Christians, Origen hailed from Africa. Born in Alexandria to Christian parents, Origen made a point of studying under pagan philosopher Ammonius in order to better understand how to explain the faith to its critics. In A.D. 202, when Origen was 17, his father was martyred. Origen was determined to follow in his dad’s footsteps and get himself martyred as well, but his mother reportedly prevented him from leaving the house by hiding his clothes, which I guess means Origen was either really committed to modesty or not all that committed to martyrdom.
In any case, she needed him around, since he was the oldest of seven children, because even then, the traditional Christian ban on birth control carried with it certain consequences. In any case, his mom apparently knew what she was doing by keeping him alive, because Origen didn’t just get a job, he went and got himself a professorship at the School of Alexandria, which may have been founded by St. Mark himself. He also taught elementary school, instructed catechumens, and copied texts by hand. Most notable among his works was probably the Hexapla, a running commentary on no less than six parallel translations of the Bible, which has since been lost to history, but was arguably the forerunner to DC Comics fanboys’ demanding every possible variation of the Justice League movie for no real reason.
Mainly, though, Origen distinguished himself as one of Christianity’s fiercest defenders during a time of intense persecution. His work Contra Celsum is considered one of the most important pieces of apologetics ever written; among other things, it defends early Christians’ refusal to serve in the military: “And as we by our prayers,” he wrote, “vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them.” Haha, can you imagine Christians who are against war and committed to prayer? That’d be something.
Anyway, you get it. Origen was super important to early Christian thought and writing. He had one problem, though: he really wanted to catechize not just men, but women as well. Educating women was controversial enough in ancient Rome, even without the whole “Christian” thing, so Origen needed to make sure he was absolutely above reproach when it came to his conduct around his female students. It’s not entirely clear whether the problem was that he didn’t trust himself to resist temptation or simply that he didn’t trust others not to invent stories, but either way, he needed to make sure accusations wouldn’t stick. But then he remembered Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
The way forward was evident, though not particularly pleasant. It was time to say goodbye to the ol’ frank and beans.
It’s not entirely clear that Origen literally castrated himself. Ancient historian Eusebius says that he did, though, and there’s no real evidence that calls his account into question. Modern historians who doubt Eusebius’s account are quick to point out that it seems pretty uncharacteristic of Origen, given his general preference for spiritualizing biblical passages instead of taking them literally — but, if you’ll allow me a tiny bit of sermonizing, maybe this is one area where we could use a bit more literalism than most of us are comfortable with.
I’m not (necessarily) advocating self-mutilation here, but I think it is important to take note of Jesus’ phrasing in the passage. The solution to your own sinful tendencies isn’t presented as inconveniencing, insulting, or harming the people around you — it’s presented as handicapping yourself. It’s not, “If your eye causes you to sin, demand that the women around you dress differently.” Following Christ is a burden — a “cross to bear,” if you will (hmm, that’s catchy) — but it is a burden that the follower must bear for himself.
So, I dunno, maybe cut off your junk. Call it “the Origen rule,” if you want. As a reminder, though, this column constitutes neither legal nor medical advice.
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