Friday, March 30, 2007

Divine and human suffering: notes from Providence, RI

I am relaxing in my bed at a Ramada Inn—room 214, to be exact—in Seekonk, MA, right outside Providence, RI, where a powerhouse theological conference got underway this evening. The conference is titled, “Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering,” and it stars some of the great thinkers in the field of theology today, including Bruce McCormack, Robert Jenson, David Bentley Hart, Bruce Marshall, and Paul Gavrilyuk.

Tonight, Avery Cardinal Dulles gave the keynote address, and Father Tom Weinandy offered the response. Dulles said nothing new, but he spoke as the warm pastoral man that he is. He offered a quick overview of divine omnipotence in Scripture and the question of evil in the history of philosophy. He closed by listing seven possible responses to human suffering, concluding that the way of the saints—a reverent and confident trust in God—is the proper Christian response. Weinandy spoke about the transcendence of God as the condition for God’s acting in history. He asserted that we must begin our reflection upon divine being by first positing the transcendent perfection of God—God is all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing, etc.—before we can properly speak of God’s relation to time and space. My quick response: how do you know God apart from what God did in time and space?

Tomorrow’s schedule is jam-packed with great speakers. More notes from Providence coming tomorrow.

PTS Annual Used Book Sale

The 2007 Princeton Seminary Annual Used Book Sale has come and gone. Each year, all the proceeds from the sale go to benefit theological seminaries around the world. Last year, they raised around $27,000 and this year they have exceeded that amount. Without a doubt, the book sale is a highlight of the year for students. Here are a few of the books that I found:
  • Gerhard Ebeling, Word and Faith
  • H. R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ
  • Isaak Dorner, Divine Immutability
  • D. M. Baillie, God Was In Christ & The Theology of the Sacraments
  • Emil Brunner, The Mediator
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Temptation
  • Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be & The Eternal Now
  • Regin Prenter, Creation and Redemption
  • Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith & The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
  • Helmut Thielicke, Nihilism & The Silence of God
  • Jacques Maritain, St. Thomas Aquinas
  • G. W. Leibniz, Theodicy
  • Baruch Spinoza, The Philosophy of Spinoza: Selections
  • P. T. Forsyth, This Life and the Next

Thursday, March 29, 2007

G. K. Chesterton: anti-Americanism, cosmic patriotism, and Jeremiah

In addition to phrases like “support our troops,” right-wing Americans have gotten extensive mileage out of using the label “anti-American” whenever someone criticizes the United States. The assumption is that if you are critical of America, you are on “their” side. The phrase depends upon an us-vs-them framework, in which you are either for or against—in which to be “for” something means to give unqualified support to it, whereas to be “against” something means to utterly reject it, to wish its annihilation.

In his marvelous book, Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton writes about the distinction between optimism and pessimism, and along with that, the distinction between patriotism and anti-patriotism. As he begins to speak about the kind of anti-patriotism that is problematic, he clarifies himself:
I do not speak (of course) of the anti-patriotism which only irritates feverish stockbrokers and gushing actresses; that is only patriotism speaking plainly. A man who says that no patriot should attack the Boer War until it is over is not worth answering intelligently; he is saying that no good son should warn his mother off a cliff until she has fallen over it.
Chesterton could be—and is, I think—speaking to us. We might modify Chesterton’s statement thusly: “A man who says that no patriot should attack the War in Iraq until it is over is not worth answering intelligently; he is saying that no good son should warn his mother off a cliff until she has fallen over it.” Unfortunately, we have far too many people in this country who are not worth answering intelligently.

Chesterton goes on to say the following:
The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason. The man who will improve the place is the man who loves it without a reason. If a man loves some feature of Pimlico (which seems unlikely), he may find himself defending that feature against Pimlico itself. But if he simply loves Pimlico itself, he may lay it waste and turn it into the New Jerusalem. I do not deny that reform may be excessive; I only say that it is the mystic patriot who reforms. Mere jingo self-contentment is commonest among those who have some pedantic reason for their patriotism. The worst jingoes do not love England, but a theory of England. If we love England for being an empire, we may overrate the success with which we rule the Hindoos. But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation even if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history. A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. But a man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy. He may end (like Carlyle and Freeman) by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a Saxon Conquest. He may end in utter unreason — because he has a reason. A man who loves France for being military will palliate the army of 1870. But a man who loves France for being France will improve the army of 1870. This is exactly what the French have done, and France is a good instance of the working paradox. Nowhere else is patriotism more purely abstract and arbitrary; and nowhere else is reform more drastic and sweeping. The more transcendental is your patriotism, the more practical are your politics.
There is much here worth pondering. In a sense, this passage is Chesterton’s condemnation of ideology—specifically, the ideological co-option of patriotism. I hardly need to point out that Chesterton’s views would horrify the Bush administration. Bush’s patriotism entirely depends upon history, and thus he falsifies history freely (see Cavanaugh’s dissection of the myth of America as innocent bystander on 9/11 in Theology Today 63.3).

Finally, I think it is especially worth remembering the prophet Jeremiah, who was himself labeled an anti-patriot for critiquing his own city. Like modern-day conservative pundits, the priests and prophets of Jeremiah’s city could not see critique as the highest form of love. Instead, all criticism becomes condemnation, and affirmation becomes blind obedience. So Jeremiah proclaims:
Thus says the LORD: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, and to heed the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently—though you have not heeded—then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth. (Jer. 26:4-6)
The response of the priests and (false) prophets is not surprising:
And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die! Why have you prophesied in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant’?” And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the LORD. ... Then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, “This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.” (Jer. 26:8-9, 11)
If we want to have a decent country in which to raise our children, we need to make sure that this nation—along with all nations—is a place that is hospitable to prophetic voices, rather than hostile. For our own sakes and for the sakes of others, if we must choose between being anti-American and anti-prophetic, we must choose the former.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Blog Update: Loretta’s Basement and Zeros & Ones

Anyone who hails from Portland, Ore., or from Wheaton, Ill., must be a good person! And so my assertion—correction: axiom—proves true with regard to Adam McInturf (who lives in Portland) and Peter Kline (who attended Wheaton College while I was there and now attends PTS). Both of these upstanding young men have entered the blogosphere.

Adam can be found at Loretta’s Basement, where he engages with the politics of Obama, the philosophy of the American transcendentalists, and the theology of Colin Gunton and Alan Lewis. Peter can be found at Zeros & Ones, where he has yet to post anything—so we will have to eagerly await his going-public. Peter, we’re all waiting.

Barth: new creation as creatio ex nihilo

God declares: He declares His Righteousness to be the Truth behind and beyond all human righteousness and unrighteousness. He declares that He has espoused our cause, and that we belong to Him. He declares that we, His enemies, are His beloved children. He declares His decision to erect His justice by the complete renewal of heaven and earth. This declaration is creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. Uttered by God from His tribunal, it is grounded in Him alone, and is without occasion or condition. Such creation is assuredly genuine creation, the creation of the divine righteousness in us and in the world. When God speaks, it is done. But the creation is a new creation; it is not a mere new eruption, or extension, or unfolding, of that old ‘creative evolution’ of which we form a part, and shall remain a part, till our lives’ end. Between the old and the new creation is set always the end of this man and of this world.
—Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford UP, 1933), 101-102

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Slavoj Zizek: living in the desert of the real (part 1)

You just can’t escape Slavoj Zizek. The prolific, provocative, and occasionally bombastic philosopher is our most prominent and indefatigable prophet. On Saturday, the New York Times published a guest op-ed from him, entitled, “Knight of the Living Dead” (HT to WTM). In this short piece, Zizek forces us to consider “what lies at the end of the road opened up by the normalization of torture.”

Like most of Zizek’s works, this op-ed is full of compelling insights, many of which open up connections to other modern thinkers. For example, Zizek points out that a common argument used to support the use of torture is simply that “one must take extreme steps” in these extreme times. The war on terror is an exception situation, or so the typical pro-war, pro-torture argument goes. This bears a close affinity with the statements of William Cavanaugh, who spoke at PTS in 2006, against the notion of American exceptionalism: that the United States is an exceptional country fighting an exceptional war against exceptional enemies, thereby authorizing exceptional tactics such as torture. (The essay was published in Theology Today 63.3.)

Zizek then goes on to say:
Yes, most of us can imagine a singular situation in which we might resort to torture — to save a loved one from immediate, unspeakable harm perhaps. I can. In such a case, however, it is crucial that I do not elevate this desperate choice into a universal principle. In the unavoidable brutal urgency of the moment, I should simply do it. But it cannot become an acceptable standard; I must retain the proper sense of the horror of what I did. And when torture becomes just another in the list of counterterrorism techniques, all sense of horror is lost.
In this paragraph, Zizek seems to be speaking of torture as a Grenzfall—an extreme case, a limit or boundary, something that one only does but can never normalize. In speaking of a Grenzfall I am deliberating alluding to Karl Barth’s ethics from Church Dogmatics III/4. Barth and Zizek are quite close ethically at this point, in that the extreme case is not banned; it simply remains an ad hoc event which cannot be anything other than an act which occurs in the “brutal urgency of the moment.”

However, to his credit, Zizek goes on to clarify himself:
[A] clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is “dogmatically” clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.
For Barth, at least at certain points in CD III/4, it simply cannot be dogmatically clear that such-and-such is wrong. On some issues, yes, it is clear; but on others, we have to be careful. Barth’s dialectical theology becomes evident here in his ethics. Here I think Barth and Zizek are probably closer together than someone like John Howard Yoder might lead us to believe: there are some things that are clearly and dogmatically wrong. Rape is an obvious one. Torture is another. Whether we are able—as I think we are—to identify war as something dogmatically wrong is a question that vexes Barth, who seems torn between his “practical pacifism” and his experience of living through two World Wars. I do not wish to address the specific ethical details at issue here. For now, I simply wish to assert that Zizek is moving us in the right direction. He aims to turn us away from the disastrously slippery slope of normalizing torture toward a recovery of our “ethical backbone.” I hope that he, along with other outspoken religious leaders, succeeds.

(Stay tuned for a second post on Zizek.)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Divinity and Humanity by Oliver D. Crisp

I recently received my ‘hot-off-the-press’ copy of Oliver Crisp’s new book, Divinity and Humanity. In due course, I hope to offer my more substantial thoughts on this work. I bought it with the intention of exploring Crisp’s rejection of the notion that Christ assumed a fallen human nature in the incarnation. This view was first articulated by Crisp in his 2004 article, “Did Christ have a Fallen Human Nature?” (IJST 6.3, 170-88). This essay has essentially become the fourth of his six chapters, in the course of which he addresses perichoresis as a christological category, the anhypostasia-enhypostasia distinction, and kenosis, among other topics.

At some point in the near future, I hope to write an essay which will explore why Crisp misunderstands Barth and Torrance (among others) in their affirmation of the fallen human nature of Christ. The conflict rests, I believe, in radically different ontologies, such that Barth has an actualized-historicized account of what “nature” means, while Crisp works with a traditional, essentialist account. While this by no means exhausts the issues at stake, I believe this is where one must begin in order to unpack the christological ramifications.

I eagerly look forward to reading Crisp’s book. If others are ahead of me and can offer some more substantial reflections on this new book, I would be happy to hear them.

Note: It may be of some interest to know that the picture of Jesus on the cover was done by none other than Crisp himself! It is not the most flattering portrait of Jesus ever drawn, but it is surely commendable that a theologian like Crisp is also somewhat skilled in art.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

2007 Warfield Lectures - Lecture VI: “Workings of the Spirit”

Chris has posted his summary and comments of the sixth and final Warfield lecture, “Workings of the Spirit.” Here Tanner offers an extension of what she began in her second lecture on grace and nature. She speaks historically of two camps regarding the workings of the Spirit: one that views the Spirit as functioning immediately and individually, and another that views the Spirit working through messy, mediated, human forms. In the end, she leans toward the latter, but recognizes that the two lead to dangerous extremes—enthusiasm in the former, institutionalism in the latter—so a kind of dialectical tension is necessary.

2007 Warfield Lectures - Lecture V: “Death and Sacrifice”

WTM has posted his summary and comments on the fifth of the 2007 Warfield Lectures by Kathryn Tanner, “Death and Sacrifice.” Tanner here develops a doctrine of the atonement on the basis of Christ’s incarnation. She seeks to move away from an emphasis upon expiation and suffering and toward a loving divine action seeking reconciliation with humanity which takes concrete form in the person of Jesus Christ. See WTM’s summary and his strong criticisms for more in-depth analysis.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

2007 Warfield Lectures - Lecture IV: “Kingdom Come”

Chris has posted his summary of the fourth Warfield lecture, “Kingdom Come.” You can find the link on the index page as well. I recommend checking out his summary. This lecture was the most important in terms of contemporary theological trends. Dr. Tanner demolished social trinitarianism, and in doing so, she has done us all a big favor. I look forward to when her thoughts are finalized in book form. As Dr. Hunsinger said, Tanner was like a suchi chef chopping up social trinitarian theology. An apt metaphor indeed.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

2007 Warfield Lectures - Lecture III: “Trinitarian Life”

Lecture III Summary
In the third of her 2007 Warfield Lectures on the life of the Trinity, Dr. Tanner set out on the ambitious task of describing how Christ is also the key to the Trinity, both in terms of the inner life of the Trinity and in terms of how human life takes on a specifically trinitarian shape. As always, the Word is the center as the one who exists in relation to Father and Spirit and in whom our lives take a trinitarian shape as those joined to the Word made flesh. The second person of the Trinity is our “point of access” to the divine life; in the incarnation, our life becomes the life of the Son who joins us to himself.

Tanner’s thesis is that a trinitarian narration of Jesus’ life and death allows us to uncover the basic shape of the relations among the persons of the Trinity. In other words, while Tanner does not use the terms, her lecture intends to describe the trinitarian movement of the economic Trinity in order to explicate the general pattern of internal relations in the immanent Trinity. Moreover, she suggests that a trinitarian narration of the biblical witness has the potential to resolve the controversies between the East and West regarding the ordering of the persons of the Trinity (e.g., the filioque). Finally, this general pattern of trinitarian relations is also a template for how we, as humans joined to the Word incarnate, relate to the Trinity. It is important to notice here, in light of the fourth lecture, that Tanner does not mean human social life takes on the shape of the Trinity, but that the trinitarian life is descriptive of how human persons relate to the Trinity, though not to each other.

Tanner begins by describing the relations between the three persons of the Trinity narrated in Jesus’ life and death. According to Tanner, “the general pattern begins and ends with the one Jesus calls Father,” who sends the Son on a mission for our good, which culminates in the Son sending the Spirit to us in his return to the Father. The Father initiates the movement, while the Son and Spirit accomplish it. The work of Christ is finished in us as we are brought into the Son’s relation to the Father by the Spirit. There is clearly a circular movement of descent—in the triune mission toward us—and ascent—in the return to the Father in which we are brought along through the Son. The “fulcrum” is found in the gifts of Son and Spirit, in which the Son brings the Spirit and the Spirit conforms us to the shape of the Son. Son and Spirit together accomplish the mission from the Father back to the Father.

This trinitarian movement may seem to be binitarian in character—Father-Son, Son-Spirit—but Tanner argues that a closer attention to the biblical material demonstrates the involvement of the Spirit in the first movement (Father-Son). Here, the conflict between East and West becomes evident. In what follows, Tanner seeks to show that the Spirit is sent from the Father by Christ; Christ can send the Spirit only because the Spirit is involved in the begetting of the Son. There is a clear distinction between the Father sending the Spirit and Christ sending the Spirit—complicating the Western model—but the Spirit is also the bond of unity between Father and Son—complicating the Eastern model.

In order to clarify the East-West conflict, Tanner turns to the biblical narrative of Jesus’ life and death to see how the Spirit’s involvement in Christ’s mission may shed light on the internal life of the Trinity. Again, her thesis is that the life of the Trinity ad extra in history reveals the life of the Trinity ad intra in eternity. Here I must necessarily be brief. Tanner begins with the incarnation of Jesus through the Spirit before looking at the life of Jesus, during which the Father gives the Spirit to Jesus without restriction. Corresponding to the downward movement from the Father, there is throughout Jesus’ life an upward “Godward orientation.” Here again Jesus is sustained and empowered by the Spirit in the self-offering of his life back to the Father. The Holy Spirit, in order words, is what unites Father and Son. Moreover, the Son and Holy Spirit always accompany one another. The Son manifests the Spirit, while the Spirit always takes the form of the Son. Similarly, Son and Holy Spirit appear together in our lives (e.g., “body of Christ,” “temple of the Holy Spirit”). The Holy Spirit establishes both Christ’s Sonship and our identity as adopted children of God.

The point is that the Son and the Holy Spirit are intertwined in the mission upon which they are sent by the Father. The economic movements of the Trinity in the descent take the forms Father-Spirit-Son and Father-Son-Spirit—the former focusing on the gift of the Son as a mediator, and the latter focusing on the gift of the Spirit to us through the Son. In the ascent back to the Father, the trinitarian movements take the forms Spirit-Son-Father and Son-Spirit-Father—the former emphasizing how the Spirit makes us “sons” in orientation to the Father, and the latter emphasizing how the Son gives us the Spirit to sanctify us for the Father’s mission. There are thus “clear, irreversible relations and roles” so that while the three work together, they do so in different ways.

At this point, Tanner launches into an exquisitely detailed narration of the trinitarian relations ad extra. I will summarize as best I can. To begin, the Father commands the incarnation, the Spirit enacts it, and the Word is the one who actually becomes incarnate. The Father sends the Son by the power of the Spirit. The Spirit is sent for the sake of the Son’s mission, while the Son is sent for the sake of giving the Spirit to us. There is a distinction-in-unity between Son and Spirit, so that the Spirit rests upon and empowers the Son, but the Son does not similarly rest upon or empower the Spirit. The Son sends out the Spirit, but not as the Father does: the Father sends out the Spirit as a precondition for the Son, and the Son can only send the Spirit upon his resurrection from the dead by Father and Spirit.

Because of the Trinity’s involvement in the world, we have insight into the trinitarian life ad intra. Here Tanner moves from the economic to the immanent Trinity. The Son is begotten by the Father internally just as he is sent out externally in his life of mission in the flesh. The Son is the perfect image of the Father, not only in his historical mission but also in himself. Similarly, the Spirit is eternally the power behind the Father’s begetting of the Son and the Son’s “perfect exhibition of the Father.” The Spirit thus conforms to both Father and Son in the distinct relations to each other, thereby establishing true unity within the Trinity. Finally, the return movement to the Father—the ascending economic movement—has its eternal parallel in the Son giving the Spirit of the Father back to the Father. Thus, the dynamic trinitarian life is complete in eternity in the same way we see it completed in history.

At this point, according to Tanner, we are able to reconcile the differences between East and West in a more biblically based account of the trinitarian relations. On one hand, Father and Son are more distinct than the West is usually able to affirm. In the descending movement, both Son and Spirit proceed from the Father together, so that the Son is not the source of the Spirit like the Father is. The Son cannot be the cause of the Spirit’s procession, because “the Son has no efficacy of action apart from the empowerment of the Spirit.” However, in the ascending movement, the Son does indeed send the Spirit back to the Father (as the West contends), but this sending does not constitute the Spirit. The Son sends back the Spirit only because the Spirit has already been sent forth from the Father. In this view, the Son and Spirit are both equal in relation to the Father, and all three are the equal of one another, since the Father never acts alone in bringing forth either of the other persons. Therefore, the West’s emphasis on the Son and the East’s emphasis on the Spirit are both equally affirmed: both Son and Spirit come out from the Father and return to the Father, and either person of the Trinity can be seen as the hinge of the whole movement. There are thus two versions of the descent-ascent movement of the Trinity (ad intra and ad extra): Father-Spirit-Son-Spirit-Father and Father-Son-Spirit-Son-Father. These two versions are not in competition; they are two different ways of speaking about the very same dynamic.

In conclusion, Dr. Tanner turns our attention from the life of the Trinity to the life of those who are brought into the trinitarian life through incorporation in the body of Christ. Again, we see the movement away from and back to the Father replicated in our own life. But since humanity is joined to the Word in the ascending movement of the triune persons back to the Father, our movement is first ascent to the Father and then descent with the Father’s gifts of Son and Spirit as our own. Concretely, the ascending movement begins with baptism, where we are joined with Christ in his return to the Father. The ascent reaches its apex in justification, in which we approach God in boldness in spite of our manifest sinfulness. Because we are joined to Christ, the relationship with the Father is one of reconciliation and peace, not condemnation. The descending movement relates to sanctification, in which the Father’s gifts empower us with new life. The sacramental parallel here is found in the Eucharist, in which God’s gifts become “energizing food for new lives” through the nourishment of the Spirit. There are thus properly two movements in worship services: the ascent in confession, prayer, and praise, and the descent in the benediction in which we are sent out into the world in faithful service to God’s call.

Comments on Lecture III
Dr. Tanner’s third lecture on the Trinity was a highlight of the week. The lecture is not only steeped in Eastern theology and full of profound insights regarding the internal dynamics of the Trinity, but it is also the most doxological of the lectures. Here Tanner came closest to bridging the distinction between instruction and liturgy, teaching and worship. Furthermore, her ambitious attempt (which I find to be persuasive) to reconcile the differences between East and West results in the most creative exposition of the Trinity that I have perhaps ever encountered.

If there is anything I might add, it would be a discussion of the doctrines of perichoresis and appropriation. These have been in vogue throughout the twentieth century, particularly among social trinitarians. And while Tanner enters quite fully into the debate over social trinitarianism in the fourth lecture, it would have been helpful here if she had discussed these notions and demonstrated how the trinitarian life is more fully understood with these concepts in mind.

Her lecture is notable for the way she carefully and thoroughly reasons from the economic to the immanent Trinity. She does a superb job of describing these relations in depth. Most impressively, her lecture not only addresses major theological controversies between East and West, but it also incorporates Christian worship and service. Thus, her lecture single-handedly demonstrates how the doctrine of the Trinity is not merely an abstract theological dogma—as many throughout the modern period have thought (and thereby dismissed it as irrelevant)—but it has great practical import. What makes the lecture so commendable is that Tanner is able to address both the abstract theology and the practical implications at once. Tanner brought together both the didactic and the doxological ramifications of a proper doctrine of the Trinity, and for that reason, I have gained immensely from this lecture.

2007 Warfield Lectures - Lecture II: “Grace without Nature”

WTM has posted his summary of the second lecture by Dr. Tanner. The link has been added to the index of lectures (which you can also find in the sidebar).

Also, in his post noting my summary of the first lecture, he has included some photos. (One of the photos is a blurry picture of me and my wife, if you are interested.)

I hope to get the review of the third lecture posted soon. It was a whirlwind, so it may take another day.

Monday, March 19, 2007

2007 Warfield Lectures - Lecture I: “In the Image of the Invisible”

Lecture I Summary
Dr. Kathryn Tanner began her first lecture in the series, “Christ as Key,” by introducing her project. These six lectures are a continuation of what she began in her book, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity. Her intention is to demonstrate the fruitfulness of a focus upon Christ as the hinge in the exposition of major theological loci.

With that introduction, Tanner began this first lecture by articulating her thesis: A Christ-centered account of human nature moves away from looking at intrinsic human capacities and focuses instead upon what humans do not have—viz., the image of God that is the second person of the Trinity. Thus, an apophatic anthropology is descriptive of an apophatic christology. Human beings are an incomprehensible image of the Incomprehensible.

Tanner then sped through an account of the imago dei in early Christian theology. Based on the account in Genesis, she said, theologians have tried to identity the image of God in certain self-enclosed properties of human creatures that make them different from other creatures. Like many theologians today, she used Augustine as the supreme example of this. The problem with such accounts is that they end up locating the image in humans as self-enclosed beings in abstraction from their relations to others. An alternative would be to locate the image in human relations with others, but this might still lead to viewing the image as a capacity resident within humans. Tanner goes on to emphasize that the Genesis account does not say humans are actually the image of God, but that they are created in or after the image of God. We are in fact “on the way” to the image in virtue of what we are in ourselves. There is thus a teleological sense to the imago dei; there is a similarity to God yet to come.

In light the New Testament, the imago dei takes on an intra-trinitarian sense, according to Tanner. The image of God is the second person of the Trinity and is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. If we are to become the image of God, we must be conformed to the second person of the Trinity. Tanner stated that the image of God can be identified with either the second person of the Trinity (the eternal Logos) or the Word made flesh; either one does not really matter, since they each imply the other. Moreover, the image of God is trinitarian in that it involves the Holy Spirit, since it is the breath or Spirit of God which gives life to the human person in Genesis.

Here Tanner turns to the center of her argument. She brings together a non-subordinationist trinitarian theology and an apophatic theology of the incomprehensible God in order to assert that the second person of the Trinity images the first person not as the “comprehensible stand-in” for the incomprehensible God, but rather as “the very exhibition of the incomprehensible divinity of the Word in a human form or medium.” Jesus displays in his life what it means to be an incomprehensible image of an incomprehensible God. Being the “image” of God, says Tanner, does not imply a lesser form of divinity; there is no subordination between image and archetype, between second person and first person—both are incomprehensible.

When we turn to the image of God in humanity, therefore, Tanner argues that we find there can be something incomprehensible about human nature as it is shaped in relation with God that makes it like God. Like God, who is incomprehensible because God’s being is “unlimited,” humans image God by “not having a clearly delimited nature.” Humans by nature have an internal drive to transcend boundaries, to go beyond their finite limitedness. This is the “weirdly unlimited character of human nature.” Human faculties are of interest precisely because of their “excessive openness,” i.e., their attraction to formation by what exceeds their own limitedness.

In other words, according to Tanner, if humans are to be made over in God’s image, “to be radically reworked and deified as Jesus’ humanity is,” what is interesting about human nature is its “plasticity,” its openness to formation through outside influences. Becoming the image of God is an extreme case of coming to be oneself in relation to what one is not—viz., God. “All creatures are formed in relation to what they are not, but humans do this in an exaggerated way which opens them to a radical reformation from without.” Unlike other created things, when humans receive nourishment from without, they are conformed to that external reality. Human beings become God’s image rather than God becoming theirs. Humans take on the identity of Christ. According to Tanner, “men, women, children, Greek and Jew, free and slave all go into the process of reformation and come out as Christ.”

To put this another way, human beings are marked by their being “unusually impressionable.” Tanner uses a few important images: humans are like soft wax which is impressed upon by various seals; humans are like mirrors which reflect whatever they turn towards; humans are like earthen vessels which gain their character from whatever they are made to carry. In terms of faculties, humans have “plastic powers”: humans may be molded and shaped like plastic in relation to what is external. To be human is precisely not to have one fixed human nature, but to be defined by what is “alien” to humanity, what is outside oneself: this is the meaning of humanity being in the image of the Incomprehensible.

By focusing on the second person of the Trinity, we turn our attention away from capacities resident within humanity as such. Humanity is defined instead by Christ, and this is something that cannot come about through any process of self-transformation. We do not make ourselves, but we are made by God. Humans become the divine image by being identified with what they are not; that is, when humans are brought near to the second person of the Trinity—or when the second person comes near to humanity—humans come to bear the image of God, the image that is Jesus Christ. Humans become this image only by “exterior illumination”; they glow with a light that properly belongs to another. Tanner puts it more strongly by asserting that human beings are not like iron which glows with the heat of the fire; instead, “they are like wood which blazes aflame with the fire of God.” By clinging to this divine light, humans are still only at best “distant analogues of divinity.” Humans are radically inferior images of the image of God that is the second person of the Trinity. Though humanity may be soft wax in relation to the various “seals” which we seek as organizing principles in life, in relation to the divine image, we are hard, unimpressionable, and resistant.

In the final part of Tanner’s opening lecture, she articulated what she calls “degrees” of the divine image. Here she more or less recaps what she has already stated. First, the perfect, divine image of God is the second person of the Trinity. The second person simply is what it images; it is not an image by way of participation—since participation, she states, is to be formed by or joined with what one is not. Hence, the second person is a perfect and natural image.

Second, unlike the divine image, human persons image what they are not. They receive what is not their own, hence an apophatic anthropology. This human imaging occurs on two different levels: (1) First, human nature itself is the image of God, since everything created receives its being from God and thus it constitutes a kind of image. In a sense, therefore, to be created by God is to be in the image of God. But this is participation at its lowest level due to the ontological distinction between God and humanity. (2) Second, and more importantly, humans are conformed to the second person of the Trinity through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Human beings, properly speaking, are the image by virtue of their participation in God. Tanner uses an important biblical metaphor: “humanity images the divine as the branch which lives off the alien sap of the vine to which it has been engrafted.” We can speak of these two different levels as the weak and strong forms of being in the image of God, respectively. The weak form is humanity in its createdness, while the strong form is humanity in its conformity to the second person of the Trinity by the Spirit of God.

At the close of her lecture, Tanner spoke briefly about the narrative of creation, fall, and redemption in terms of the imago dei. Humanity was created originally with both the weak and strong forms of the image, but in our “immaturity,” we took the gift of the image for granted and viewed it as a capacity resident within us. In this mode of immaturity, we were not properly receiving our image from God, and so instead we found our organizing principles from other objects in the world to which we could attach our desires. Our life was a life turned away from the presence of God. In the midst of this situation, Jesus Christ came to bring human persons back to their perfect beginning. Jesus not only has the Spirit of God (as we do), but he has the Spirit as his own—that is, as his own to give. In him, the Word assumed our humanity as its own, and consequently the image of God has become proper to us in virtue of our community of nature with Christ’s humanity. Because his humanity is indeed our humanity, Christ is our sure hope that the image of God is ours as Spirit-filled creatures.

Comments on Lecture I
Dr. Tanner’s remarks demonstrate a rich engagement with patristic theology (she quoted from numerous sources which I did not mention in the summary), but they also are a superb example of a creative and constructive project that has great potential, as amply demonstrated here. Without going into too many details, here are some of my initial thoughts and questions with regard to this first lecture. These are by no means exhaustive, and they are written without a sense yet of the whole project, so different questions may need to be raised at the end.

1. What account of divine self-revelation is being advanced here? If Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible and incomprehensible God precisely in being the incomprehensible, then in what sense does Christ make God comprehensible? Or should we interpret the term incomprehensible not in terms of revelation (epistemology) but in terms of being (ontology)? In this sense, for God to be incomprehensible would simply mean that God is radically other than humanity, hence the emphasis on the ontological asymmetry between God and humanity. Is this what incomprehensibility means in Tanner’s account?

2. If the Word assumes our humanity in Jesus Christ, in what sense is Christ both the perfect image of God and also the bearer of a plastic humanity which is marked by openness to outside influence? On one hand, is Christ simply a human who is especially open to the influence of the Spirit (not unlike the Jesus of Schleiermacher)? And on the other hand, if Christ’s humanity is plastic and incomprehensible, how can we be sure that the humanity which the Word assumes is in fact our human nature? It seems as if the emphasis upon a human nature which is in fact not a human nature—hence, an apophatic anthropology: we are what we are not—would make it difficult to ensure that the assumptio carnis is in fact the assumption of human nature, and thus the assumption of our common human identity. How can we be confident that we are indeed “in Christ,” that the Word has in fact assumed “our humanity,” and that the divine image is now properly ours?

3. The end of the lecture seems to put forward an infralapsarian narrative in which humans were created with a full and sufficient form of the divine image (weak and strong) that humanity lost through ingratitude and immaturity. Whether Tanner wishes to put forward an infralapsarian theology is still, at this point, an open question. Her second lecture—with its clarification of the relation between nature and grace—significantly helps to make sense of where she was going at the end of her first lecture. I am led to wonder, though, what Jesus accomplishes beyond the repetition of his Spirit-filled existence, which is seemingly the Spirit-filled existence original to humanity. Is there an eschatological sense to the image of God? Is there any reason to posit that original humanity had a strong form of the image? And does Jesus only bring us back to our “perfect beginning”? Is our beginning actually perfect, or should we not rather see it as ordered teleologically toward Christ in light of a doctrine of election?

4. Finally, there are two aspects of her lecture which I like very much. The first is the emphasis upon receptivity and the openness of humanity to impression from without. Here I think she is on more solid ground. As I have stated myself on a number of occasions, the imago dei should be understood (on my reading) as a soteriological category, not (at least primarily) as a creational one. Tanner’s account of nature and grace in her second lecture is an attractive one, and she breaks down the sharp distinction between creational and soteriological by reading the two together with Christ as the key. While I still lean toward seeing the image in soteriological terms—hence, one in which we are formed by God into the image of Christ—Tanner’s understanding is by no means out of the question. Second, I like her appropriation of Barth’s threefold Word of God with regard to the divine image. Similar to Barth’s concentric circles, Tanner places Christ at the center as the perfect divine image, followed by the circle of humanity as the image of God, followed finally by all created things which in an ontologically weak sense bear the divine image in their very createdness. It is especially interesting, I think, for Tanner to understand human beings as the image the image. Humans, in her account, are the image of God at a second remove, not because Jesus Christ (or the second person of the Trinity) is inferior but because he is the mediator. Both of these points—the plasticity or openness of humanity and the threefold image of God—are thought-provoking and worth appropriating. I am grateful to Dr. Tanner for bringing to light these issues.

2007 Warfield Lectures

Starting Monday, May 19, Princeton Theological Seminary welcomes Dr. Kathryn Tanner, Dorothy Grant Maclear Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, to campus to deliver the 2007 Warfield lectures. The Warfield Lectures are named in honor of Annie Kinkead Warfield, wife of Dr. Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, distinguished professor of theology at the Seminary from 1887 to 1921.

Dr. Tanner will be speaking on the topic, “Christ as Key,” through six lectures presented over the next four days. For the benefit of those who cannot attend these lectures, Chris TerryNelson (CTN, Disruptive Grace), W. Travis McMaken (WTM, Evangelische Theologe) and I (DWC) will post summaries and commentaries on each lecture. Below is the schedule of lectures. I will keep this index updated throughout the week by linking to the posts by CTN and WTM as soon as they become available.

Christ as Key

WTM and CTN.

Lecture I:In the Image of the Invisible” on Monday, March 19 at 7:00 p.m. - DWC

Lecture II:Grace without Nature” on Tuesday, March 20 at 1:15 p.m. - WTM

Lecture III:Trinitarian Life” on Tuesday, March 20 at 7:00 p.m. - DWC

Lecture IV:Kingdom Come” on Wednesday, March 21 at 7:00 p.m. - CTN

Lecture V:Death and Sacrifice” on Thursday, March 22 at 1:15 p.m. - WTM

Lecture VI:Workings of the Spirit” on Thursday, March 22 at 7:00 p.m. - CTN

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Dear readers,

I am taking a week off from this blog. There is much work to be done, and I also just need a break.


On the Virgin Birth: NT Apocrypha

§8. New Testament Apocrypha

The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary: Chap. 4
Thereafter [the angel of the Lord] appeared to Anna [the wife of Joachim], saying: Fear not, Anna, nor think that it is a phantom which thou seest. For I am that angel who has presented your prayers and alms before God; and now have I been sent to you to announce to you that thou shalt bring forth a daughter, who shall be called Mary, and who shall be blessed above all women. She, full of the favour of the Lord even from her birth, shall remain three years in her father’s house until she be weaned. Thereafter, being delivered to the service of the Lord, she shall not depart from the temple until she reach the years of discretion. There, in fine, serving God day and night in fastings and prayers, she shall abstain from every unclean thing; she shall never know man, but alone, without example, immaculate, uncorrupted, without intercourse with man, she, a virgin, shall bring forth a son; she, His hand-maiden, shall bring forth the Lord—both in grace, and in name, and in work, the Saviour of the world.

From The History of Joseph the Carpenter
Now when righteous Joseph became a widower, my mother Mary, blessed, holy, and pure, was already twelve years old. For her parents offered her in the temple when she was three years of age, and she remained in the temple of the Lord nine years. Then when the priests saw that the virgin, holy and God-fearing, was growing up, they spoke to each other, saying: Let us search out a man, righteous and pious, to whom Mary may be entrusted until the time of her marriage; lest, if she remain in the temple, it happen to her as is wont to happen to women, and lest on that account we sin, and God be angry with us.

Therefore they immediately sent out, and assembled twelve old men of the tribe of Judah. And they wrote down the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. And the lot fell upon the pious old man, righteous Joseph. Then the priests answered, and said to my blessed mother: Go with Joseph, and be with him till the time of your marriage. Righteous Joseph therefore received my mother, and led her away to his own house. … And after the holy virgin had spent two years in his house her age was exactly fourteen years, including the time at which he received her.

And I [Jesus] chose her of my own will, with the concurrence of my Father, and the counsel of the Holy Spirit. And I was made flesh of her, by a mystery which transcends the grasp of created reason. And three months after her conception the righteous man Joseph returned from the place where he worked at his trade; and when he found my virgin mother pregnant, he was greatly perplexed, and thought of sending her away secretly. But from fear, and sorrow, and the anguish of his heart, he could endure neither to eat nor drink that day.

But at mid-day there appeared to him in a dream the prince of the angels, the holy Gabriel, furnished with a command from my Father; and he said to him: Joseph, son of David, fear not to take Mary as thy wife: for she has conceived of the Holy Spirit; and she will bring forth a son, whose name shall be called Jesus. He it is who shall rule all nations with a rod of iron. Having thus spoken, the angel departed from him. And Joseph rose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord had said to him; and Mary abode with him.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Theology and falsification: can science disprove Christian belief?

In a recent New York Times feature, Darwin’s God, the question is asked: Can science explain the origins of religion? If so, what does that mean for religion? The following paragraph from the article is especially interesting:
Which is the better biological explanation for a belief in God — evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident? Is there something about the cognitive functioning of humans that makes us receptive to belief in a supernatural deity? And if scientists are able to explain God, what then? Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away? Are the nonbelievers right, and is religion at its core an empty undertaking, a misdirection, a vestigial artifact of a primitive mind? Or are the believers right, and does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?
The article raises some important issues and questions, and it is worth our time to at least give them our attention. The key question it seems to me is the following: Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away? This is a question that concerns us in a number of different ways. Here are a few of my own follow-up thoughts and questions:

1. We might rephrase the question in a number of different ways, for example: Is explaining the origins of Scripture the same thing as explaining it away? The work of Bart Ehrman is one such example of a person who has made this particular question the work of his whole career. And it is rather common nowadays to hear people speak the political context in which, say, the Bible came into being or the institution of the Church arose—as if explaining the political climate is the same as explaining away the Bible and the church. For me, John Webster offers a substantial theological response to Ehrman on the basis of a doctrine of divine providence. So Webster writes:
God’s work of overseeing such processes as tradition-history, redaction, authorship and canonisation could well be described in terms of the divine providential acts of preserving, accompanying and ruling creaturely activities, annexing them to his self-revelation.
But this leads us to another important issue ...

2. Can all things that appear suspect from a human perspective simply be explained on the basis of some divine providential activity? In other words, is there anything that could possibly cast doubt on Christian faith? As the NYT article puts it, “Or are the believers right, and does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?” This article assumes (rightly, I think) that believers will respond by saying, God did it! And while this makes perfect sense theologically speaking, it also makes me wonder: is that too easy? Are we capable of turning every potential problem into something that fits our system of belief? Can anything break us from our convictions?

This brings us to the important issue of falsification: What would falsify the Christian faith or any other religious belief? Are Christians guilty of what Anthony Flew calls “death by a thousand qualifications”? In his essay, “Theology and Falsification,” Flew asks the pressing question: “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?” More Christians need to wrestle with this problem. Recently, the question has been raised in light of the so-called “tomb of Jesus,” as John Drury so helpfully pointed out in his excellent post. Drury writes:
What would it take to disprove Christianity? Or, more narrowly, what would it take to disprove that Jesus rose from the dead? It seems to me that Christian claims about Jesus require that they can be disproved, at least in principle. I do not think this requirement is thrust upon Christianity by the world, so that Christians must be accountable to some sort of "universally recognized foundations" (whatever they may be). Rather, this requirement is entailed by the kinds of claims Christians make. Some (though perhaps not all) Christian beliefs are claims about states of affairs in the known universe.
When I was in youth group, I remember our leaders asking us if finding the bones of Jesus would force me to give up faith in Christianity. And I remember that all the kids said, No. At the time, I felt that this was a sign of our great faith. No matter what the world threw at us, we could handle it, because our faith in God could not be shaken by the most damaging evidence against us. Now I am not so sure.

On one hand, I have my issues with insisting upon the bodily resurrection, and I am not entirely convinced that a flesh-and-blood resurrection is actually essential. But on the other hand, I question myself as to why I have doubts about its essential nature. Am I falling into the trap of trying to arbitrate between theology and science? It seems to me there are two ways in which we might rethink the resurrection: (1) the route of Bultmann and Schleiermacher, in which our faith is protected from science by making a pact with science, so that religion and faith never conflict with each other; or (2) the route of Barth, in which our faith is not grounded in something of this world but rather in the self-revelation of God (though Barth, of course, accepts a bodily resurrection). Both routes, that of Bultmann and that of Barth, intend to protect religion from scientific inquiry. Bultmann does this by wedding religion and science—so that religion conforms to science—while Barth does this by divorcing them—so that Christian faith is not of this world at all. Science cannot inform us about the God who became incarnate.

My point is not to question the bodily resurrection or even to make this center-stage. The question is rather: Can science disprove the Christian faith? Is there any way science can falsify the Christian religion or any other religion? Or are all religions, including the most material of religions, Christianity, inherently protected from scientific inquiry? And if they are, is this a good thing, a bad thing, or simply a neutral state of fact?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

‘What you do with Jesus will determine what He’ll do with you’

This statement is one of the recent “crummy church signs” posted on the hilarious but depressing blog. In general, the signs demonstrate your usual garden-variety crumminess. But every once in a while, a sign comes along that merits a serious rebuttal. This is one such sign. The notion that God will deal with us the way we deal with God is so wrong that it either inspires fury or laughter—and probably both.

(1) First, such a notion inverts the relation between God and humanity: we are the active agents and God is the passive recipient of our action. We determine what God will do. We become the arbiters of our own fate. (2) Second, it is thoroughly Pelagian. Humanity is seen here as capable of freely deciding its eternal fate. The human person can choose heaven or hell, salvation or damnation, reconciliation or reprobation—all depending on what we want. We can decide our own future. If we choose God, we choose heavenly bliss; if we choose not-God, we choose hellish torment. (3) Third, the statement entirely bypasses the gospel. It radically misreads Romans and Galatians, and it reduces Jesus into our eternal judge, forgetting that Jesus is the judge who was in fact judged in our place. The gospel of reconciliation here is replaced with the pseudo-gospel (it’s not Good News!) of self-determination.

In closing, let us remember the words of Jesus in John 12.47: “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” Churches the world over would be infinitely better if we all remembered this.

Artistic creation or artistic stewardship?

In a lecture yesterday, Prof. Gordon Graham spoke of artistic creation and the unique characteristics of art: the fashioning (through various media) of narratives, characters, objects, etc. that have never in fact existed -- but which do exist, in their own special way, through the artistic act. He then went on to say that this is an example of creatio ex nihilo not unlike the original creatio ex nihilo in which the triune God created the cosmos. When I asked him if he meant to emphasize the analogy (both similarity and difference) between these two acts of creation, he seemed very hesitant. Graham wants to posit some kind of intrinsic identity between God's creation and our creation, though I assume he means to affirm an analogy between them since an outright equality would be rather ridiculous.

I pressed the issue with him, making the point that the artist cannot actually create something wholly new. Instead, the artist only takes what she has experienced or can comprehend and brings these elements together to form something new, though only relatively new and not absolutely new. Artistic creation takes place within creation. The artistic does not work in a void but in the midst of life. And the artist herself is a created being, not an uncreated Being like God. While I did not use the term in our conversation after lecture, I would rather call the artistic process an act of artistic stewardship. Creation, properly understood, is something only God can do. We are God's stewards.

These issues were raised for me as a student of English literature at Wheaton College. I read Dorothy L. Sayers' The Mind of the Maker, in which she states that an analogy exists between the Trinity and the human person in terms of creation. She speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Idea, Energy, and Power, all three of which are present in the human person created in the image of God. Sayers' book is theologically misguided on many levels. It is really an engagement in theological anthropology employing a crude trinitarianism; in a way, it is like Augustine in reverse, and infinitely less sophistocated. It seems to me that Graham is way too close to Sayers, and this concerns me. It looks like I will have to have another conversation with him.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Sermon: The Word of God Is Living and Active

Church: The Well
Date: March 4, 2007

Please pray with me: Word of all Words, source of all worth knowing, make us attentive to your words. We thank you for making us a people of the book, a people who know that insofar as we live, we live in your story—the story of mercy and forgiveness as well as of judgment and death, both found in the story of your Son, Jesus Christ. Help us to remember his story, and thereby also to remember our own. In the name of the Word made flesh. Amen.

Today, in our third week on spiritual practices, my subject is Scripture and study. Even though it may seem natural to have someone who likes to study talk about studying, this is a really hard topic to speak about. For starters, like most of the topics in this series, the topic of Scripture is just huge. If studying the Gospel of John took over a year, how long would a series on Scripture as a whole take?! But maybe the bigger problem is how to make this topic interesting. We no longer live in an age of books. Reading has given way to blogging. Books have given way to movies. Studying has given way to watching television shows.

And so we speak of Scripture as a spiritual discipline—something we just have to do. For the most part, reading Scripture is no longer a natural part of our lives, like eating and sleeping and laughing; now it is a task, a chore, a homework assignment, a New Year’s resolution, a topic for a thesis or dissertation, an authority that we consult when we need guidance, a record of laws to tell us how to be different from our neighbors, and perhaps worse of all, a weapon that we use against people—whether as a way to judge others morally, or to justify dividing a church, or simply to explain why “we” are right and “they” are wrong. Scripture is often seen simply as a “dead letter”; it’s something we use. The Bible has become a means toward some other end—whether it’s a compass or a map to guide our lives, a book of laws to tell us how to act, or a rock quarry which we must dig through to find the nuggets of gold that we can use in a research paper or as quotes to tape to our bathroom mirror or hang as ornaments on the wall or as ways of getting rich by writing a book based on virtually nothing (e.g, The Prayer of Jabez).

The point is, once we make Scripture a means toward some other end, it becomes really easy for us to find other ways to reach that end besides reading Scripture. And this is no less the case in churches than anywhere else. At seeker-friendly mega-churches, which I have attended in the past, the goal of the sermon is to keep people coming back, to keep them interested. When that is the goal, the Bible is no longer necessary. Not surprisingly, the sermons almost never mentioned the Bible. The preacher might throw in a verse here or there for good measure, but otherwise, the Bible was unnecessary. In the church where I grew up, the preachers loved to speak of the Bible as our compass in life, as our map to guide us through the difficulties in this world. And even though the Bible was talked about all the time, it is my conviction that viewing Scripture in these terms is the surest and quickest way of making Scripture obsolete.

What do I mean by this? To demonstrate what I mean, I’d like to bring to our attention some things that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote while he was in prison under the Nazis, shortly before his execution. Near the end of his life, Bonhoeffer became increasingly concerned about the place of God in the modern world. God, he said, is only spoken of when there is a question which our own human resources cannot answer. These are the “ultimate questions.” God “becomes the answer to life’s problems, and the solution of its needs and conflicts.” Bonhoeffer goes on to say one of the most profound things I have ever read, and when I first read it in 2004, it changed my life. He writes:
Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end . . . They bring [God] on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure . . . Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous . . . It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness. . . . God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village.
Now what does this passage have to do with the Bible? Quite a bit, I think. When Scripture is treated simply as the Book of Answers or as our Spiritual Compass, the Bible simply becomes the solution for what we cannot solve ourselves. We turn to prayer only when we cannot fix the situation on our own. Before we know it, Scripture becomes superfluous. The Bible becomes the book on the boundaries, rather than the story that shapes the center of our very life.

So how should we approach the Bible? Maybe it would be helpful to see how we shouldn’t approach it. Maybe the best example of the wrong view of the Bible is from the old Princeton Seminary theologian, Charles Hodge:
The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his store-house of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches. . . . The duty of the Christian theologian is to ascertain, collect, and combine all the facts which God has revealed concerning himself and our relation to Him. These facts are all in the Bible.
I held this kind of view for most of my early life. Todd spoke several weeks ago about scouring the Bible as a high-schooler for nuggets of truth. I was the same way. The Bible was my storehouse of truth; it was the rock quarry full of facts just waiting to be mined. This view was and still is very appealing to someone like me who is all too prone to turning the Bible into material for a systematic theology. This is the temptation of all rationalism: to become the master of the Bible. We seek to make Scripture serve our own particular ends—which might mean using the Bible to refute some philosophy or scientific theory or theology which we happen to dislike. And to borrow from St. Paul, if this is sin, then I am the greatest of sinners!

The view of the Bible as a storehouse of facts quickly turns the Bible into a dead letter. The Bible becomes an object for study, an object that we can pick through to find what we want—a verse to make us happy, a verse to comfort us, a verse to use against our Mormon classmate or Muslim neighbor. When the Bible becomes the object, we become the subject. We are active and the Bible is passive; it is dead. Along these lines, one contemporary writer calls our age the “age of cafeteria religion,” in which we pick and choose what we want. Cafeteria religion says, “I determine what God is!” We are active, while God and Scripture become the passive objects of our rational thought. This isn’t just a “dead letter”; it’s a dead faith.

Scripture itself shows us a very different understanding of God’s Word. There are two passages I want to look at more closely: the first is obvious, while the second is not so obvious. First, let’s look at Hebrews 4:12:
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
This passage makes it clear that God’s Word is the subject, and we in fact are its object. We do not pierce through Scripture; Scripture pierces through us. We do not judge God; God judges us. Scripture is not a dead letter, but a living and active one. It is not a storehouse of facts, but rather a double-edged sword.

But how can a book full of ancient texts be a sword that pierces us, judges us, and changes us? This is an important question. And there are many ways to make some major mistakes here. Traditionally, Christians have been accustomed to think there is something special about the words themselves. When I was young, my parents quoted to me Revelation 22:18-19:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
When I heard this as a kid, I was scared out of my mind! It used to take me five minutes just to copy down one verse, because I would check it over and over and over to make sure there wasn’t a single letter or punctuation mark in the wrong place. I didn’t want to lose my salvation! This was serious business. Consequently, the words themselves took on a kind of magical power in my mind. This was only reinforced by doctrines like the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture, which invested the words with a mystical divine status. The notion of inspiration began to arouse images in my mind of Paul dictating what he heard God telling him. In the end, the emphasis upon the divine nature of the words in the Bible led me, ironically, to view the Bible as an object—albeit a divinely written object. The focus on the words of Scripture has led evangelicals to identify the words on the page with the “word of God.” While this isn’t entirely incorrect, this is also where everything begins to go astray.

If our study of John only teaches us one thing, I hope it is this: the Word of God is Jesus Christ. He is the Word that was spoken in the beginning when the worlds were created. He is the Word made flesh. So when Hebrews speaks of the “word of God” as living and active, we should first of all think of Jesus Christ, the Word of God who took on our human nature. But that doesn’t mean we cannot speak of Scripture as the Word of God as well. We just cannot forget that Scripture is the Word of God to us only because it witnesses to Jesus Christ who is the Word of God for us. He is the Word who spoke the world into existence, who speaks to us through the gospel, and who, according to Hebrews, “sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3). Scripture is thus a living document only because the Holy Spirit works through these words. It is the Spirit of Christ who judges our hearts, who divides soul from spirit, who penetrates our lives. In other words, the Word has authority because of the activity of the Spirit.

Hebrews 4 is an important passage, but it’s only half the picture. According to Hebrews, the Word of God is a sword that divides and pierces, but what about the other side? Does the Word also heal? If the Word of God is a No, is it also a Yes? To complete our understanding of Scripture, let us turn to Ezekiel 37:1-10:
The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
This is a beautiful and profound passage. Instead of being a Word that divides, the Word here is one that unites. In the midst of death, this Word brings life. As in Hebrews, the Word of God is truly alive and active. The Word of God is the subject. We are its objects. We are the ones who are dead; the Word of God makes us alive. In other words, the Word of God rejects cafeteria religion. Those who hear and respond to this Word by faith realize that it is not we who determine God; rather, God determines who we are.

What is interesting about this passage is that God tells the prophet to speak, even though God is clearly capable of speaking a word that would give life. And yet God chooses to work through the words of the prophet. The prophet is called to bear witness to God by speaking the Word of God to the dry bones. And yet it is not the words which give life, but the God who accompanies these words. It is God alone who gives life, and it is only by God’s grace that human words—including this Bible, including the preaching of the Word—bear witness to this life-giving God. In the passage, this becomes clear when the bodies are all there, but there is no life in them. The prophet then prophesies again, this time calling upon the breath of God to fill the bodies with life. But in Hebrew, the word for breath is the same as the word for spirit. Thus, it is the Spirit of God who gives life to these bodies, just as in Genesis, it is the spirit or breath of God which gives life to Adam.

If Scripture is a word which penetrates our hearts and brings us the gospel of life, then it cannot simply be a storehouse of facts or a map to show us where to go in life. No, it is so much more than this. The Bible is a story. Not only that: it is our story. And it is our story because it is the story in which we discover life. It is the story which tells us of the God who graciously brought the world into being through the spoken word. It is the story which tells us of how we have turned away from God, how we try to live apart from God’s life-giving Word, how we have fallen into chaos, despair, and death. It is the story which tells us of how God’s life-giving Word became flesh in order that we might no longer be a valley of dry bones, but a community of believers who gather together in thanks and praise. It is the story which promises us “peace, peace, to the far and the near” (Isa. 57:19), and in which we hear that Jesus Christ “came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Eph. 2:17). It is the story which tells us of our death in Christ and our new life in his resurrection. It is the story which tells us that “one has died for all, and therefore all have died” (2 Cor. 5:14), that “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3), that “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19-20), and that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). It is the story which tells us that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). It is the story which tells us that “God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev. 21:4). It is the story, finally, in which Jesus says to us, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). From beginning to end, the story of the Bible is our story. We discover ourselves as we discover the God who speaks to us through these words. Through Scripture, we hear the life-giving Word. In these stories, we encounter the living God, and we are given new life.

What then does it mean to study such a Word? Clearly, it cannot mean approaching this text like a scientist approaches a lab specimen or as an archaeologist approaches the skeleton of some prehistoric animal or as a miner approaches a pit of rock. These are all metaphors which view us as the subjects and the Bible as the object. We have to approach Scripture in a very different way, and no one describes it better than Martin Luther:
It is most certain that the Holy Scriptures cannot be fathomed by study and scholarship alone. Therefore, your first duty in approaching the Bible is to begin to pray, and to pray to this effect: That if it pleases God to accomplish something through you for his own glory, and not for your own glory nor that of any other man, that of his grace he grant you a true understanding of his words.

The reason for this is that no master of the divine word exists, except the author of these words, as Christ himself says, “They shall all be taught of God” (Jn. 6:45). Therefore, you on your own part must stand in complete despair of your own industry and scholarship, and rely solely and utterly on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Believe me, I know the truth of this in my own life.
Luther does mean that scholarship and study are not important. Luther himself was an academic theologian, and his collected writings number well over 50 volumes of material. So clearly scholarship is important. But we must, according to Luther, approach the Bible in the posture of prayer. Why is that? Because when we pray, we acknowledge God as the subject, as the one who acts. We approach God as one who speaks, who creates, who saves and redeems. The one who studies Scripture must always remember that we depend entirely upon the Holy Spirit who breathes life into our dead bones. We must be taught of God. We must be made new by God. And most importantly, we must pray.

When we approach this text, we must remember that this is our story. The Bible does not simply speak about God; it also speaks about us. And it speaks about us as those who rely solely and utterly upon the triune God for our very life. The story of Scripture is a living story: it pierces our inner being and proclaims the wonders of God’s love. The story of Scripture is the story in which we find ourselves. Just to make clear: the Bible is not a story in which we insert ourselves; it is not a story which we may join if we want. It is not as if the Bible speaks about some group of people that doesn’t include us at one point and then does include us later. No, when we encounter the Word of God in Scripture, we discover that we were part of this story from the very beginning. Even without our knowing it, this story is our story. We can never say that this book is about so and so, but it has nothing to do with me. On the contrary, God speaks to each person directly and says, “You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

In the final analysis, the story of Christ is our story. In the incarnation, God made all of our stories God’s own, and consequently, God’s story became ours. Indeed, our life is hidden with Christ in God. His life is our life, even when can’t recognize it. To paraphrase Luther, when we are feeling our best, when we think we are the most moral and good people we can be, the gospel tells us that we are utterly sinful and there is no one righteous, not even one; and when we are feeling our worst, when we think we are the most sinful and wretched people on earth, the gospel tells us that we are truly righteous, that we are new creations, that we are justified by faith and have peace with God. In other words, Scripture shows us who we really are, even when everything in our life seems to tell us otherwise.

I wish to close with the words of author and poet Madeleine L’Engle, the author of children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time, as well as numerous other works of fiction and nonfiction. She writes:
So what do I believe about Scripture? I believe that it is true. What is true is alive and capable of movement and growth. Scripture is full of paradox and contradiction, but it is true, and if we fallible human creatures look regularly and humbly at the great pages and people of Scripture, if we are willing to accept truth rather than rigidly infallible statements, we will be given life, and life more abundantly.
The question for us is: Do we believe Scripture is true? I don’t mean true in the scientific way, as if truth can be determined in a laboratory. I don’t mean truth the way Hodge might define it, as a fact that can be organized and contained, systematized and sorted out by our human reason. I don’t mean truth the way I grew up thinking about it. Too often we think that if admit the humanity of the Bible we somehow undermine its truthfulness. But if God lived and died in the very human flesh of Jesus, then why can’t God speak through the very human words of the Bible? We need to get beyond issues like infallibility and pursue truth. And the truth is Jesus Christ. As Jesus declares, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” The Bible is not the truth and the life; Jesus Christ is. We need to remember that we will not find life in facts or “rigidly infallible statements.” These are good for arguments and divisions, but if we desire peace and unity and a life of abundance, we must seek these in the one who is our peace, our unity, and our life. We do not find them in a fact, but only in a person—a person who lived and died and rose again for us and for our salvation.

What are some ways that we as a community can live as the people of this story? How can we approach the Bible not as a storehouse of facts but as the story of our lives as lives that are hidden with Christ? Here’s one idea. A professor and family friend spoke at my youth group back when I was in high school about reading the Bible with others. He told us to keep it simple. Get together with a friend or even someone you don’t know that well. Commit to meeting once a week. Together, pick a place in the Bible to start reading, whether it’s Genesis or Matthew or somewhere else. During that week, read a chapter a day or five chapters—whatever you are comfortable with. Mark passages you find interesting and talk about them. Nothing fancy or long-winded. Just talk about what you read, like you would in reading any book. And then just keep doing that, week after week. Challenge each other and be disciplined about it. This isn’t the only idea; it’s probably not even the best one. But it’s at least something.

The point of this is threefold: First, Scripture belongs in the community, so whatever you do, make sure you do it with others. The books of the Bible were meant to be read aloud. The Old Testament books were read in the synagogue, and the letters of the New Testament were read in the churches. When I was growing up, my parents read a part of the Bible every night for at least the first ten years of my life. I learned how to read by following my Dad’s fingers across the page of the Bible. Pretty soon I was reading. The stories became my own. Here at The Well, let us seek to make the story of Scripture our own.

Second, Scripture is not about searching for facts or trivia. The Bible is a story, and it should be read like one. Allow yourself to be absorbed in the details. Think about the themes and motifs. Notice the recurring metaphors and images in the text. The Bible is exciting!

Third, and most importantly, pray. We must approach the text in prayer, asking God to encounter us in these words. We must read the text in the posture of prayer, allowing God to penetrate our hearts, to strike us where we are vulnerable, but also allowing God’s Word to breathe life into us when it seems as if we are nothing but dry bones. And, finally, we must leave the text in prayer, asking God to transform us as we seek to embody the story in our daily lives.

In closing, then, let us pray: Gracious triune God, we praise you and thank you for your Word of life that is living and active. Send your Holy Spirit to help us be faithful and attentive readers of your Holy Word. Fill us with the joy of the Spirit so that our cup runs over and others will see our joy and discover that they too are part of this glorious story of salvation. In the name of the Spirit who brings us new life. Amen.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Newbigin: Exclusivist, Inclusivist, Pluralist

It has become customary to classify views on the relation of Christianity to the world religions as either pluralist, exclusivist, or inclusivist … [My] position is exclusivist in the sense that it affirms the unique truth of the revelation in Jesus Christ, but it is not exclusivist in the sense of denying the possibility of the salvation of the non-Christian. It is inclusivist in the sense that it refuses to limit the saving grace of God to the members of the Christian church, but it rejects the inclusivism which regards the non-Christian religions as vehicles of salvation. It is pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but it rejects a pluralism which denies the uniqueness and decisiveness of what God has done in Jesus Christ.
—Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 182-83

Friday, March 02, 2007

Peace Blogger Interviews

Michael of Levellers has not only moved from Blogger to Wordpress, but he is also posting interviews with the people in the Christian Peace Bloggers webring. Check out the first one here.