Friday, June 30, 2006

"A Strong Want Is a Justifiable Need"

I saw this phrase today on a billboard advertising the new Lexus sedan. What a sad commentary on American materialism.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Theses on Forgiveness

  1. Forgiveness only takes place because of the cross: only because God forgave us can we truly forgive others.
  2. Forgiveness is a gift from God; it is not natural to fallen humanity.
  3. Forgiveness is part of our new identity in Christ; because we are new creations, we can and must forgive.
  4. Forgiveness is an act of grace, and thus it is God’s work, not our own.
  5. Forgiveness is a relational event, not an individual one; bitterness is communally destructive just as much as, if not more than, individually destructive.
  6. Forgiveness is not an individual choice between two equally possible paths, but rather an act of obedience that flows out of our new identity; we cannot refuse to forgive without contradicting this identity.
  7. Forgiveness affirms the radical nature of the offense, and the radical depth of the wound.
  8. Forgiveness judges the offense by denying its power and its future.
  9. Forgiveness judges the offender by separating the person from the offense and thus affirming his or her humanity despite the inhumanity of the act.
  10. Forgiveness makes true forgetfulness possible as the art of allowing our identity to move forward toward its proper future; forgiveness kills the past in order to remain open to the future.

My Favorite Posts

I have added a new section of my favorite posts from the past. It will remain there and I will continue to add to it as time goes on.

On the State of Christian Literature in 1948 ... and Today

In 1948, a group of young Calvinists from Calvin College came together to compose a "challenge to the church," in which a number of essays were written on a variety of topics. The essays presuppose a Calvinist audience as well as the superiority of traditional Calvinism to other branches of Christianity. But these youth were prescient in their ability to see the direction of the church. My literary interests led me to their essay on the state of literature among Christians. This is their best essay in my opinion, and I have selected the best portions to quote here. We should be even more concerned now than they were then. This is a challenge the church needs to hear again and again.

The present state of Christian literature is poor. . . . There is a general acceptance [among Christians in America] of the line of thought which was current in Victorian times, that the only fit subject for literature is the 'Pollyanna' story. Only the rosy ideal is held to be Christian, and realism is of the devil -- despite the example of the Bible, a thoroughly realistic book. Accordingly, we are being bombarded with small, insignificant, poorly written novelettes which have insecure religious and literary foundations. These productions violate most of the rules of good literature: they use the pointed moral to a sickening degree; they are unrealistic; they give a very false impression of life. The writers refuse, either through fear or ignorance, to depict life as it is, indicating an avoidance of the facts of existence on their part. . . .

Is such stuff necessary? Is Pollyanna the only possible Christian character? . . . We need not worry about realism. A Christian writer, if he is living a Christian life, and thinking as a Christian, will write Christian literature. But he will not, if he writes literature, substitute a stilted, idealistic, and pedantic view of life for the realistic, surging thing that life is. Our Christian doctors deal with disease as it is, not disease as it might be if Adam had not fallen. They do not write learned articles on typhoid as it affects angels. Our Christian farmers wrest their living from a real earth, and do not expend their talent in cultivating the weedless soil of the Garden of Eden. And so Christian writers, if they write literature, must deal with life as it is, with its sin and shoddiness. . . . We live when Hiroshima has been bombed, and 'Christian' novels still deal with the problem of smoking.

We live in an age when pagan ideals of sex are being flaunted from movie houses, on the radio, and in women's magazines. Our only answer has been to produce novels in which the author deals with the problem of sex by emulating the ostrich. Characters in 'Christian' novels live in a world as strange as that of radio's soap operas; a world where the characters never wear lipstick; where sex life is lived in periodic fits of absent-mindedness, and consists at most of holding hands; where an unconvincing 'conversion' eliminates all problems; where all realistic portrayal of people is avoided; where conflicts of loyalties, where sin in its worst forms -- pride, hatred, power-lust, disregard for fellowman, do not exist and are never examined; a world which should turn the stomach of any real [Christian].

(The Youth and Calvinism Group. Youth Speaks on Calvinism: A Challenge to the Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1948.)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

On Spiritual Progressivism

The Burnside Writers Collective is a Portland-based online magazine with articles that are written from a Christian progressive perspective -- that is, evangelicals who are left-leaning in politics. Don Miller is one of the founders of this group. Their current issue has an excellent article -- not serious journalism but rather a passionate wake-up call -- on a group of Christians called "The Network of Spiritual Progressives." I wholly support their efforts as my recent post on the evangelical heresy made clear. I just hope more Christians in the U.S. will realize the truth about our society and do something about it.

A few caveats: We must be careful not to mirror the Religious Right by becoming the Religious Left, and thus identifying the gospel with a political platform. While I think it is rather self-evident that the gospel and the story of the early church promotes a far left, even socialist, political model, we must never confuse or conflate the gospel with that model. Furthermore, we must be aware that the anti-capitalism, anti-consumerism, anti-militarism that flows out of the gospel is intended to be embodied within the church. If we are able to influence society to become more just, equitable, and peaceful, then praise be to God. But we must never devolve into a new christendom.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Why I Am A Universalist, § 5: The Doctrine of God, Part 4: The Doctrine of Election (Section III)


Section III: Jesus Christ, divine election, and predestination


This section does not present any new insights, but it serves to reinforce Barth’s position with respect to his exposition of John 1 and his break from the Reformed tradition which posited God’s absolute decree as a protological decision regarding which individuals would be saved and which would be damned. Against this Barth places the scriptural witness, which stresses that Jesus Christ stands at the center of all God’s actions in time and space. Christ is involved in everything that God does economically, from creation to redemption, but the basis for all this is the election or foreordination of all things to exist in communion with their Creator. This election is embodied in Jesus Christ, in whom the pre-temporal decree and the temporal covenant of grace find their center.
In trying to understand Jesus Christ as the electing God we abandon this tradition [of the decretum absolutum], but we hold fast by Jn. 1.1-2. Jesus Christ was in the beginning with God. He was so not merely in the sense that in view of God’s eternal knowing and willing all things may be said to have been in the beginning with God, in His plan and decree. For these are two separate things: the Son of God in His oneness with the Son of Man, as foreordained from all eternity; and the universe which was created, and universal history which was willed for the sake of this oneness, in their communion with God, as foreordained from all eternity. On the one hand, there is the Word of God by which all things were made, and, on the other, the things fashioned by that Word. On the one hand, there is God’s eternal election of grace, and, on the other, God’s creation, reconciliation and redemption grounded in that election and ordained with reference to it. On the one hand, there is the eternal election which as it concerns man God made within Himself in His pie-temporal eternity, and, on the other, the covenant of grace between God and man whose establishment and fulfilment in time were determined by that election. We can and must say that Jesus Christ was in the beginning with God in the sense that all creation and its history was in God’s plan and decree with God. But He was so not merely in that way. He was also in the beginning with God as “the first-born of every creature” (Col. 1.15), Himself the plan and decree of God, Himself the divine decision with respect to all creation and its history whose content is already determined. All that is embraced and signified in God’s election of grace as His movement towards man, all that results from that election and all that is presupposed in such results—all these are determined and conditioned by the fact that that election is the divine decision whose content is already determined, that Jesus Christ is the divine election of grace. (104)
With this next quote we begin our segue into the discussion of individual election. Barth addresses the subject of individual election, but he drastically subordinates it beneath the election of Jesus Christ and the election of the community. Barth’s theology works in concentric circles. The doctrine of revelation works as follows: Jesus is at the center as God’s self-revelation (the incarnate Word of God); the biblical witness is the next circle (the written Word of God); and preaching is the third circle (the spoken Word of God). The doctrine of election is similar: Jesus Christ as electing God and elected man is the center; the elect community of the church is second; and the elected individuals are the third circle. I will skip Barth’s discussion of the community, but of course all of these topics are worth substantially more energy and time than I can give them here. What concerns me now is my overall argument for universalism. Election is not the center of my argument, but it could be. For Barth, election is surely the center. I discuss it here, as he does, under the doctrine of God where it belongs, and I address individual election because it is what most traditionally think of when they hear the words “election” and “predestination.” Thus, it is important that I allow Barth to speak on that subject—especially since there he offers his most clear affirmation of universalism.

What is important, then, about this quote is that Barth allows Jesus Christ to condition all that can and must be said about predestination. And here we see more fully how Barth conceives of individual predestination, now that Christ stands as its center and basis.
In relation to this passive election of Jesus Christ the great exponents of the traditional doctrine of predestination developed an insight which we too must take as our starting-point, because, rightly understood, it contains within itself everything else that must be noted and said in this connexion. The insight is this: that in the predestination of the man Jesus we see what predestination is always and everywhere—the acceptance and reception of man only by the free grace of God. Even in the man Jesus there is indeed no merit, no prior and self-sufficient goodness, which can precede His election to divine sonship. Neither prayer nor the life of faith can command or compel His election. It is by the work of the Word of God, by the Holy Spirit, that He is conceived and born without sin, that He is what He is, the Son of God; by grace alone. And as He became Christ, so we become Christians. As He became our Head, so we become His body and members. As He became the object of our faith, so we become believers in Him. What we have to consider in the elected man Jesus is, then, the destiny of human nature, its exaltation to fellowship with God, and the manner of its participation in this exaltation by the free grace of God. But more, it is in this man that the exaltation itself is revealed and proclaimed. For with His decree concerning this man, God decreed too that this man should be the cause and the instrument of our exaltation. (118; emphasis added)

Monday, June 26, 2006

Why I Call Myself a "Universalist," Or, Why "Reverent Agnosticism" Is Not a Position

Patrick McManus has presented me with the opportunity to address something which I was planning on addressing at the end of this series. But a flood of questions and criticisms makes waiting no longer a valid option. The question is this: Does not the acceptance of universalism as a position mean that one is dictating how God must act in the eschaton? Is not this a human effort to rationally determine what will occur in the future? Now I have indeed made comments along the way on this question, especially in this early post. McManus was astute enough to bring up George Hunsinger's essay on Barth view on hell and damnation. Hunsinger characterizes Barth's position as "reverent agnosticism," or "holy silence." I still hope to address this essay in more depth, but for now I will present some thoughts on why I do not think this position is entirely adequate. I am not giving a counter-thesis to Hunsinger, just merely presenting a reflection on the subject.

I think Hunsinger has done something to make Barth more palatable to evangelicals and other groups beholden to the view that a universalist must be a heretic or a Unitarian. My professors at Wheaton gave their "10 reasons why Barth is not a universalist," which is necessary in order for Barth to gain a hearing at that school. But to avoid the position altogether is silly, unless one thinks that holding any position means that we are dictating what God must do. (To be fair, some actually do hold this position and think theology is inappropriate altogether.) Viewing universalism as human manipulationg of God is a poor characterization of universalism, in my opinion, because it cuts both ways. The universalist has every right to say to the person who believes that God will send some or most of humanity to the pits of hell, "Are you not also dictating what God must do by rejecting universalism outright?"

The point can be made by using any other doctrine as an example. Do we think that the substitutionary atonement is a human imposition on the nature of Christ's death and resurrection, since God is presumably not bound to this? No, because it was revealed to us that some form of this doctrine properly conveys the purpose of the Son's incarnation based on revelation. This is just an example. Here's another: Do we think that the doctrine of the parousia is controlling what God must do? No, because Jesus makes it rather clear that he will return. Of course God could, in an abstract sense, be and do none of these things. But we do not place our faith in abstractions; we place our faith in revelation.

I am simply making the same argument here: God's self-revelation makes universalism the best avaiable option. I will address this more fully in a later post. The point is this: if revelation points to a position as the best available option for understanding what has happened and will happen, then taking this position is not a human imposition upon God but our response to what God has accomplished and revealed. Now, of course, we do not know with any rational certainty what will happen after death or in the eschaton — but we do not have rational certainty for anything. We have faith in revelation.

Barth is contradictory on universalism. He says that he does not accept the position, because I think he knows it is ecclesial suicide for him to do so in light of the condemnation of universalism as a heresy. But in his actual theology he basically says all the same things, even denying that hell can be a reality for any person. I will post that quote two posts from now. So does he accept the position? As a label or title, no. But materially, he does, because there is no other position for him to take with any confidence.

Should he or I or anyone else fear using the title "universalist"? Perhaps, considering the Unitarian Universalists and the stereotypical liberal theologians of the past and present. But why should I let what I think is the best position be ruined by those who have tossed out God's self-revelation for their own idols? I refuse to let them have this word or claim the position as theirs and theirs only. I highly commend this post by Keith DeRose about the unfortunate reality many Christians face in trying to hold to universalism when "universalism" is a swear word in the church. It is high time that "underground universalism" be allowed to walk freely in the open without being viciously attacked by Christians in the name of orthodoxy. Can we have a universalist "coming out" party? Will we be rejected over this even though we are profoundly trinitarian, christocentric, etc.? As it stands, it sadly seems so.

In closing, "reverent agnosticism" is not a position. It is the rejection of a position, just as agnosticism is not the counterpart to faith; atheism is. My frustration with Hunsinger's essay is twofold: (1) it misconstrues Barth by giving the impression that Barth simply throws his hands up in the air saying, "Who knows??" when in reality he makes some very clear statements even while refusing to take on the title of the position; and (2) it gives people the idea that they can always return to "reverent agnosticism" as their safety zone, their default answer to any question that disturbs or confuses them. "Reverent agnosticism" is valid in response to completely irrelevant questions, like, "What will heaven look like?" and "Did humans actually live to be 900 years old before the flood?" These questions are pointless and we must be agnostic about them. But universalism is not such a question. I would accept agnosticism only if everyone who believes that there will be an eternal separation of the sheep and the goats also admits to being "reverent agnostics." I doubt this will ever happen. Why? Because they feel that the answer has been revealed. Well, so do I and many others.

Hunsinger gives Barth this problematic label as a via media between universalism and whatever the opposing side is (there are more than one). But "reverent agnosticism" is not and never will be a middle path, because it is no path at all. Agnosticism is not a position; it is the unwillingness to take a stand at all. But that is not the Barth that I know. Barth takes many stands, and many of them break with tradition—but only with good reason. Hunsinger leads us astray with such a comfortable answer to this question. We must not follow by throwing up our hands in a "worshipful thoughtlessness." The gospel does not permit silence. Rather, the gospel compels us to proclaim the Good News. What is that Good News? That God has taken on our sin in Jesus Christ and rendered it null and void on the cross, where judgment was effected and our salvation realized. We are entirely dependent on the triune God who alone is capable of rescuing us. We can do nothing to effect our salvation, prevent our salvation, or lose our salvation. The first is semi-Pelagianism, the second is historically impossible since what is done is done, and the last views salvation as something in our control that we have the freedom to gain or lose (i.e., the continuation of Pelagianism).

The Gospel compel us to think anew, to speak anew, to be anew. Anything less is irresponsible.

Why I Am A Universalist, § 5: The Doctrine of God, Part 4: The Doctrine of Election (Section II)


Section II: Jesus Christ, electing and elected


In the following sections I will mostly quote from Barth and then offer some reflections on Barth’s statements regarding election. Here I address the center of the doctrine: Jesus Christ, the electing God and elected man. We have no doctrine of election, no knowledge of God at all, apart from this locus, the focal point of all that we do and say. The following quotes come from Church Dogmatics II.2 (The Doctrine of God), § 33: The Election of Jesus Christ, and they serve as expatiations on what I presented in the first section.
Between God and man there stands the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and Himself man, and so mediating between the two. In Him God reveals Himself to man. In Him man sees and knows God. In Him God stands before man and man stands before God, as is the eternal will of God, and the eternal ordination of man in accordance with this will. In Him God’s plan for man is disclosed, God’s judgment on man fulfilled, God’s deliverance of man accomplished, God’s gift to man present in fulness, God’s claim and promise to man declared. In Him God has joined Himself to man. And so man exists for His sake. It is by Him, Jesus Christ, and for Him and to Him, that the universe is created as a theatre for God’s dealings with man and man’s dealings with God. The being of God is His being, and similarly the being of man is originally His being. And there is nothing that is not from Him and by Him and to Him, He is the Word of God in whose truth everything is disclosed and whose truth cannot be over-reached or conditioned by any other word. He is the decree of God behind and above which there can be no earlier or higher decree and beside which there can be no other, since all others serve only the fulfilment of this decree. He is the beginning of God before which there is no other beginning apart from that of God within Himself. Except, then, for God Himself, nothing can derive from any other source or look back to any other starting-point. He is the election of God before which and without which and beside which God cannot make any other choices. Before Him and without Him and beside Him God does not, then, elect or will anything. And He is the election (and on that account the beginning and the decree and the Word) of the free grace of God. For it is God’s free grace that in Him He elects to be man and to have dealings with man and to join Himself to man. He, Jesus Christ, is the free grace of God as not content simply to remain identical with the inward and eternal being of God, but operating ad extra in the ways and works of God. And for this reason, before Him and above Him and beside Him and apart from Him there is no election, no beginning, no decree, no Word of God. Free grace is the only basis and meaning of all God’s ways and works ad extra. For what extra is there that the ways and works could serve, or necessitate, or evoke? There is no extra except that which is first willed and posited by God in the presupposing of all His ways and works. There is no extra except that which has its basis and meaning as such in the divine election of grace. But Jesus Christ is Himself the divine election of grace. For this reason He is God’s Word, God’s decree and God’s beginning. He is so all-inclusively, comprehending absolutely within Himself all things and everything, enclosing within Himself the autonomy of all other words, decrees and beginnings. (94-95)
After his exposition of John’s prologue, Barth writes about predestination and election. I will offer some more passages on the topic of predestination and election in the next section.
In its simplest and most comprehensive form the dogma of predestination consists, then, in the assertion that the divine predestination is the election of Jesus Christ. But the concept of election has a double reference—to the elector and to the elected. And so, too, the name of Jesus Christ has within itself the double reference: the One called by this name is both very God and very man. Thus the simplest form of the dogma may be divided at once into the two assertions that Jesus Christ is the electing God, and that He is also elected man.

In so far as He is the electing God, we must obviously—and above all—ascribe to Him the active determination of electing. It is not that He does not also elect as man, i.e., elect God in faith. But this election can only follow His prior election, and that means that it follows the divine electing which is the basic and proper determination of His existence.

In so far as He is man, the passive determination of election is also and necessarily proper to Him. It is true, of course, that even as God He is elected; the Elected of His Father. But because as the Son of the Father He has no need of any special election, we must add at once that He is the Son of God elected in His oneness with man, and in fulfilment of God’s covenant with man. Primarily, then, electing is the divine determination of the existence of Jesus Christ, and election (being elected) the human.

Jesus Christ is the electing God. We must begin with this assertion because by its content it has the character and dignity of a basic principle, and because the other assertion, that Jesus Christ is elected man, can be understood only in the light of it. (103)
Barth is here at his most profound and revolutionary. By thinking through the doctrine of election from a center found in Jesus Christ, Barth not only broke with the ancient and Reformed traditions, he broke from his earlier writings on election. Yet at the same time he was attempting to be faithful to the biblical witness. The following are some observations based on these passages:

1. Jesus is identified as God’s self-revelation. God reveals Godself in Jesus of Nazareth; Jesus is the one in whom we see and know God. Jesus is the focal point which determines all our knowing and speaking concerning God. There is nothing about who God is or what God does that is not determined by the person of Jesus Christ.

2. Jesus is the sole mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim 2:5). The mediating role of Christ is absolute and not occasional; Christ mediates from incarnation to resurrection. Jesus does not mediate only on the cross, but throughout his life and ministry. Jesus is God before the world (Deus coram mundo) and the world before God (mundus coram Deo)—electing God and elected human.

3. Jesus is the electing God and the elected man, because of his identity as very God and very man. The hypostatic union forms the basis of Jesus’ dual role as both electing and elected. Jesus is both subject and object of election.

4. Jesus, as the incarnation of God, is the enfleshment of God’s being and will, or God’s being-in-act. Because one cannot justifiably separate God’s essence from God’s will, by incarnating God’s essence, Jesus also incarnates the will, decree, and election of God. Jesus is the embodiment of who God is and what God decrees—the God whose eternity and omnipresence includes time and space, whose immanent being includes economic becoming, whose constancy includes suffering and death, whose infinite freedom includes infinite love.

5. Jesus is the divine election of grace. The culmination of all that Barth has to say concerning Jesus is found here: he is God’s grace made manifest, known, and effective. Jesus is the divine election incarnate, the electing God who loves in freedom and elect humanity who is reconciled to God in him alone.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Miscellany

There are some very interesting conversations taking place here and elsewhere, and so I will hold off posting another segment in my series on universalism for another day.

First, Halden Doerge, the author of Inhabitatio Dei, is posting some fascinating thoughts and quotes from Bonhoeffer's Ethics. I heartily recommend reading what he has posted. They are full of sharp theological thinking. The last two posts are especially important. The most recent post is a quote from Bonhoeffer about the nature of the Good—not as what we do in the present, but as the reality of God revealed and accomplished in Jesus Christ. The post before this is about how Bonhoeffer completely gets rid of the separation between social "spheres," or "orders," which divide life between grace and nature, or between church and world. Consequently, Bonhoeffer recasts "orders" as "mandates." Bonhoeffer conceives of a christocentric theology of reality which places all social contexts within the framework of God's encompassing work revealed in Jesus Christ. Great stuff.

Next, I assume people are already familiar with Dr. Ben Myers' blog, Faith and Theology. If not, stop reading this and start reading his blog, especially the favorites posts of the past. His site is excellent. Most recently, I cannot recommend enough the "Ten propositions on preaching" by guest-writer Kim Fabricius. These are simply excellent. Ben honored me for some reason by making my blog his "Blog of the Week," though he made it known that he is not in agreement with me. Check out his post and the ensuing conversation here. There is also a fascinating dialogue about miracles, Ben's own translation of a selection from an essay on Jesus Christ by Eberhard Jüngel, and then perhaps most interesting of all is a conversation about the future of the Christian church in America. Unfortunately, that conversation seems to have died, even though it's deeply important for us to consider in light all that is going on as we speak. Finally, if you have not kept up on the guest posts about theologians that we love, do go back and read the ones you've missed. It's an excellent series. (Shameless plug for my own entry.)

Here at The Fire and the Rose ...

Some interesting dialogues are brewing here on two subjects: homosexuality and the Anabaptist "tradition" — totally unrelated but both important.

And "weekend fisher" has presented some ideas on grace and salvation here, to which I have responded with what I can only call the heart or center of my argument for universalism. I will eventually flesh out some of these ideas further, but I have presented the bedrock for what I have already said and will say later. I welcome more interaction from other voices on this topic.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Reflections on Luke 10 Two Years After the Death of James Pyles

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. … “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’” (Luke 10:1, 8-11)
Two years ago on this very day, my only college roommate at Wheaton College, James Pyles, was killed in a car accident on the streets between Israel and Palestine. He had left a month earlier to experience what it might be like to serve as a missionary in that region. He had hoped to eventually live there, learn Arabic, and work with Palestinian Muslims. His funeral was on the July 4 weekend of that year, and I flew to Toronto to speak at his memorial service. Two years later, there is still a gaping hole where James once was. I remember him telling me in emails he sent from Jerusalem that he was always willing to eat whatever people offered him due to his own eating habits, which—to say the least—were unstoppable. The man was an eating machine, though he was smaller than I am! Dinners for him would usually last a couple hours and require three to four plates stacked as high as possible. He was truly prepared to eat whatever was set before him, to be the presence of the kingdom in a faraway land.

I think of James whenever I think of people being sent out. Before he left, he recorded a video for churches who were supporting him. In it he said he was prepared to die for the gospel. I wonder how many Christians can actually make that statement and mean it, or, to put it another way, would they go if they knew for a fact that they were going to die by going?

But in reading this passage from Luke 10, I was struck by one thing in particular. These seventy disciples could say in complete honesty with every visit, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” That’s an incredible statement. In other words, they are saying, the kingdom of God has come near to you because we were here in your presence. These disciples are making the bold claim that God is with us, and because we are with you, God is with you as well. The question for our church and churches around the world today is whether or not we can make this claim. Can we honestly say that God is with us? Can we actually say that we are the embodiment of the kingdom? That when we go out into the world, we could leave our places of work, our friends’ homes, our schools and say, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” I don’t know about you, but I would feel silly and ashamed to say such words. Not because I am ashamed of the kingdom, but because I am ashamed of myself.

I think we get a clue about what is necessary for us to actually embody the kingdom from Lesslie Newbigin, who writes in his book, The Household of God:
At the centre of the whole missionary enterprise stands Christ’s abiding promise, ‘I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto myself’, and its goal is ‘to sum up all things in Christ’. When the Church faces out towards the world it knows that it only exists as the first-fruits and the instrument of that reconciling work of Christ, and that division within its own life is a violent contradiction of its own fundamental nature. His reconciling work is one, and we cannot be His ambassadors reconciling the world to God, if we have not ourselves been willing to be reconciled to one another. (Newbigin, The Household of God)
And T. S. Eliot writes the following in his “Choruses from The Rock”:
What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.
The idea of unity, of “life together” (the name of Bonhoeffer’s classic book on the church), of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” from Ephesians—all of this seems very distant from the picture of the church that we see today. What we experience is fragmentation, division, bickering, anger, politics. Right now some of the major denominations in the United States are holding their annual conventions, and some may look back on this summer as the beginning of the end of whatever unity these denominations once had. A seminary professor told me that he expects that our generation will see the end of the major denominations within our lifetime. Not that these denominations were ideal to begin with, but we are only heading downhill.

Eliot writes more on the subject of the church in this lengthy poem. He writes:
The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without.

Many are engaged in writing books and printing them,
Many desire to see their names in print,
Many read nothing but the race reports.
Much is your reading, but not the Word of GOD,
Much is your building, but not the House of GOD.
Will you build me a house of plaster, with corrugated roofing,
To be filled with a litter of Sunday newspapers?
We build in vain unless the LORD build with us.
One could use that last line as a commentary on the passage from Luke 10. Unless the Lord goes with us, we will never be the aroma of the kingdom. As Newbigin says, though, how can we bring reconciliation to the world when we are not ourselves reconciled to each other? This is just one of many contradictions which the church has to face today. Another is the issue of comfort, the ease of our life, our possessions and wealth. Again, T. S. Eliot is right on. He writes:
It is hard for those who have never known persecution,
And who have never known a Christian,
To believe these tales of Christian persecution.
It is hard for those who live near a Bank
To doubt the security of their money.
It is hard for those who live near a Police Station
To believe in the triumph of violence.
Eliot could then have said, “It is hard for those who live near a church to believe in the sufferings of those in the Third World, the trials of those in the inner-city, the poor and needy down the street.” It doesn’t have to be this way, but where I grew up, people went to a church to feel surrounded by loving people. Church was about comfort. It was basically an extension of their already comfortable lives at home, at school, and at work. Unfortunately, the history of the church shows that when people seek comfort, the church ends up dividing.

So in closing, I return to the thought of James and his willingness to be uncomfortable for the sake of the gospel. Uncomfortable and in unity with his brothers and sisters over in the Middle East. I will close by reading one more section from Eliot’s poem, a section which I read at his funeral two years ago:
Remember the faith that took men from home
At the call of a wandering preacher.
Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And of moderate vice
When men will not lay down the Cross
Because they will never assume it.
Yet nothing is impossible, nothing,
To men of faith and conviction.
Let us therefore make perfect our will.
O GOD, help us.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Convention Update: Baptists worry about alcohol, Episcopalians worry about homosexuality

I simply cannot resist. I am sure there are some intelligent, critically-minded Baptists, but the 2006 Southern Baptist Convention is a joke. The whole denomination was messed up from the start, but this just makes them look foolish. And I quote:
Messengers to the 2006 Southern Baptist Convention adopted resolutions on such currently controversial topics as immigration and the environment June 14, but the debate time was dominated by an issue addressed repeatedly in the convention’s 161-year history -- alcohol. ...

When the back-and-forth on alcohol finally ended, the messengers passed with more than a four-fifths majority a resolution not only opposing the manufacture and consumption of alcohol but urging the exclusion of Southern Baptists who drink from election to the convention’s boards, committees and entities. Like other resolutions, it is not binding on SBC churches and entities.

The resolution’s supporters contended the action was needed because some Christians believe they may drink based on a wrong interpretation of the believer’s “freedom in Christ.” They said abstaining from alcohol preserves a Christian’s purity and testimony, while drinking can be a “stumbling block” for others and has destructive results.

In all, the SBC has approved 57 resolutions related to alcohol since [1886].
My favorite part is the "freedom in Christ" bit! That's a never-ending joke just waiting to happen. I can see myself at a bar with a friend: "So, do you plan on taking advantage of your freedom in Christ?" "Oh, no, I wouldn't want to be a stumbling block for you." At which point I order my pint of Guinness. God to SBC: "Stop making up rules that I don't care about, and start doing what I told you to do - caring for orphans, widows, the poor and the needy. I don't give a damn about alcohol." The Word of the Lord.

In other news - more like, in another universe - the convention for the renamed The Episcopal Church (TEC, no longer ECUSA) is underway in Columbus, Ohio, and talk about homosexuality has dominated the conference. A slight change from alcohol. A resolution was passed to uphold the Windsor Report as an attempt to keep the unity of the church. Bishop . Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop elected in 2003, is arguing for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians - to which I am hesitantly sympathetic. Bishop Robert Duncan is not only the opposing voice, but he is also the voice of the future:
"We have reached a moment where it is very difficult, indeed, I think we have reached an impossible moment, in holding it together."

Sad, but true.

Read more here. And check out the NPR interview with some of the TEC leaders, talking about the resolution and the future of the church.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Why I Am A Universalist, § 5: The Doctrine of God, Part 4: The Doctrine of Election (Section I)


Section I: A summary of Barth’s doctrine of election


Accepting Barth’s doctrine of election is not necessary for universalism to be theologically valid, but if one understands what Barth rightly accomplishes through this doctrine, universalism makes even more sense. The central thesis of Barth’s doctrine of election is that election, like revelation, finds its locus not in some abstract decision by God but rather in the concrete embodiment of God’s will in the person of Jesus the Christ. Consequently, any talk of election must find its center in the Son of God who is the one who elects humanity for himself and is himself elected by God to be the savior of the world. In other words, Jesus Christ is both the subject of election (the one who elects) and the object of election (the one elected).

Barth places the doctrine of election in the doctrine of God, because election reveals who God is. Barth can say this because all of God’s acts ad extra reveal who God is ad intra. God is a being-in-act—in which God is what God does—so the immanent Trinity and economic Trinity are identical (and yet remain distinct). But our only sure knowledge of God comes through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, as the Son of God who came to the world “for us and for our salvation.” Jesus Christ, as the Word of God incarnate, is the self-revelation of God, to which Scripture witnesses as the written Word of God. To put these points together, election is revealed to us in and through Jesus Christ alone; in that Jesus as the being of God ad extra reveals the being of the triune God ad intra, we can say that election is an act of God that is rooted in the being of God as the God who elects humanity for Godself and is thus both the electing God and elected human in Jesus Christ. Jesus embodies both sides of the dialectic: in that he is fully God, he is the God who elects humankind by taking on humanity in the hypostatic union; in that he is fully human, he is the man who is elected by God and vicariously represents all humanity in his flesh. To put it in simple terms, the orthodox definition of Jesus as fully God and fully human is the doctrine of election in a nutshell.

The ramification of this christocentric reorientation of election is that individual humans are elect only in Christ. Just as the atonement is not something that occurs apart from Christ’s atoning work in his life, death, and resurrection, so too election is not something that occurs apart from Jesus Christ. Jesus was not just symbolic of the rest of humanity. Instead, just as in atonement our sins were actually taken on by Jesus and thus nailed to the cross, so too we must say that in Jesus all human persons were actually there in his person. Jesus was the one man for many. We often speak of this as the substitutionary atonement—which is indeed true—but it has to begin with election, because election is the primal divine decree that determines that God will be God for us and the humanity will be humanity for God.

It was the major mistake of much classical theology to separate election as a divine decree apart from the concretization of God’s divine will in Jesus Christ. By making election a protological decision—in which God decided prior to creation who would be saved and who would be damned—classical theologians predetermined the extent and efficacy of Christ’s atoning work. They felt justified in doing so because they did not view Jesus as the self-revelation of God—and thus the norm for all knowledge of God—but instead viewed Scripture as a collection of propositional truths. Consequently, if Scripture speaks of an elect people of God, they felt it was proper for them to elaborate a theology of election independent from any other doctrine—independent, even, from the doctrine of God.

Lastly, Barth’s doctrine of election leads him to affirm double predestination or double election. God does indeed reject and elect, damn and save, but both sides of this dialectic occur—or, rather, occurred—in Jesus Christ. Jesus was doubly predestined for rejection and election, for damnation on the cross and eternal life beyond the tomb. Because we are all in Jesus—because God elected all of humanity in the assumption of humanity in the incarnation—we are all involved in what occurs in the person of Jesus. This is what one must affirm in order to hold fast to the substitutionary atonement. Christ is the vicarious mediator for all humanity or else Christ is nothing but a moral exemplar who shows humanity how to earn their righteousness before God. If we rule out the latter—as we must—we are forced to grapple with the implications of Christ’s role as vicar, as mediator, between God and humanity.

In other words, for Barth, election is the ground and foundation for reconciliation. We cannot speak about Jesus Christ as the one who reconciles us to God apart from the work of election which takes place in and through him as the electing God and elected human.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Inhabitatio Dei

Let me be the first to officially welcome Halden Doerge back to the blogosphere. His new blog, Inhabitatio Dei, should prove to be a stimulating addition to theological thought on the web. Halden is a friend from Portland, Ore. who has interests in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Barth, Robert Jenson, Bonhoeffer, and pretty much anything ecclesiological. He is currently taking readers through Bonhoeffer's Ethics. I heartily recommend his new site.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Why I Am A Universalist, § 4: The Doctrine of God, Part 3: The Attributes of God (Section II)


Section II: Grace


In this section, I wish to let Barth speak for himself as I have done in the past. We turn our attention to the subject of God’s grace. What is this grace? What is the relationship between grace and holiness? These are questions which we will consider. I will segue between quotes, but Barth will be the one to address and answer these and other questions. All parenthetical page references are from Church Dogmatics II.1 (The Doctrine of God). If you read only one quote, read the last one (subsection 5), in which I have placed the most important passage in bold letters for emphasis. If you read two subsections, read nos. 3 and 5. I will return to the quote in #3 later, since it is especially relevant to the topic of universalism.

1. First, what is grace?
Grace denotes, comprehensively, the manner in which God, in His essential being, turns towards us. This turning, which is that of a superior to an inferior, and takes place in the form of a condescension, is contained even in the meaning of the word charis, the Latin gratia, our English grace, and most strongly of all the German Gnade. Especially the Old Testament contexts in which the word appears make it clear that in His turning everything which God confers on man as a benefit is implied: His truth, His faithfulness, His law, His mercy, His covenant (Dan 9.4), or, according to the apostolic formula of greeting, His peace. All this is primarily and fundamentally His grace also. (354)
2. Second, what it means to speak of God as the gracious God, as the God of all grace? How does the God who is the “one who loves in freedom” revealed as the God who is gracious?
When God loves, revealing His inmost being in the fact that He loves and therefore seeks and creates fellowship, this being and doing is divine and distinct from all other loving to the extent that the love of God is grace. Grace is the distinctive mode of God’s being in so far as it seeks and creates fellowship by its own free inclination and favour, unconditioned by any merit or claim in the beloved, but also unhindered by any unworthiness or opposition in the latter-able, on the contrary, to overcome all unworthiness and opposition. It is in this distinctive characteristic that we recognise the divinity of God’s love. (353)

God is gracious, merciful and patient both in Himself and in all His works. This is His loving. But He is gracious, merciful and patient in such a way—because He loves in His freedom—that He is also holy, righteous and wise—again both in Himself and in all His works. For this is the freedom in which He loves. Thus the divinity of His love consists and confirms itself in the fact that it is grace, mercy and patience and in that way and for that reason it is also holiness, righteousness and wisdom. These are the perfections of His love. (352)
3. Third, what is the relationship between the grace of God and the sinners who are the recipients of God’s grace?
The biblical conception of grace involves further that the counterpart which receives it from God is not only not worthy of it but utterly unworthy, that God is gracious to sinners, that His being gracious is an inclination, goodwill and favour which remains unimpeded even by sin, by the resistance with which the creature faces Him. Again, the positive element to be discussed here will fall for special consideration under the heading of God’s mercy. Grace in itself means primarily that the sin of the creature, the resistance which it opposes to God, cannot check, weaken or render impossible the operation of divine grace. On the contrary, grace shows its power over and against sin. Grace, in fact, presupposes the existence of this opposition. It reckons with it, but does not fear it. It is not limited by it. It overcomes it, triumphing in this opposition and the overcoming of it. (355)
4. Fourth, what is the relationship between grace and holiness? Are these competitive concepts?
We now place this concept of the grace of God alongside that His holiness. This cannot mean that we imply a need either to qualify or to expand what is denoted by the concept of grace. In grace we have characterised God Himself, the one God in all His fulness. We are not wrong, we do not overlook or neglect anything, if we affirm that His love and therefore His whole being, in all the heights and depths of the Godhead, is simply grace. (358)
5. Fifth, what do we mean when we say that God is both gracious and holy? What connects God’s grace and God’s holiness? How do they relate to the overarching description of God as the “one who loves in freedom”?
The common factor linking the biblical concepts of the grace and the holiness of God is seen in the fact that they both in characteristic though differing fashion point to the transcendence of God over all that is not Himself. When we speak of grace, we think of the freedom in which God turns His inclination, good will and favour towards another. When we speak of holiness, we think of this same freedom which God proves by the fact that in this turning towards the other He remains true to Himself and makes His own will prevail. How can we properly separate these two aspects? The freedom with which God remains true to Himself cannot shine more gloriously than in the freedom with which He turns towards the creature without regard to the latter’s merit and worthiness. And again, this freedom cannot be manifested and understood except as the freedom with which He remains true to Himself. The bond between the concepts of grace and holiness consists further in the fact that both point to God’s transcendence over the resistance which His being and action encounters from the opposite side. When we speak of grace, we think of the fact that His favourable inclination towards the creature does not allow itself to be soured and frustrated by the resistance of the latter. When we speak of holiness, we think, on the other hand, of the fact that His favourable inclination overcomes and destroys this resistance. To say grace is to say the forgiveness of sins; to say holiness, judgment upon sins. But since both reflect the love of God, how can there be the one without the other, forgiveness without judgment or judgment without forgiveness? Only where God’s love is not yet revealed, not yet or no longer believed, can there be here a separation instead of a distinction. In this case forgiveness would be inferred in abstracto from sin, and judgment from condemnation. It would not be God’s judgment in the one case or God’s forgiveness in the other. If we speak in faith, and therefore in the light of God and His love, and therefore of God’s forgiveness and judgment, as our insight grows we shall distinguish, but we shall certainly not separate, between God’s grace and God’s holiness. The link between the two is decisively summed up in the fact that both characterise and distinguish His love and therefore Himself in His action in the covenant, as the Lord of the covenant between Himself and His creature. (360)

Monday, June 19, 2006

Why I Am A Universalist, § 4: The Doctrine of God, Part 3: The Attributes of God (Section I)


Section I: God’s complexity and simplicity as the “one who loves in freedom”

The attributes ascribed to God have no other function than to give expression as precisely as possible to the God who is love. (E. Jüngel, “Theses,” thesis 5.4.2)
The subject of God’s attributes, or perfections, will not receive the close attention that it would otherwise deserve in an actual systematic theology. As a complementary addition to the quote from Jüngel, I begin with Barth’s great thesis that “God is the one who loves in freedom.” Barth’s definition of God’s being is significant in that it simultaneously affirms God’s sovereignty and freedom—what Jüngel calls God’s non-necessity—and God’s personal being as Love. God is a personal being who is free to act according to the divine self-positing will. God’s revelation is self-revelation and God’s being is self-determined being. God is who God wills to be. God is thus complex in “the inexhaustible riches of his attributes” (Jüngel), the plurality of facets of God’s being; but God is simultaneously simple as the one God in whom all the perfections of God’s being cohere in a mysterious unity.
This unity and this distinction corresponds to the unity and distinction in God’s own being between His love and His freedom. God loves us. And because we can trust His revelation as the revelation of His own being He is in Himself the One who loves. As such He is completely knowable to us. But He loves us in His freedom. And because here too we can trust His revelation as a self-revelation, He is in Himself sovereignly free. He is therefore completely unknowable to us. That He loves us and that He does so in His freedom are both true in the grace of His revelation. If His revelation is His truth, He is truly both in unity and difference: the One who loves in freedom. It is His very being to be both, not in separation but in unity, yet not in the dissolution but in the distinctiveness of this duality. And this duality as the being of the one God necessarily forms the content of the doctrine of His perfection. (K. Barth, CD II.1, 343)
This section functions as a prolegomena to the subject of two attributes which are important for the subject of universalism: love and righteousness, or mercy and holiness. The liberal universalist theologians of the nineteenth century up through today—including the general sentiment of contemporary “religious” society—emphasize God as love at the expense of God’s holiness. That is, they focus on God’s character as the loving creator and redeemer as if this overrules the “outdated” portrayal of God as judge. (One could and should call this “contemporary Marcionism.”) Albrecht Ritschl removed judicial language entirely from his famous account of justification and reconciliation, and some contemporary theologians like John A. T. Robinson do the same. The great error is that liberal theology operates, implicitly or explicitly, with a via eminentiae method of theological knowledge, meaning that they begin with human experience and then move to speak of God in light of what is “known” about human characteristics and actions. So when they speak about God’s nature as love, they define this attribute based on what they know of human love. When they speak about God as judge, they define this in terms of human justice. Such a method inevitably means that love and justice, mercy and righteousness, will be seen as antithetical to each other, or mutually exclusive. A person is merciful by withholding judgment. A person insists on righteousness at the expense of love and affirmation.

As we have already seen, Karl Barth views God as self-determining, and that means God determines what love, grace, holiness, righteousness, mercy, and justice mean for Godself. Humanity cannot ever define these terms for God. The unity and simplicity of God means that God cannot be divided up into different “gods”—such as the God of love and some other God of judgment. This was the fatal error in Luther’s theology, between the revealed God (deus revelatus) of grace and the hidden God (deus absconditus) of wrath. The moment we allow distinctions to become separations—which are often variations of the distinction between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity—we threaten to lose the one God attested to by Holy Scripture. This one God of the gospel happens to be infinitely rich in perfections, but these perfections exist in a perichoretic unity in which grace and judgment are not different sides of God but rather interanimating attributes of God’s ontological repleteness and superabundance. If we are going to explicate what it means to speak of God as love—which we must—then we will have to allow God’s being-in-act to define the essence of divine love. In other words, we will have to grapple with what it means for God to be holy love, whose grace is cauterizing and whose mercy judges us in our sinfulness while refusing to abandon us even while we persistently turn away.

I end this section with two quotes by Karl Barth. They are worthy of separate sections of their own, and I heartily recommend giving them the attention they deserve. Barth provokes us to consider what it means to affirm God’s love as universal or cosmic in scope while at the same time particular and embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. At the same, however, he emphasizes that this divine love is holy, meaning that God accomplishes God’s purposes over against all opposition. Of course, we must remember that God’s revealed purpose is to redeem this world and create a fellowship of new persons who exist in restored relations with God, others, and themselves by the power of the Holy Spirit. God is the Lord of all creation as the one who loves in freedom.
God is He who in His Son Jesus Christ loves all His children, in His children all men, and in men His whole creation. God’s being is His loving. He is all that He is as the One who loves. All His perfections are the perfections of His love. Since our knowledge of God is grounded in His revelation in Jesus Christ and remains bound up with it, we cannot begin elsewhere—if we are now to consider and state in detail and in order who and what God is—than with the consideration of His love. In the Gospel of Israel’s Messiah and His fulfilment of the Law, of the Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us, of Him who died for our sins and rose again for our justification—in this Gospel the love of God is the first word. If then, as is proper, we are to be told by the Gospel who and what God is, we must allow this primary word to be spoken to us—that God is love. (CD II.1, 351)

God’s loving is a divine being and action distinct from every other loving in the fact that it is holy. As holy, it is characterised by the fact that God, as He seeks and creates fellowship, is always the Lord. He therefore distinguishes and maintains His own will as against every other will. He condemns, excludes and annihilates all contradiction and resistance to it. He gives it validity and actuality in this fellowship as His own and therefore as good. In this distinctiveness alone is the love of God truly His own divine love. (CD II.1, 359)

Further Reading:

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1, pp. 257-439
E. Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World, pp. 314-43
E. Jüngel, “What does it mean to say, ‘God is love’?”
Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Charles Colson, Propositional Truth, and Inerrancy

In the June 2006 issue of Christianity Today, evangelical go-to-guy Charles Colson had a column entitled "Emerging Confusion." In this column, he spoke less about his rejection of the so-called "emergent" church movement and more about his underlying fear that "they are coming dangerously close to teaching that objective truth does not exist." Colson writes about a discussion (re: cordial argument) that he had with a contemporary church leader he calls "Jim" (McLaren, I suspect). Colson writes:
[After expressing the fear that emergent leaders are losing the concept of objective truth,] A lengthy e-mail exchange with Jim followed. In defense of emerging church leaders, he insisted that truth is paradoxical, simultaneously personal and propositional. It is objectively true that Jesus Christ is Lord no matter what anyone thinks, Jim wrote. But, he added, "Propositional truth is not the highest truth. Indeed, the highest truth is personal."

Like all statements that can lead us into error, those have the ring of truth. Of course, truth becomes relational when we come to Jesus, Truth himself. But our doing that isn't what makes it true. He is the truth whether or not we ever experience him. Scripture is never less than revealed propositional truth.
Colson's position is not unique; in fact, it is the bedrock of contemporary American evangelicalism. For much of the history of the Christian church (post-Scholasticism up into the Enlightenment), the Bible was viewed precisely as Colson & co. view it: as a collection of facts and propositions which tell us what we are to think and believe about God, humanity, the world, and all creation. Charles Hodge wrote an entire systematic theology which is simultaneously Protestant and rooted in propositional truth; his is the standard presentation of these views. The foundational doctrine which arose out of this propositional theology is the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Colson's column evades that sticky issue, but this is the reality which we cannot evade here: the concept of Scripture as propositional truth is wedded to—in fact, depends upon—the doctrine of inerrancy. Colson makes this clear, even while he avoids the debate over inerrancy altogether. What Colson fears is a radical relativism in which each person is his or her own standard of truth. No universal standard exists, and we end up with extreme emotivism: truth is what each person feels like calling truth; right and wrong are individually assigned rather than determined by a universal rule, canon, or standard.

Colson's fear is not unique to the so-called "postmodern" era. The same fear struck Christians a hundred years ago with the onset of modernism and Darwinism. Hodge and B. B. Warfield were fearful of secularism, because it attempted to answer questions like, "What is the origin of humanity?" apart from Scripture. Secularism, in their minds, was the destructive attempt to offer answers to the big questions of life without appealing to God or the Christian truth. We find, during this same period of time, the rise of atheism as a valid possibility. So Hodge and Warfield concocted the doctrine of inerrancy as the way of protecting the Christian truth from the danger of modern secularity.

What is the point of inerrancy? Inerrancy is not about the authority of Scripture; Christians already had that long before Hodge and Warfield came around. Inerrancy is about the universal authority of Scripture. In other words, inerrancy wants to posit the authority of Scripture for those outside of the church—for those who are not part of the community of saints. Most evangelicals see no problem with this whatsoever. The infantile debate between evolution and creationism is an obvious example of this attempt to make the Bible authoritative in all realms of human knowledge—which, of course, assumes that the Bible was intended to be authoritative in those realms. (Realms which were only established in the modern era, revealing again that the central problem for American evangelicalism is its almost complete lack of historical self-consciousness.)

Colson and those who view propositional truth as the highest form of truth—with inerrancy as the doctrine which protects this in terms of biblical hermeneutics—have everything backwards. They think that (1) because the Bible is a universal, inerrant authority that (2) presents truth propositionally, they are then justified in using biblical proof-texts to present what "the Bible says" about God and the world. Their textual case, if accepted (which it should be if the Bible is accepted as the universal authority on all matters), then leads a person into the Christian faith based on these propositions. In other words, the issue with inerrancy and propositional truth is the protection of apologetics as the rational argumentation based on texts and facts for the purpose of conversion (whether to the faith or to a particular belief). One could put it this way: propositional truths --> faith. Or: faith in the Bible --> faith in Jesus Christ.

As I said already, this is entirely backwards. One must find oneself part of the church in order to have the Bible as one's authority in faith and practice—I stress in faith and practice, because this is indeed what the role of the Bible is for every believer. Not an inerrant guide to all matters of knowledge, but the witness to God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Thus: faith --> articulating the truths of the faith, or fides quaerens intellectum [faith seeking understanding]. Or: faith in Jesus Christ --> acceptance of the Bible and the church community as, respectively, the norm for theological knowledge and the sphere in which the practices of thinking, speaking, and living as disciples of Christ take place. (I should concede that Scripture is our only authoritative witness to Jesus Christ, but insofar as we accept that witness, we place our faith in the person of Jesus and enter into the community of the church. We do not accept propositions; we accept the person to whom the biblical writers witness in the gospel narratives as well as the community for whom that witness is intended.)

Let's return now to Colson's column:
The arguments of some emerging church leaders, I fear, draw us perilously close to the trap set by postmodern deconstructionist Stanley Fish. Defending himself after his sympathetic statements about the 9/11 terrorists boomeranged, Fish claimed that postmodernists don't really deny the existence of truth. He said there is simply no "independent standard of objectivity." So truth can't be proved to others; therefore, it can't be known—a verbal sleight of hand.

For evangelicalism (let alone emerging churches) to buy into that would undermine the very foundation of our faith. Theologian Donald A. Carson puts his finger precisely on the epistemological problem: Of course, truth is relational, Carson writes. But before it can be relational, it has to be understood as objective. Truth is truth. It is, in short, ultimate reality. Fortunately, Jim came to see this.

The emerging church can offer a healthy corrective if it encourages us to more winsomely draw postmodern seekers to Christ wherever we find them—including coffee houses and pubs. And yes, worship styles need to be more inviting, and the strength of relationship and community experienced. But these must not deter us from making a solid apologetic defense of the knowability of truth.
First, a major pet peeve: conservative Christians should not be allowed to use the word "deconstructionist" ever. They botch it up every time. Derrida did not deconstruct texts; Derrida simply revealed where texts deconstruct themselves. And Stan Fish is not a philosophical deconstructionist, at least not in the sense defined by Derrida.

Second, Fish is right to deny some universal standard for defining objective truth. Colson is wrong to assert that postmodernity means "truth can't be proved to others; therefore, it can't be known." I am not defending postmodern philosophy, but Colson is blinded by his insistence on propositional truth. Fish has written a fair amount on "interpretive communities," meaning communities within which the interpretation of a text takes shape. The interpretation of Holy Scripture properly takes place within the church, and within the church alone. It was a grave mistake when the Bible came to be viewed as a text for academic research, allowing interpretation to take place within the university apart from any ecclesial context. Truth can be known, but that does not mean it can be proved to be truth as such to any Joe or Judy walking down the street. The truth of the gospel occurs as an event within the church as the "interpretive community" centered on the person of Jesus Christ witnessed to in the pages of Holy Scripture.

Third, Carson and Colson defend objective truth as if the only other option is "truth does not exist." On one hand, they are right to assert that Jesus is Lord and salvation is through him alone regardless of what any one of us thinks (see my posts on universalism for the implications of this orthodox position!). But in that case, truth is a person, as in "I am the way, the truth, and the life." And as a person, truth relates to us. Not that the only truth is Jesus Christ, but saving truth—the truth of the gospel—is found in him alone. More accurately, such truth is him alone. So is truth objective? Sure, in the sense that truth is determined by the triune God, who is real apart from any human affirmation or rejection. But is this truth objective for all people, like the truth that the sun gives us heat on earth? No, because we can only recognize that Jesus is Lord from within the community of believers, those who are called the children of God. What I reject is any kind of general revelation or natural theology or biblical inerrancy, all of which make truth into a set of propositions that are generally available to all apart from faith and outside the church. Colson wants to keep open the possibility and necessity for a Christian apologetic. The interest in apologetics must be criticized as a naturalizing of the Christian gospel, its watering down into rational and propositional argumentation.

What is truth? Truth is personal, or rather, a Person. Truth is relational in that God relates to us in the person of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Truth is also relational in that it occurs as an event that interrupts us, which places us existentially outside ourselves before others and before God. Truth takes place in community. Truth is always objective, but never at the expense of its subjectivity. Truth is epitomized by and embodied in the Word of grace which interrupts us in our lives of untruth and places us in a new relation with God, with others, and with ourselves.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Passion of the Christ, Part Deux?

Wow. I would have expected this incredible story from LarkNews or The Onion, but not as actual news. According to GetReligion, from a story in the Hollywood Reporter, Sony Pictures is planning to produce a film about the days after the resurrection of Jesus and ending with his ascension into heaven. Mel Gibson is nowhere to be seen, but in his place? None other than Tim LaHaye.

"The Passion of the Christ" has its own problems, but artistic merit is not one of them. The film is beautifully shot, and replete with lush imagery and symbolism. But "Resurrection" is shaping up to become a fundamentalist disaster, on par with the "Left Behind" movies. No good can come of this. All of this depends upon a very narrow and literalistic rendering of the resurrection narratives as rational history, which fails to capture the intent of the New Testament narratives as "good news," as proclamations of the gospel. In other words, the resurrection narratives belong in the church, not in movie theaters.

Artistic problems aside, this entire project reveals a very sad reality: the evangelical-Religious Right demographic in America wants this kind of film in the theaters. Sony would never fund such a project if their sources did not confirm that people are interested in paying money for this kind of entertainment. What does this tell us? That the largest bloc of Christians in the United States are incapable of seeing the artistic and thematic value of truly good cinema—e.g., among recent films, "Transamerica," "Junebug," "The Squid & the Whale," and "Good Night, and Good Luck"—and instead want to turn off their brains and be able to watch a film that simply confirms all of their own ideas and beliefs.

Evangelicals do not want to be challenged; they want to be catered to. In other words, evangelicals want to be in power; they want control over art, media, politics, education, etc. I do not think I am reading too much into this story by saying that "Resurrection" is one more confirmation that evangelical Christianity longs for Christendom to be resurrected (pun intended).

Series on God's Being Is in Becoming

On my other site, God as the Mystery of Theology: The Eberhard Jüngel Forum, I am taking readers through Jüngel's best dogmatic work, God's Being Is in Becoming, which is part interpretation of Barth's dogmatics, part constructive theological ontology, part theological polemics in a dispute regarding the being of God in contemporary theology. The first major post in this series is lengthier than those that will follow and helps to set up the context for Jüngel's work. I welcome people's comments as we go through this great book.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Why I Am A Universalist, § 3: The Doctrine of God, Part 2: Deus pro nobis

I realize this is a long post, but Karl Barth says almost everything that needs to be said in this one lengthy passage. I urge people to take the time to read this carefully.

[From Church Dogmatics IV.1 (Doctrine of Reconciliation), pp. 212-14.]
God reveals and increases His own glory in the world by this event [of reconciliation], by hastening to the help of the world as its loyal Creator, by taking up its cause. In doing what He does for His own sake, He does it, in fact, propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem [for us humans and for our salvation]. For Himself He did not need that He and His glory should be revealed and confessed in the world and by us. He might have been content with His own knowledge of Himself, just as He might have been content earlier with His being as God in glory, not needing the being of the creature and its co-existence with Him, not being under any necessity to be its Creator. But the world had radical need of His work as Creator, to which it owes no less than its very being. And, again, it has radical need that He should take up its cause in the work of atonement. Not by divine creation, but by the sin of man, it is the world which is thrown back on the faithfulness of God, a world which is lost apart from the fact that He Himself hastens to its help and takes up its cause. It has perverted the being which He lent it. It has fallen, i.e., it is rushing headlong into nothingness, into eternal death. Of itself it is not capable of any counter-movement to arrest this fall. In itself it has no power, no effective will, no sufficient basis, for any such counter-movement. On the contrary, of its own will and ability it makes only such movements as serve to repeat the origin of its fall, which is sin, and to accelerate its headlong course to the abyss.

But God reveals and increases His own glory in the world in the incarnation of His Son by taking to Himself the radical neediness of the world, i.e., by undertaking to do Himself what the world cannot do, arresting and reversing its course to the abyss. He owes this neither to the world nor to Himself. Not to the world, because the sin of man as the origin of its fatal movement to eternal death is directed against Himself, is always presented and characterised as enmity against Himself. Not to the world because the world has no claim that He should exercise in its favour the omnipotence of His free love, and in the perfect form of Himself accepting unity and solidarity with sinful man. And not to Himself, because nothing would be lacking in His inward being as God in glory, as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as the One who loves in freedom, if He did not show Himself to the world, if He allowed it to complete its course to nothingness: just as nothing would be lacking to His glory if He had refrained from giving it being when He created it out of nothingness.

That He does, in fact, will to reconcile it with Himself, and to save it, and therefore to magnify His glory in it and to it, is from every standpoint the sovereign will of His mercy. We cannot deduce it or count on it from any side. We cannot establish in principle from any side that it must be so, that God had to link the revelation and increase of His glory with the maintaining and carrying through to victory of our cause, that He had to cause it to take place as an event in which salvation is given to us. How can it be necessary in principle that He should take to Himself—and conjoin and unite with what He does to His own glory—the cause which we had so hopelessly lost, turning it in His own person to good, to the best of all? If we can speak of a necessity of any kind here, it can only be the necessity of the decision which God did in fact make and execute, the necessity of the fact that the being of God, the omnipotence of His free love, has this concrete determination and is effective and revealed in this determination and no other, that God wills to magnify and does in fact magnify His own glory in this way and not in any other, and therefore to the inclusion of the redemption and salvation of the world. This fact we have to recognise to be divinely necessary because it derives from and is posited by God. This fact we have to perceive and reverence and receive and glorify as the mystery of the atonement, the incarnation of the eternal Word. And we have to do it with a thankfulness which cannot be limited by any supposed necessity of this free gift.

Cur Deus homo? Because the salvation of the world and of men, we ourselves and our salvation, are in fact included in the self-purposiveness of this divine action. Because the great and self-sufficient God wills to be also the Saviour of the world. Because what He does for Himself takes place with the intention and is complete in the fact that in its purpose and result we will not perish but have everlasting life. This, then, is why the Lord became a servant. This is why concretely the Son of God rendered that obedience, the obedience of self-humiliation. This is why in free compliance with the freely disposing will of the Father He entered on the strange way into the far country and followed it to the bitter end.

Here, then, we have our general answer to the question confronting us. We cannot deduce it from any principle, from any idea of God or of man and the world. We can read it only from the fact in which the omnipotent mercy of God is exercised and effective and revealed, in which His own glory and our salvation meet, in which that which God does for Himself is also done for us. Our answer can only be a repetition of the answer which God Himself has given in this fact, in which He Himself has pronounced concerning the end and scope and meaning of His activity. Deus pro nobis is something which He did not have to be or become, but which, according to this fact, He was and is and will be—the God who acts as our God, who did not regard it as too mean a thing, but gave Himself fully and seriously to self-determination as the God of the needy and rebellious people of Israel, to be born a son of this people, to let its wickedness fall on Him, to be rejected by it, but in its place and for the forgiveness of its sins to let Himself be put to death by the Gentiles—and by virtue of the decisive co-operation of the Gentiles in His rejection and humiliation to let Himself be put to death in their place, too, and for the forgiveness of their sins. The end and scope and meaning of this downward way, the reconciliation of the world with Himself, is God Himself as the God of this mean and wicked people for the men of this people, and at the end of its history God Himself in the midst of this people and all peoples for the men of this people and all peoples, God in this direct relationship to men and man, God the one man for many. In all that follows we can only hear and intelligently repeat the answer which God Himself has already given to our question.

What must we learn from Barth based on this passage? The following are six major points:

1. Divine freedom must be preserved. Humanity is lost in the abyss, but God freely and graciously enters the abyss in order to arrest our fall and give us new being that may live in obedience to God. God is the ‘one who loves in freedom,’ who has the fullness of glory regardless of whether humankind is brought back into relation with its Creator. God is thus ‘more than necessary,’ to borrow a phrase from Eberhard Jüngel.

2. God is sovereign and self-determining. Humankind cannot say what God must do, but if God has done something, then we are free to speak of that act as necessary. God self-determines who God is and what God will do; humanity is simply at the mercy of God.

3. God’s economic self-determination is revelation. We thus have no right to speak about what God will do in eternity apart from what God has already determined, accomplished, and revealed in the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus Christ.

4. God accomplishes what the world cannot accomplish. God’s grace is sovereign and effective. God does what humankind wishes it could for itself through its good works and good intentions, but the incarnation of Jesus Christ proclaims that God alone is capable of rescuing us from our otherwise eternal estrangement from God. Not only is God capable of this sovereign grace, but God has accomplished this in Jesus Christ on our behalf, pro nobis.

5. All creation is included in the divine self-determination of the incarnation. What God does for Godself involves and includes all of humanity and the entire cosmos. We do not make this the case; it is already the case because of Jesus Christ.

6. God is not some distant God who is abstractly ‘over us’ or ‘above us,’ but rather God is always and eternally ‘among us,’ ‘with us,’ and most importantly, ‘for us.’

A few statements by Barth need to be highlighted:
Cur Deus homo? Because the salvation of the world and of men, we ourselves and our salvation, are in fact included in the self-purposiveness of this divine action. Because the great and self-sufficient God wills to be also the Saviour of the world. Because what He does for Himself takes place with the intention and is complete in the fact that in its purpose and result we will not perish but have everlasting life.

Deus pro nobis is something which He did not have to be or become, but which, according to this fact, He was and is and will be . . . God Himself as the God of this mean and wicked people for the men of this people, and at the end of its history God Himself in the midst of this people and all peoples for the men of this people and all peoples, God in this direct relationship to men and man, God the one man for many.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Gerhard Ebeling: Beyond a self-evident God

"Theology had in earlier days almost always, explicitly or tacitly, built upon the assumption that the reality of God may be pre-supposed as self-evident. Yet what confronted theology with a new situation was not only the realization of the lack of strict conclusiveness in the so-called proofs of God, nor only (though much more than that) the mass production of views of self and of reality in which God had no role to play: it was also theology's own realization that a God who is self-evident, or who is proved and established by argument, would not be God. The reality of God makes itself known only by revelation to faith."

—Gerhard Ebeling, "Theology and Reality," in Word and Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 193.

Further Reading on Universalism, or, GOTT & Universalism

I should have made mention of these other sites and conversations prior to starting this series, but now is better than later. First, anyone interested in the biblical case for universalism need look no further than the excellent site by Keith DeRose, Universalism and the Bible. I recommend his site wholeheartedly. My own series focuses on the theological argument, though of course theology and exegesis cannot be separated. I just happen to have a better grasp of theology than biblical literature and exegesis, so that's where my blog gravitates.

I also need to make sure everyone is aware of the fine group blog, Generous Orthodoxy ThinkTank (GOTT; anyone familiar with German should enjoy the play on words in the title of this post). GOTT has had three recent posts by DeRose on the subject of universalism, and I recommend them highly. They may come into my series near the end. The most recent post is especially interesting, since it focuses on the theological pressure churches give to pastors and other workers who do not feel the freedom to affirm universalism. I hope these posts of mine do not blacklist me. I hope to return to this topic when the series is near its end.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Why I Am A Universalist, § 2: The Doctrine of God, Part I: Introduction

In some ways, this paragraph is simply an extension of the prolegomena. Nevertheless, these comments are offered as a transition toward discussing the doctrine of God. I will allow Barth to speak for himself in the next paragraph, since he captures the relation between the doctrine of God and reconciliation with beauty and profundity.

The doctrine of atonement rests on the doctrine of God, and, as part of this, on christology. In this section, I will touch in the doctrine of God just briefly. One of the major revolutions in modern theology was the realization that God is what God does, or, God’s being is a being-in-act. The point of this theological revolution is that we know who God is by what God does in the history of God’s dealings with men and women. To put this in trinitarian terms, the economic Trinity—the acts of God ad extra—is identical with the immanent Trinity—the life of God ad intra. There is no other God apart from the God revealed to us in the act of self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The point is this: we cannot come to God with any preconceived notions about what divinity means or entails. God is self-determinative of what the word “God” signifies. When we speak of “God,” we can only speak-after the reality of what God has done for us and for our salvation. The kind of God we worship is defined by God alone. We know who God is in-and-for-Godself based on what God has done. Metaphysics, as the acceptance of presupposed concepts of divinity and humanity, is rejected outright from the beginning. If any metaphysical concepts are retained, it is because revelation itself confirms them.

It should be immediately obvious that this theological starting-point is rooted in christology, and for the moment I need to tease out what follows from this point of origin in terms of a christological hermeneutics. Scripture presents a gloriously rich picture of who God is and what God does in history. This is something to revel in, not to simplify or distort or ignore. God is at once infinitely complex and infinitely simple—that is, God is rich and full of complex depth in ways that extend infinitely beyond what we perceive as richness here in the world of creation, but God is simultaneously simple and uniform in that God is one God who does not contradict Godself. The locus of our knowledge of God’s complexity and simplicity is the person of Jesus Christ. God’s being-in-act takes concrete form in the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. The rich picture narrated by Scripture is a witness to God’s being-in-act, but this witness is subordinate to the concrete reality of God’s being in Jesus Christ. The reality of Christ’s history is the hermeneutical category through which we read the rest of the biblical text—not in the allegorical way of reading Christ into every passage, but in the christological way of allowing God’s self-revelation to determine our interpretation of the biblical text. Knowledge of God can indeed come through “natural” or “human” sources—science, philosophy, art—but no such knowledge can be affirmed as true knowledge of God unless it is in conformity with what God has revealed of Godself in Jesus Christ, according to the witness of Holy Scripture.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Why I Am A Universalist, § 1: Prolegomena

The definition of universalism that I am working with states that all will live in communion with God for eternity. No one will be annihilated or eternally damned. We will indeed be made new, perhaps even purged, and will be raised with new bodies like Jesus Christ who came before us. I do not deny the possibility of a hell, just the eternality of divine punishment.

The question of universalism has been a perennial one since the dawn of the church, it seems. Passages in the NT seem to point in that direction: “we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died” (2 Cor. 5.14); “if anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world” (John 12.47); “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11.26); “. . . the mystery of [God’s] will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:9-10); “for in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20). A number of passages from the New Testament make the eschatological purposes of God explicit: in the Day of the Lord, “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). Many other passages could be marshaled to make a biblical case for universalism, but ultimately the position does not derive from proof texts, and should not despite the protests from fundamentalist Christians.

To begin, universalism is like a doctrine of the atonement: nowhere in the Bible is any “doctrine” to be found, because Scripture is not a collection of propositional truths. Scripture is the authoritative witness to the event of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, and this witness authorizes the rational (though not rationalistic) exposition of the faith based on the narrative of God’s being-in-act in the kerygma. Doctrines and dogmas are explications of what is testified to in the Scriptures, and these doctrines allow for the further interpretation of the biblical text. Some doctrines function as hermeneutical keys or categories which provide a rule for reading the biblical text in a way that coheres with the proclamation of the gospel in the communion of saints. Universalism is thus accepted or denied based on a complex framework of hermeneutical principles which are situated in the church as the people of God.

Hermeneutics aside, the issue of revelation is central to our discussion. Traditionally, the Bible has been viewed as God’s special revelation to humanity as words divinely inspired to teach us the truths of the faith. This is still common teaching in most conservative, evangelical institutions. However, a revolution in theology occurred in the mid-nineteenth century when revelation was identified not with Scripture itself but with Jesus Christ. Karl Barth is the paradigmatic theologian in this case, because he was the first to think through the ramifications of such a christocentrism. Revelation is thus always and only God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The importance of this move is that Scripture is not, in the end, the final authority—only Jesus is. Of course, Jesus is only witnessed to in the Holy Scriptures, and so in another sense, these biblical texts are the authority. But Scripture is not wholly uniform or consistent or even non-contradictory, despite what ardent inerrantists wish us to believe. Thus, christology is where one must begin. We cannot start with an abstract idea of God’s will apart from what God revealed about God’s own purposes in Jesus Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. We cannot conceive of God as Judge apart from the judgment enacted upon Christ on the cross. So on and so forth. These remarks set the framework for what will be discussed in later sections.