Thursday, August 31, 2006

God's Mission and Our Mission

A reflection on the sermon preached by John Franke on August 27, 2006. You may listen to the sermon here. If you would like to read my theological engagement with the sermon, click here.

What is the purpose of life? What are we supposed to be doing here and now? How should we live if the gospel is true? These are the kinds of questions that ensure our faith is never abstract and ethereal but always concrete and this-worldly. To be sure, it is not like we 21st-century Christians are discovering what it means to live out God's mission for the first time. What has changed in recent years is the definition of that particular mission. In American religious history, individual conversion was once the goal of the church—and still is for many people. But such a mission views individuals as created for individuality, and the church is simply the voluntary, inessential gathering of these individuals for the purpose of teaching and edification.

While this definition of mission has been dominant, there are other options. Franke defined mission out of the following axioms: (1) God is triune, and thus social not solitary; (2) God is love from all eternity; (3) God has a mission to reconcile the world to Godself; (4) God made humankind in God's image; and (5) the church is the community that is called to participate in this divine mission by acting as agents of reconciliation. While each of these points demands much attention, for now we will reflect on the nature of God's mission and our mission in light of 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, which states:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

As Paul makes clear in his letter to the Corinthian church, God's mission was global—"reconciling the world to himself"—and our mission is communal—"entrusting the message of reconciliation to us." The entire world is included in God's mission to make all things new, not just some section of humanity. This means that if we rejoice that God came to rescue "me," we must also rejoice that God came to rescue our enemies, those we don't like, or with whom we disagree, or even those who have wronged us in serious ways. God did not just come for me. God was the reconciling the whole world to Godself.

Furthermore, we are not agents of reconciliation by ourselves. There is no such thing as an agent of reconciliation; there are only agents, in the plural. When Jesus sent out his disciples, they went out in pairs and never alone. As the church, we are sent out as the "body of Christ," not as individuals. The idea of the individual belongs to the old order which has passed away; the new order, established in Christ, is one of unity and peace, not division and violence. If, as Paul declares, the church is part of the "new creation," then we are called to embody in our ecclesial practices the vision of the new heavens and new earth: "I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. ... The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. ... People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations" (Rev. 21:22, 24, 26).

The passage from Paul's letter to the Corinthians is confusing, however, in the way it speaks of reconciliation. On one hand, he speaks as if reconciliation is a past event—"God ... reconciled us to himself through Christ"—and on the other hand, he speaks as if it is a present and future event—"be reconciled to God." So which is it? The answer, of course, is both. Our work as agents of reconciliation in the present depends entirely on the fact that God already reconciled the world to Godself in Jesus Christ. And both the past event of reconciliation in Jesus and our present message of reconciliation look forward to the future event in which God will establish God's kingdom and the New Jerusalem will become reality. In other words, the future is the completion of what happened in the past; the present looks forward to the future on the basis of the past; and the past is the basis for both the present and the future. Without Christ, all is lost. With Christ, "there is a new creation."

It is important, then, to keep in mind that our work as agents of reconciliation is a gift granted to us by God. We are not completing something which God could not complete on God's own. Rather, God has granted to us the privilege and responsibility of being God's agents and ambassadors. How great is this privilege? "God is making his appeal through us"—this is quite an honor! But we must remember that all reconciliation begins and ends with Jesus Christ. We are not adding on to the reconciliation accomplished in Christ. Rather we are witnessing to what God already effected in Christ and will one day complete. We are witnesses to the gospel. In our very lives, we should be embodying the reality that "everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" When this is true, then we may efficaciously exhort others: "Be reconciled to God."

Finally, if we communicate the gospel clearly, that Christ has indeed already reconciled us to God, then no one will feel coerced into reconciliation, but rather they will feel utterly and joyfully free. For the gospel is not one of fear but of freedom. We are set free by Christ to live as those reconciled to God. We do not have to worry about reconciling ourselves to God, because that burden—an impossible burden to bear!—has already been borne for us by Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. It is in light of this truth that we should approach the world. This is what Paul means when he states, "From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view." The "human point of view" sees each person in terms of the good or bad things that he or she has done. Now, however, we regard people from God's point of view, a view that is entirely conditioned by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our mission takes its shape from God's mission. Since "God was reconciling the world to himself" in Christ, we can now approach the world with joy and freedom. We can proclaim gladly: "Be reconciled to God!"

In conclusion, we can say the following: God is a triune being of love, and we are called to be creatures who participate in this communion of love as God's covenant partners in the mission to reconcile the world. This is the gospel. We are created to live with others and with God, not as solitary individuals. We are called to do God's work, not our own. We are called to be stewards of this planet, not its exploiters. We are called to be agents of reconciliation by bringing love in the midst of hate, peace in the midst of violence, hope in the midst of despair, truth in the midst of falsehood, and life in the midst of death. We can only do this because, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are the message-bearers of the gospel that God will indeed accomplish all of this and so much more. To the glory of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.


In light on my Hebrew final tomorrow morning, I offer these items of interest for people to ponder and discuss:
  1. At Inhabitatio Dei, Halden has posted twelve theses on ecclesial practices. I strongly recommend them. His list is one of the best posts on the church that I have seen thus far.
  2. Chris Tilling of Chrisendom is knee-deep in the scary waters of Christian Zionism. His first and second posts are available. And he has also posted one of the most theologically vile items of contemporary fundamentalism that I have ever seen.
  3. Byron has a very nice series of posts on grace and eschatology. This one is my favorite.
  4. Patrik has completed his online systematic theology on "A Theology of Decline." And if you have not been following the "theology for beginners" at Faith & Theology, do so now.
  5. There's more on the ever-popular Randall Balmer. John Wilson of Books & Culture has published his review of Balmer's recent book, Thy Kingdom Come. He criticizes him sharply for not presenting both sides of the issues fairly, though it's clear Wilson does not disagree with many of Balmer's fears and complaints. In other words, Wilson just wants Balmer to speak about the left as he does about the right. This is a fair criticism, though I hope it does not dissuade people from engaging with the problems Balmer recognizes.
  6. Coleman Fannin has posted a nice reflection on his relation as a Baptist to Roman Catholicism over at GOTT.
  7. Finally, it's time we thank Keith Olbermann again for being our contemporary Edward R. Murrow. The man has stepped us as the prophetic political voice of our time. After Donald Rumsfeld liked war critics to those who supported fascism in his speech to the American Legion, Olbermann has put Rummy in his place. In his commentary on MSNBC, he declared: "This country faces a new type of fascism - indeed." You can read his commentary here, or watch the video clip. At the end, Olbermann quotes Murrow
    "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular."

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Why I Am A Universalist: A Dogmatic Sketch

In the interest of making the series accessible to those who have perhaps only read bits and pieces, I have brought together all the posts thus far. This index will be available in the sidebar as well, and I will continue to update it as I add more posts to the series.
  • §1: Prolegomena
  • §2: The Doctrine of God, Part 1: Introduction
  • §3: The Doctrine of God, Part 2: Deus pro nobis
  • §4: The Doctrine of God, Part 3: The Attributes of God
    • Section I: God’s complexity and simplicity as the “one who loves in freedom”
  • §5: The Doctrine of God, Part 4: The Doctrine of Election
    • Section I: A summary of Barth's doctrine of election
    • Section II: Jesus Christ, electing and elected
    • Section III: Jesus Christ, divine election, and predestination
    • Section IV: The election of the individual
  • §6: Jesus Christ, the Judge Judged in Our Place
  • §7: The Doctrine of Justification
  • §8: The Doctrine of the Atonement
  • §9: Eschatology and the Last Judgment (coming soon)
  • §10: Ecclesiology, or, What Is the Point of the Church for a Universalist? (coming soon)
  • § 11: A Universalist Sacramentology: The Eucharist as the Feast for the World (coming soon)

UPDATE (Nov. 12, 2010): Because some people have asked, I want to make it clear that (a) I will not finish this series and (b) I no longer agree with some of the theological claims I make in these posts. That’s not to say I now reject the “universal scope” of God’s grace. Rather, I reject a number of the theological moves and concepts that I employ in order to articulate this grace. I am currently working on a book (to appear in a few years) that will clarify my thinking on these matters.

    Monday, August 28, 2006

    John Franke and Social Trinitarianism

    John Franke, professor of theology at Biblical Theological Seminary, preached at our church on Sunday. His sermon was on God's mission and our mission. It was essentially a simplified lecture on trinitarian theology and the imago Dei. His sermon progressed through the following theses:
    1. God is love. Love is God's primary or essential attribute, since it is true of God in pre-temporal eternity, whereas attributes of judgment and wrath are only in relation to the creation and are not part of God's inner life from all eternity.
    2. God is triune. God is not solitary but social.
    3. God has a mission to reconcile the world to Godself. In the eschaton, God will bring that which is not-God into participation with God's own life, so that creation will share in the giving and receiving of love that has always been true of God.
    4. God made humankind in God's image. This means that humanity is intended to live with others in a community of giving, sharing, and receiving love.
    5. The church is the paradigmatic community that images the Trinity in the world by participating in God's mission to reconcile the world to Godself. The church is thus the embodiment of the divine mission of reconciliation which will only be complete when "God will be all in all" (1 Cor. 15:28).
    I should be clear up front that I do not disagree with these theses at face value. However, the issues which Franke brings up in this sermon are ones that cannot be done justice in such a simple form. I will thus go through each thesis and explain where I think Franke needs to be more careful and critical in his theology:
    1. God is love. I surely agree with Franke that God's primary attribute is love. As Barth says, God is the "one who loves in freedom." This statement by Barth emphasizes that God is both over us (Deus a se) and for us (Deus pro nobis). However, Franke gave the impression that God's love is something separate and opposite from God's wrath. Barth is much better on this subject in that Barth recognizes that God's love is wrathful against sin but always also gracious and merciful. In other words, God's love is a "consuming fire" that is not the opposite of judgment but rather accomplishes God's purposes of love in the judgment of sin and in the gracious pardoning of humankind in the person of Jesus Christ. Judgment and grace, wrath and forgiveness, are both parts of God's holy love.
    2. God is triune. Franke follows a lot of contemporary theology in stressing God's "sociality." To be sure, there is much to agree with, insofar as these theologians stress the triunity of God as a "community of mutual otherness" (Jüngel). However, these theologians, Franke included, end up leaning toward the extreme of tritheism. They criticize people like Augustine (wrongly, for the most part) and Thomas Aquinas for beginning with the one God and then moving to God's triunity. Contemporary theology primarily begins with the three persons and then speaks about how they are one. Franke made this very move, trying to argue that God's being-in-love was what brought the three persons into such intimate unity that they are truly one being. Franke has made some serious errors in that he has followed Jürgen Moltmann by (1) trying to explain how the three becomes one, and (2) connecting God's sociality to human sociality. The latter is the reason for the former, because these theologians think that improper doctrines of God result in improper human social models (e.g., singular God leads to dictatorship, hierarchical God leads to female subjugation). Consequently, these theologians emphasize God's sociality in order to protect against abuses in human relations. The only problem is that oneness and hierarchical relations are part of the biblical witness. Furthermore, the protection against such theological abuses is the one move which all theologians need to make: to deny any natural relation between God's being and our being. God's oneness and triunity are not mirrored in any way in our human individualism or relationality. God's internal equality and submission among the triune persons is not connected in any way to egalitarianism or hierarchicalism. What theology must do is unabashedly proclaim God's triunity as a unity-in-difference and a difference-in-unity, as a perichoretic "community of mutual otherness" which is a mystery of the faith that has no ontological relation to human relations. God's sociality is not analogous to human sociality. We can never derive egalitarianism or hierarchicalism from the Trinity; an argument for human equality has many other resources for support. We can emphasize God's triunity only as a unity, and God's unity only as triunity. Speaking of a "social" Trinity is misleading insofar as it seems to predicate sociality to God as we do to humans, or vice versa. We must rather speak of God's being out of God's being-in-act in the economy of salvation, and we must speak of our being out of the revelation of what it means to be human in Jesus Christ. (On this point, see my discussion of thesis 4.)
    3. God has a mission to reconcile the world to Godself. I am more comfortable with this thesis, as long as we are careful not to uncritically accept language of divinization, which seems potentially implicit in such a statement. The thesis on its own is incomplete in that it is eschatological but not Christological. Indeed, God will one day become "all in all," but reconciliation is not a future event but a past one. God has a mission to perfect and transform creation by making all things new. Reconciliation, however, does not await some future event of God. Reconciliation has already occurred in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God already reconciled the world to Godself. As Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:19, "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us." Reconciliation, in an ontological sense, was actualized in the person of Jesus; but reconciliation, in an eschatological sense, continues to await God's perfection and recreation of the cosmos. The message of reconciliation, entrusted to us as the agents of reconciliation, proclaims both the reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ and the consummation of this reconciliation in the eschaton.
    4. God made humankind in God's image. I think this is where Franke primarily goes astray. I have already discussed the imago Dei at length elsewhere, but for now I wish to return to how this doctrine relates to the dangers of social trinitarianism. A social trinitarian, like a hierarchicalist, assumes that our being reflects God's being. The social egalitarian uses her doctrine of the Trinity to argue against the hierarchicalist, who uses her doctrine of the Trinity to argue against egalitarianism. The problem with these two positions is that both have Scriptural warrant. (I am referring to their doctrines of the Trinity; I do not believe Scripture gives warrant to hierarchicalism for other reasons.) Both sides believe that the doctrine of the "image of God" from Genesis 1 secures their argument. The problem is (1) that neither side takes the radical consequences of the fall into consideration (Franke mentioned the Fall but did not state any serious consequences as a result), and (2) that our being in the image of God is only available in and through the person of Jesus Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15). Now to be fair to Franke, he said that it is the purpose of God for all human creatures to be in the image of God, by which he may mean, that we are designed to become the people of God who are conformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ. With this I agree, except for one caveat: We do not image the Trinity but rather the person of Christ. Our being in the imago Dei must be seen in light of the incarnation of the Son of God. This does not, in any way, diminish the relationality of the imago Dei; it only stresses the ontological divide between God and humanity in concert with the incarnation of God in Christ who alone brings humanity into ontological correspondence to God. A doctrine of the imago Dei must accomplish the following things: (1) take the fall into full account; (2) read the doctrine christologically in light of the person of Christ; (3) refuse to allow the doctrine to make anthropological arguments that derive their material from the doctrine of the Trinity; and (4), in light of the fall, insist that the imago Dei is a soteriological category, not a creational one that is natural to all human creatures.
    5. The church is the paradigmatic community that images the Trinity in the world by participating in God's mission to reconcile the world to Godself. The language of participation is acceptable when used rightly, and Franke often played fast and loose with the word. While I agree that the church is the paradigmatic community and that we participate, in some form, in the mission of God to reconcile the world to God, I also must insist that we refuse to derive our ecclesiology from the doctrine of God just as we must not derive our anthropology from the doctrine of God. Both of them find their orientation in Christology and soteriology. The church is the community of the saints, those who have been conformed to Christ, and as this community, the church functions as the witness to God's infinite love by proclaiming the message of reconciliation. The church is not God-on-earth, as some theologians try to argue, usually via a warped interpretation of the term "body of Christ." The church becomes the "body of Christ" when the Holy Spirit empowers and sanctifies the concrete community of the Word to be the suffering community of the cross. The communal love that Franke declared to be ideally characteristic of the church is not simply derived from a doctrine of God applied to the human community; rather, communal love is necessary because in the life of Jesus Christ—in his table-fellowship with humanity—we understand that only a community of love can truly bear witness to the triune God "who loves in freedom." The church community participates in God's life 'here and now' by the actualizing power of the Holy Spirit only because it first participates in the person of Christ 'there and then.' Participation is thus a Christological category, though it also includes the existential reality in which the present-day community becomes the communio sanctorum by the sanctifying power of the Spirit. The church is the fellowship of the covenant—those who are brought into the covenant of grace—and as this fellowship, the church witnesses to the reality of God as agents of reconciliation in the world. In this way, the church participates in God's mission of reconciliation. The church does not reflect God's being, nor does the church replace Christ, but rather the church bears witness to who God is and what God has done (and is still doing). The church is indeed the paradigmatic human community, but it is a human community sanctified and guided by the Spirit. In the same way that Holy Scripture is not divinized in its actualization as the Word of God, so too the church is not divinized but remains the creaturely witness to God's being and mission. The church finds its being-in-becoming only in and through the person of Jesus Christ and is carried forward toward the future only by the Holy Spirit who, by the will of God, makes this particular community the sanctified witness to the being of God.
    In all of what I have said, I am merely thinking critically through John Franke's sermon so that we do not fall into simplistic theology and, thus, potentially misguided theology. Franke rightly made it clear that humankind is created for the ecclesial community of love, which implies that the fall makes this a goal only realized in light of Christ's reconciling work. The problem with Franke's sermon, however, is that he rarely spoke of Jesus Christ, and instead fell into the trap of speaking almost exclusively about God's triune being, as if he could move from the immanent Trinity to the church only by way of the imago Dei. Franke thus unintentionally minimized the effect of sin and the reconciliation accomplished in Christ. Consequently, he moved too simplistically from the Trinity to human community, which then led him to speak too simplistically of the church's participation in God's triune life.

    I heartily commend him for affirming the church's mission as one that takes place in light of and as part of God's overarching mission to reconcile the world to Godself. However, God's mission was realized in Jesus, and our mission only exists as a participation in Christ's being. In other words, I think Franke would benefit greatly from setting aside his interest on "postmodernity" and contemporary theologians and focusing on dogmatic topics of creation, sin, reconciliation, and (primarily) Christology, out of which will then flow more robust doctrines of the Trinity, the imago Dei, and theological anthropology.

    Saturday, August 26, 2006

    The Heresies of American Evangelicalism, Part V: Holy Scripture

    Part V: A docetic-dictated-propositional Bible

    Growing up as I did within the folds of evangelicalism, I learned from a young age to have a very high doctrine of Holy Scripture. The Bible was to be revered as truly the Word of God. We had Bible drills in Sunday School and played Bible trivia games which tested our knowledge of obscure facts, usually a law in Leviticus or a name in Judges. And, of course, I prided myself on being the star student. (After one Bible trivia session, a man visiting the church came up to me and said that he saw in me a modern Gideon.) Finally, lest we forget, we sang, “The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me, I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.”

    Little did I know that I was witnessing a crisis in the church. I began to notice the problem when preachers would speak of Jesus as the Word, but then could not seem to decide whether they preferred to call Jesus or the Bible the actual “Word of God.” They were caught in a dilemma—mostly theological—and often they gave the impression of elevating the Bible over Jesus. However, the problem became blatantly evident this past year, in the wake of Bart Ehrman’s rise to popularity. Ehrman, as I have written before, is a Moody, Wheaton, and Princeton Seminary graduate who subsequently discarded with his evangelical upbringing and now embraces academic agnosticism, which essentially states, “I know too much to believe in God.” Ehrman’s problem is theological, in that the doctrine of Scripture which he was taught could not withstand the onslaught of textual criticism. Faced with the historical evidence, he could only reject the authority of Scripture. The problem for evangelicalism is that it has no response to Ehrman other than to reject textual criticism wholesale.

    Here is where I enter the picture. On the one hand, I greatly value the high view of Scripture that evangelicalism gave me at a young age. On the other hand, I also value the academic enterprise of textual criticism and the historical-critical method. To view the two sides as mutually exclusive is a false dichotomy, not unlike the analogously false dichotomy between a doctrine of creation and evolution. One side does not cancel out the other. To put this in thesis form, in our doctrine of Holy Scripture, we must not so elevate the Bible as a spiritual document that we lose its historicality, and we must not so lower it as a human document that we lose its function as the Word of God, as the witness to God’s revelation. It is my contention that evangelicalism in America has fallen prey to the former, which has hindered both evangelicals in the academy and preachers in the pulpit. I would go so far as to say that most, if not all, of these heresies can be traced back to a fundamental misunderstanding regarding the Bible.

    Beyond Inerrancy: I must make clear up front that inerrancy is not my sole target, though it surely falls under my criticism. Inerrancy is part of the problem, but more as the consequence and not the cause. I have already discussed inerrancy elsewhere; suffice it to say that this whole argument is really a complex debate between Catholicism and Protestantism that has its origin in the Reformation itself. In other words, the debate over Scripture is really a debate over authority. Where is ecclesial authority located? Is it in the church structure and leadership? in Holy Scripture? in ourselves? or elsewhere?

    A quick history lesson is in order: First, the magisterial Reformers were upset over the abuse of authority being exercised by the leaders of the Catholic Church, who used their socio-political power for selfish ends. The Reformers placed the authority of the Bible as a damning witness over against the ecclesiastical structures which they viewed as hopelessly corrupt. Along with the elevation of the Bible, the Reformers—Luther in particular—made the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” a central tenet in their theology. Ecclesial mediation was drastically reduced and altered, though the magisterial Reformers still held on to the importance of the sacraments and tradition despite their clear break from Rome. Fast forward a couple hundred years. In the late 19th century, the world was changing at a dramatic pace. The industrial revolution, Freudian psychology, modern philosophy, textual criticism, and evolutionary biology all converged to create an environment seemingly inhospitable to traditional religious belief. The Catholic Church asserted its authority over against modernity by establishing the doctrine of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council, giving certainty to all teachings ex cathedra in the face of a changing world. Conservative Protestants, under the leadership of B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge, acted similarly by instituting the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. We can see here that modernity was a wedge that drove the two branches of the western church further apart by aggravating their own predispositions—Catholics toward ecclesial authority, and Protestants toward biblical authority. If Catholic made an idol of the church, then Protestants made an idol out of the Bible.

    The question about the Bible is, at its heart, a question about authority. When put into this light, both sides of this debate are wrong to the extent that they reject the claims of the other party. (To be sure, both Catholics and Protestants, in general, have stepped back somewhat from these two positions. However, I still find the two positions to be a useful typology, even if they oversimplify what Catholics and Protestants truly believe.) Roman Catholics, in elevating ecclesial authority, threaten to forget that the institution itself stands under the divine No and Yes contained in the gospel witness. The institution is not God-on-earth but merely a witness to the Lord who judges heaven and earth and all people. Protestants, in elevating the biblical narrative, threaten to forget that this written Word of God belongs to and for the church as the people of God, and thus it is not to be viewed as an individual document to be read and interpreted by individuals (e.g., “God’s love letter to me”). The third (caricatured) position is that of the academic who views the biblical text as purely human and without authority, but who also rejects the authority of the church. Such a person makes an idol out of human knowledge.

    The three idols—church, Bible, and human intellect—are each dangerous temptations. Those who wish to give the church worldly authority will always want the church to be divine; those who wish to give Scripture worldly authority will always want the Bible to be wholly divine; and those who wish to give human intellect religious authority will always want reason to be divine. My argument is that all three find their proper balance when placed in dialogical relation to one another under the lordship of the triune God. Of course, Catholics and Protestants would never see their positions as anything other than the necessary means of honoring God’s lordship, but it is my contention here to suggest the following: The church is only properly honored when it is a “creature of the Word” guided by the command of God in Scripture, aided by human intellectual pursuits, and ordered toward God’s purposes; the Bible is only properly honored when it is the “Word for the church,” read and interpreted by the people of God, and critically analyzed as a faithful and true witness to God’s revelation in human history; and human intellect is only properly honored when it is guided by the command of God given in Scripture to the church, ordered toward the purposes of God, and carried out by the people of God.

    The Doctrine of the Word of God: Before I offer my practical suggestions for how to rectify the situation, I believe we can find an appropriate understanding of Scripture in the theology of Karl Barth. This is where we need to start. A doctrine of the Bible that upholds biblical authority as the sole witness to God’s self-revelation while also answering Bart Ehrman’s criticisms of its textual history are necessary in order for evangelicalism to have a voice worthy of being heard. As long as Ehrman remains unanswerable, evangelicalism shows itself to be like the ostrich who buries her head in the sand. For the Christian, this is not an appropriate response. Barth offers another way.

    In both the Göttingen Dogmatics and in the Church Dogmatics I/1 (§4), Barth speaks of the “threefold Word of God.” By this he means the Word of God takes three forms, each equally important and necessary. We may think of concentric circles: in the middle stands the Word of God incarnate and revealed in Jesus Christ, in the next circle stands the Word of God written in Holy Scripture, and in the final circle we find the Word of God proclaimed and preached in the church. Each requires the other two. Barth is not speaking about three different Words of God, but always and only one Word. Barth thus writes the following on their unity-in-distinction:
    It is one and the same whether we understand [the Word of God] as revelation, Bible, or proclamation. There is no distinction of degree or value between the three forms. For to the extent that proclamation really rests on recollection of the revelation attested in the Bible and is thus obedient repetition of the biblical witness, it is no less the Word of God than the Bible. And to the extent that the Bible really attests revelation it is no less the Word of God than revelation itself. As the Bible and proclamation become God’s Word in virtue of the actuality of revelation they are God’s Word: the one Word of God within which there can be neither a more nor a less. ... So, to give a survey of the whole, the following brief schedule of mutual relations may be drawn up.

    The revealed Word of God we know only from the Scripture adopted by Church proclamation or the proclamation of the Church based on Scripture.

    The written Word of God we know only through the revelation which fulfills proclamation or through the proclamation fulfilled by revelation.

    The preached Word of God we know only through the revelation attested in Scripture or the Scripture which attests revelation. (I/1, 120-21)
    Now to the average evangelical, Barth’s threefold distinction will sound rather confusing, because if she is anything like me, she will have been taught to identify God’s (special) revelation with the Bible. The two are indistinguishable. However, it is precisely this distinction between general and special revelation which Barth contests. What Barth strives to recover is the affirmation that Jesus Christ alone is God’s special or self-revelation. The Bible, he makes clear, is the witness to that revelation through the prophets and apostles who witnessed God’s revelation first hand. We are hearing the report of God’s actions in human history through the mediation of these human writers. The Bible is authoritative because these writers were so grasped by the event of revelation that they could do nothing but recount the details in their own cultural idiom. The biblical narrative is thus wholly human and yet wholly divine. Holy Scripture would be nothing without the commandeering force of God’s revelation upon those who witnessed God’s involvement in the world, but it would also be nothing without these human witnesses declaring God’s revelation in language that seemed appropriate to them at the time. In other words, we cannot divorce Scripture either from God’s history or human history.

    Evangelicalism needs to come to grips with its relationship to both ecclesial authority and academic textual criticism. The way often chosen by evangelicals has been an individualistic hermeneutic, in which the individual Christian has the sole authority and power to interpret Scripture for herself, guided perhaps by the occasional sermon. What we commonly find today are scholars who have almost no biblical literacy and evangelicals who have almost no awareness of the history of these texts and their cultural-historical contexts. Ehrman learned about these contexts and felt he had to jettison the Bible’s authority. Is there another way? I believe when we distinguish between God’s revelation (in Jesus) and the human witness to revelation (the Bible), we have a way of preserving divine authority in and through Scripture without feeling threatened by the awareness of the Bible’s historical development.

    All too often, evangelicals have opted for a docetic Bible—to use a christological heresy—in which Scripture is a divine text given directly by God. Evangelicalism leads toward a dictated Bible by speaking of it as God’s direct Word to humanity without reservation. The one major reservation should be that only Jesus is God’s Word to humanity, and even he is not a direct revelation. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is an indirect revelation mediated in the form of human flesh and then mediated again through the witness of Holy Scripture and the testimony of the church. Scripture is not revelation, but rather the witness to it. Hence the need to distinguish between the terms “revelation” and “Word of God”; the two are not coterminous. Finally, proclamation is the Word of God, but at one more remove from God’s revelation, mediated as it is, a third time, through the human agent who proclaims the gospel in the here and now. Human and ecclesial mediation is inescapable, but what we must never do is idolize such mediation such that the church or the biblical text becomes anything more than a witness to God’s acts in history.

    Finally, a proper doctrine of God’s Word will insist on its nature as story, not as a collection of propositions. Theological and doctrinal propositions are important, but they are interpretations of the Bible, not part of the Bible itself. Of course, the Bible contains propositional truths—“the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4)—but these must be situated in the context of the narrative of God’s acts in history. The Bible is not a collection of timeless truths or theological axioms, but is rather the witness to the complex relation between the holy God and sinful humanity. The Bible does not primarily tell us what to think, but rather declares who God is and what God has done, and thus, in light of that, who we are.

    If I had to replace biblical inerrancy with any doctrine, I would choose the one articulated by Bruce McCormack in his essay, “The Being of Holy Scripture Is in Becoming.” McCormack coins the phrase “dynamic infallibilism,” by which he means the Scriptures do not have a fixed-in-stone inerrant essence but are rather made to be the infallible Word of God by the actualizing power of the Holy Spirit in the historical setting in which they are read and received. In other words, the Bible is a being-in-becoming that receives its identity as the authoritative witness to God’s revelation from God’s own agency; the Bible does not have authority in and of itself as simply a human document. It must “become” revelation to us, but such “becoming” is only possible by the power of God working in the present:
    For particular individuals, God must first make the Bible to be what it is. The Bible must become what it is. And this is a becoming whose actualization rests solely at the divine discretion. The being-in-becoming of the Bible as Word of God, which took place “there and then” under the experience of inspiration, must take place “here and now,” so that the being-in-becoming of the Bible “here and now” is made to correspond to the originating “being-in-becoming.” Therefore, the “sacramental union” of divine Word and human word is a union that must always be realized in relation to particular individuals if what is true of the Bible “essentially” is to known as true by them.
    A more in-depth explication of this doctrine will have to wait until another occasion. For now, I wish to offer my suggestions for how to reorient the direction of evangelicalism.

    Solution: As Barth said, “Exegesis, exegesis, exegesis.” Evangelicalism is plagued by a lack of knowledge of Scripture. But knowledge of what the Bible says is insufficient apart from the knowledge of why the Bible says what it does. The Bible is not a subject in itself; it is the record of many past witnesses who felt God’s claim on their lives and were compelled in spite of themselves to declare the truth of God as the truth of our lives. We must know the Bible, but we must know it as the witness to God’s revelation to the apostles and prophets. That means having the highest possible doctrine of Scripture, but never so high that we threaten to forget its very human history.

    Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God honors Holy Scripture, but it also gives the highest honor to preaching as itself a mode of the Word of God in the present. Scriptural exegesis and theological investigation are only worthwhile if they translate into church proclamation. We honor the Word of God incarnate and written when we preach effectively and faithfully, never turning the Bible into an idol but also never turning it into just another human document of ancient history. The Bible is indeed living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. But it is only this because of the Holy Spirit and the power of God at work in the church. The church itself, for that matter, only has authority because of the God’s agency in the Holy Spirit who constitutes the church as the gathering of the people of God.

    Finally, as Christians, we need to relearn how to read. We live in a media-saturated age when reality TV and .mp3 players dominate our world. Books are foreign to the rising generations. Biblical literacy gets worse and worse with each passing year. This does not bode well for the church, and the only way to rectify it is to follow the command of God to the Israelite people:
    Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deut. 6:5-9)

    Friday, August 25, 2006

    John 11: The God who stands in solidarity with humanity

    [The following is the first of many "reflections" that I will write in response to sermons given at our church, The Well. This first one was close to my heart, and I am posting it here in full. You can read the original here. Future reflections will be posted on a weekly basis on The Well's website. RSS is available for those interested.]

    On June 24, 2004, I received an email informing me that my close friend and college roommate of three years, James Pyles, was killed in a car accident on the streets of Jerusalem where he was serving as a summer missionary to the Palestinian people. My world came crashing down around me in a way that I could never have anticipated. In such moments, John 11 is especially powerful.

    The story of Lazarus is one of the signs in the Gospel of John that the writer uses to structure the book. They are called signs, rather than miracles, because they are meant to point to Jesus rather than attract attention to themselves. The sign itself is not important, compared to the one who works these signs. In John 11, our attention is truly focused on Jesus. Every event turns our focus toward him. The death of Lazarus was not in vain, because "the Son of God may be glorified through it" (v. 4). The responses of Mary and Martha place us before the One they trusted with their very lives. Jesus before the tomb weeps with his friends, causing us to reflect upon his compassion. And after Lazarus comes out of the tomb, we are immediately thrust into another plot to kill Jesus, since "many of the Jews ... believed in him" (v. 45) after they saw the sign. The sum effect of this chapter, and the whole Gospel of John itself, is to say: Behold your Messiah!

    Once we identify that Jesus is indeed our Savior, the Son of God among us, we are forced to ask the following question: What does the story of Lazarus tell us about Jesus? As Todd made clear in his sermon, we learn two things: (1) that God weeps with us over the suffering and tragedy in this world, and (2) that someday God will wipe every tear from our eyes and death will be no more. (I follow the theological axiom that Jesus reveals to us who God truly is, and so if Jesus shows compassion, then God is one who has compassion on this broken world.)

    Both sides—compassion and liberation, solidarity and salvation—are essential. We may hear of the second part but miss the first, or we might hear the first but never reach the second. In John 11, we see both, and in their proper order. So, first, Jesus shows us a picture of God that is often forgotten: the God who stands in solidarity with humanity. We see this in the Old Testament in a passage like Hosea 11, where God is weighed down with compassion for the people of Israel. God declares:

    How can I give you up, Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, Israel?
    How can I treat you like Admah?
    How can I make you like Zeboiim?
    My heart is changed within me;
    all my compassion is aroused.

    I will not carry out my fierce anger,
    nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim.
    For I am God, and not man—
    the Holy One among you.
    I will not come in wrath.

    God is the "Holy One in our midst," the one who stands with us and not against us. God's own heart is full of compassion. We see a similar sentiment come from Jesus in Matthew 23:37 (and parallels): "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing." Jesus desires to see Israel gathered togethed as one people again; he yearns for the New Jerusalem when there will be no more divisions between people, when death will itself be put to death. The whole narrative of Scripture, since the tragedy at Eden, is a yearning for the end of the story. But not an end like we see in a movie or read in a book. The end of this story is the beginning of a new one—a story that has no end.

    In order to reach that new beginning, though, we need more than a God who simply walks and weeps with us in our suffering. God stands in solidarity with us—that is true—but God also rescues us. The Old Testament often speaks of death as a "pit." In ancient Israel, they had no conception of an "afterlife" or "heaven"; for them, death was the end, the pit or Sheol. The Psalmist often implores God to rescue him from the pit, meaning that death was near at hand, and only God could save him from that dark end. Salvation, thus, is to be rescued from this pit. God does not just climb into the pit with us—which God did in Jesus Christ—but God also brings us out of the pit and into the fullness of life. In other words, salvation does not take us away from this world or this life, but instead, God's salvation brings us into the fullness of life—a fullness only to be realized when God's kingdom comes to reign and death is finally vanquished.

    God entered the pit of this world in Jesus Christ, but God did not stay there. The incarnation had a goal in mind: the resurrection. Jesus came not only to weep with us, but also to bring about the new creation God has in store for us. God is broken over the state of this world, but God is powerful and gracious enough to mend our brokenness and restore peace again. This mission of God is both particular and concrete—in that Jesus weeps over this one particular man—but it is also cosmic and all-encompassing—in that God will redeem all of creation. Each man and woman is significant, but we are also part of a larger and more glorious reality.

    The story of John 11 is thus the gospel in a nutshell: God stands in solidarity with each of us, with all of humanity, but God also rescues us from the pit and restores us to new life. The raising of Lazarus is a sign that points us to Jesus, but within this single event we see a mini-picture of the whole story that includes creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. Death and life are brought together in this single chapter. In a way, the story of Lazarus is like the Lord's Supper: in one small moment we are given a glimpse of the large Story in which we find ourselves. Lazarus is a sign for us all, that we too will hear the voice of the Lord calling us out of the grave and into life everlasting.

    In conclusion, what can we learn from John 11 regarding our understanding of suffering in this world? When someone close to us dies, we can surely rest in the faith that Martha displayed when she states regarding Lazarus, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (v. 24). But Jesus' response reminds us of an important truth. He declares to her and to us all: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die" (vv. 25-26). Our hope is not one that simply awaits some future time when things will be made new. Our hope is now. Jesus already defeated death in his crucifixion and resurrection. We no longer need to fear, because Jesus not only promises new life; he is new life.

    When I think about James, this is the truth which I hold on to: that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Indeed, Jesus was telling the truth when he said, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up" (v. 11). With God, we are only asleep; in Christ, there is only life. For now, God stands by our side in solidarity with us in our suffering. But that is not the end of the story:

    Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true:

    "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
    Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?"

    The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:51-57)

    Thursday, August 24, 2006

    Blog Update: Disruptive Grace & Norman Solomon

    1. My friend, Chris, has started a new blog as part of his transition to Princeton Seminary. The blog is Disruptive Grace, to use the title of George Hunsinger's excellent collection of essays on Karl Barth—a title which was itself taken from the writings of Flannery O'Connor, one of the greatest American writers of all time.

    Chris is particularly interested in Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance, two of the great theologians in the 20th century—the latter only because of the former—so it makes great sense for him to be studying here at Princeton, where Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack both teach theology from Barth's perspective. Chris and his wife, Anneli, are also attending The Well for church.

    Read his introduction, and then see his post on William Cavanaugh's book, Theopolitical Imagination.

    2. I have "ads" on my sidebar now, which serve the purpose of showing what I am reading and watching. I will most likely update the film box on a weekly basis. I hope also to have a letter-grade for that film posted directly beneath the ad. If you are interested in having me review the film at greater length, please leave me a comment on the post "Film Reviews & Recommendations," which is also accessible under the "Favorite Blogs" section in the sidebar. In addition, you would prove yourself to be an intelligent, cultured, and good-natured person by buying one of the listed items through this blog.

    3. I recently linked to a column by Frank Rich that argued "the era of Americans' fearing fear itself is over." Well, Norman Solomon does not agree. In response to that line by Rich, he writes, "Don't make me laugh to keep from crying." Solomon's argument is well-taken: rather than try to sound important and proclaim what is and what is not "over" (as Bush and his aides have done repeatedly), let's instead do the hard work of analyzing this so-called "war on terror" so that we are not lulled into comfortable, idealized visions of the world. In other words, let's actually think about our country and our policies critically. Near the end of his column, Solomon writes:
    The movie "Good Night, and Good Luck" dramatized Edward R. Murrow's decision to (finally) take on Senator Joseph McCarthy's red-baiting tactics. For those who wonder why so many journalists hung back and declined to directly challenge those tactics, which ran roughshod over the American political process for years, we can look around the US news media of 2006 and get a partial answer.
    Solomon faults the U.S. media across the board, right and left, for failing to do the kind of hard journalism that we need in these times. This criticism is even more necessary in relation to the church, where it is generally assumed that the elected officials are chosen to make decisions so that we don't have to think about them. In this troubled era, such naiveté is entirely unacceptable.

    Notice of Revocation of Independence

    Ever since the 2000 election of George W. Bush, the internet has circulated various satirical "notices of revocation of independence," poking fun at America's inability to elect a good President. After the 2004 election, a letter (thanks to Sub Ratione Dei) purportedly written by John Cleese was circulated. The following are some of the choicest bits:
    Open Letter from John Cleese.

    A Message from John Cleese to the citizens of the United States of America: In light of your failure to elect a competent President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective immediately. Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths, and territories (excepting Kansas, which she does not fancy). ...

    5. You will learn to resolve personal issues without using guns, lawyers, or therapists. The fact that you need so many lawyers and therapists shows that you're not adult enough to be independent. Guns should only be handled by adults. If you're not adult enough to sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist then you're certainly not grown up enough to handle a gun. ...

    7. All American cars are hereby banned. They are crap and this is for your own good. When we show you German cars, you will understand what we mean. ...

    9. The Former USA will adopt UK prices on petrol (which you have been calling gasoline") - roughly $6/US gallon. Get used to it. ...

    11. The cold tasteless stuff you insist on calling beer is not actually beer at all. Henceforth, only proper British Bitter will be referred to as beer, and European brews of known and accepted provenance will be referred to as Lager. American brands will be referred to as Near-Frozen Gnat's Urine, so that all can be sold without risk of further confusion.

    Some stats on Bush

    Read Jim Hightower's statistics on President Bush here, or read the original from AlterNet.

    According to my Hebrew preceptor, Prof. Beverly Gaventa, on hearing of Bush's re-election, sent a message to another professor that said, "Jonah 4:8-9." Those verses read:
    When the sun came up, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah's head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying, "Death is better to me than life." Then God said to Jonah, "Do you have good reason to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "I have good reason to be angry, even to death."

    Wednesday, August 23, 2006

    Eberhard Jüngel: I believe, therefore I suffer

    I believe, therefore I suffer. Believers suffer with the suffering, for they would like to rejoice with the suffering and yet in their suffering they continue to long for the joy withheld from them. The believer grieves over the lack of love and hope which proceeds from lack of freedom, justice, and peace. But when believers look into a world painfully marked by death and the henchmen of death, as believers they also suffer deeply over the experience of the hiddenness of God’s activity. . . .

    Theology must not only call the trials of faith by name, but also think them through with such thoroughness that theology as a whole becomes a theology of testing: tentatio facit theologum. As a theology of testing it protects the sensitivity of faith without allowing it to degenerate into a sentimental ‘being in love’ with one’s own pain or that of another. For as a theology of the cross, it connects the tested faith to its origin, back to the God who suffers for us, because through his suffering he helped the love that has overcome death to victory, the only comfort of suffering humanity. He has eternally condemned evil and sin to defeat.

    The first and last task of proper theology is therefore not that of articulating our story of suffering, but that of bringing the story of Christ’s passion to speech as gospel. Yet in everything it has constantly asserted one thing and one thing only: that the God who was denounced and crucified by his human creatures has said to us and so also to himself once and for all Yes (2 Cor 1.19f.).

    —Eberhard Jüngel, Theological Essays II, 18-19

    Tuesday, August 22, 2006

    Eberhard Jüngel: On the Doctrine of Justification

    I recently posted a series on the doctrine of justification according to Eberhard Jüngel on the online forum for Jüngel studies that I began, God as the Mystery of Theology. The posts are roughly equivalent to those I posted in my series on universalism on this site. I welcome any comments and criticisms.

    On the Doctrine of Justification: A Series

    Part I: Introduction to the doctrine of justification in the theology of Eberhard Jüngel

    Part II: Solus Christus

    Part III: Sola gratia

    Part IV: Solo verbo

    Part V: Sola fide


    Jüngel, Eberhard. God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute between Theism and Atheism, trans. Darrell L. Guder (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, ET 1983).

    —. Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith, trans. Jeffrey F. Cayzer (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, ET 2001).

    Recommended Reading:

    —. The Freedom of a Christian: Luther's Significance for Contemporary Theology, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Augsburg, ET 1988).

    —. "On the Doctrine of Justification" in the International Journal of Systematic Theology 1:1 (1999), pp. 24-52.

    —. Theological Essays II, trans. J. B. Webster and A. Neufeldt-Fast (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, ET 1994).

    Watch this

    In an effort to encourage American citizens to think more critically (i.e., carefully) about our current administration, I urge people to watch this report from Keith Olbermann.

    Monday, August 21, 2006

    Two articles worth your attention

    Frank Rich, op-ed columnist for The New York Times, has published a very nice piece in Sunday's paper. Read it here. In sum: "The results are in for the White House's latest effort to exploit terrorism for political gain: the era of Americans' fearing fear itself is over."

    The other news item is much more disturbing. Women are being sexually abused by military recruiters. Read it here.

    Saturday, August 19, 2006

    Review: Snakes on a Plane (2006)

    Just as the summer was starting to wind down on what is turning out to be quite probably the worst cinematic year in history, one film came along to save the year and brighten our lives: Snakes on a Plane. After seeing the film last night, I realized an ordinary review would not cut it. SoaP is full of deep human insights and lessons for life, some of which I have decided to list here in honor of the film:

    10. Never smoke pot while having sex in an airplane lavatory. In order to smoke pot, one needs to disengage the fire alarm sensor, which is a Class Something Felony. SoaP teaches us that taking out the alarm is wrong by showing us the possible consequences. By opening up a hole in the ceiling, the pot-smoking couple allows snakes to prey on them in the midst of what would otherwise be an enjoyable escapade in the mile-high club.

    9. When you see a murder committed by a famous Asian mobster, don't rev up your motorcycle to let him know you saw it. This is just common sense. If you are going to watch a murder, try to be quiet about it. Otherwise you just might find yourself on a plane full of poisonous snakes.

    8. Know the basic survival technique of sucking blood from another person's body. You never know when a person might be bitten by a rattlesnake and need you to suck that blood right out.

    7. If you vacation in Hawaii, don't wear leis. They could be contaminated with pheromones designed to aggravate snakes into a biting fury. Best to avoid them altogether. Remember: leis are probably part of an underground mobster plot to take down a commercial plane. Don't trust those similing Hawaiian girls.

    6. For the guys: Always watch where you pee. The toilet bowl is not always your friend. The white porcelein can give a false sense of security. You must not allow the ecstasy of relief to cause you to let your guard down.

    5. If your co-pilot falls into a hole and dies, don't go in after him. There's a reason why planes have two pilots. If one dies, the other carries on. That's how these things are supposed to work.

    4. Boycott sporks. They don't serve as sufficient weapons against orgiastic snakes in a claustrophobic airplane cabin. Always ask for real silverware. If the FAA says they might be used as weapons against other humans, take them to see SoaP. They will be convinced.

    3. Allow your kids to be pyromaniacs. You never know when that kid of yours might be on an airplane and need to make a blowtorch out of everyday household items to ward off cobras hanging from the overhead compartments. It might happen.

    2. Play those videogames. You just might be called upon to land a commeral airliner with engines going out, cabin air pressure destablized, and a tailwind throwing the plane off course. Finally, those 2000 hours of game time actually pay off.

    1. Do whatever Samuel L. Jackson tells you to do, and you will live!

    Friday, August 18, 2006

    For the PTS community

    I will soon return to my ongoing series on evangelicalism and universalism, but in the meantime, if you are a Princeton Seminary student or aspiring to become one, there is a fantastic new website for your enjoyment. The site, named in honor of our current president, Iain Torrance, is Without a doubt, this is the best thing to happen to the PTS community in some time. Whoever put the site together did a stellar job.

    Thursday, August 17, 2006

    Blog Update

    Here are some things to read in the blogosphere to escape from my prolix posts of late:

    First, I recommend the posts of my friend, Halden, who writes at Inhabitatio Dei. He will soon return to his series on Bonhoeffer's Ethics. In his most recent post, he commented on the doctrine of the church that I presented in my theses on divine passibility. I tend to follow John Webster over T. F. Torrance, thus emphasizing the concrete distinction between divine and human reality and stressing the church's role as witness to God.

    Second, I must recommend the posts on "theology for beginners" by Ben Myers of Faith & Theology. His posts thus far have addressed faith, theology, and the gospel. Ben Myers has done a stellar job thus far, and I heartily commend his posts.

    Third, I read the posts by the Friendly Atheist, and his most recent one is worth our attention: His top 5 favorite televangelists. Very funny.

    Wednesday, August 16, 2006

    God's Being Is in Becoming: God's Passion

    [I know of no better discussion of God's passibility than the several pages near the end of Eberhard Jüngel's masterpiece, God's Being Is in Becoming. In this post, I quote the full text of that section, entitled, "God's passion."]

    God’s passion

    God’s being-in-act becomes manifest in the temporal history of Jesus Christ. The temporal history of Jesus Christ is the fulfilment in time of God’s eternal resolve. The fulfilment in time of God’s eternal resolve is God’s existence as man in Jesus Christ. God’s existence as man is not only God’s existence as creature, but equally God’s handing of himself over to the opposition to God which characterises human existence. The consequence of God’s self-surrender is his suffering of the opposition to God which afflicts human existence in opposition to God – even to death on the cross.

    In this sense also, God's being is in becoming. It is a being in a becoming threatened by perishing. For humanity in opposition to God is condemned to perish. And in the existence of Jesus Christ God suffers this very condemnation. ‘The more seriously we take this, the stronger becomes the temptation to approximate to the view of a contradiction and conflict in God Himself’ (CD IV/1, 185). Barth takes the passion of God very seriously. ‘The Almighty exists and acts and speaks here in the form of One who is weak and impotent, the eternal as One who is temporal and perishing . . . The One who lives for ever has fallen a prey to death. The Creator is subjected to and overcome by the onslaught of that which is not’ (176). But he categorically rejects that we must draw from this the consequence of a contradiction through which God would come into conflict with himself (185). For Barth this consequence is blasphemy. However, his rejection of this consequence does not lead to any toning down of his discussion of God’s suffering, but, conversely, to a critique of the traditional metaphysical concept of God, according to which God cannot suffer without falling into conflict with his being. In this critique, Barth’s opposition to every kind of natural theology received its most pointed statement. No concept of God arrived at independent of the reality of Jesus Christ may decide what is possible and impossible for God. Rather, we are to say from what God as man in Jesus Christ is, does and suffers: ‘God can do this’ (187). For ‘who God is and what it is to be divine is something we have to learn where God has revealed Himself and His nature, the essence of the divine. . . . It is not for us to speak of a contradiction and rift in the being of God, but to learn to correct our notions of the being of God, to reconstitute them in the light of the fact that He does this. We may believe that God can and must only be absolute in contrast to all that is relative, exalted in contrast to all that is lowly, active in contrast to all suffering, inviolable in contrast to all temptation, transcendent in contrast to all immanence, and therefore divine in contrast to everything human, in short that He can and must be only the “Wholly Other.” But such beliefs are shown to be quite untenable, and corrupt and pagan, by the fact that God does in fact be and do this in Jesus Christ’ (186).

    Thus it is not a contradiction of the definition of God’s being as ‘being-in-act’ when suffering is predicated of God. God’s suffering corresponds to his being-in-act. But God’s suffering is his being-in-act; thus ‘from the very first’ God’s ‘passion’ is to be understood as ‘the divine action’ (254). It is therefore no paradox when we also speak of ‘God’s being in the act of suffering.’ This statement would be a paradox if in his essence God were a god incapable of suffering, as was sometimes maintained in the early church, following the metaphysical concept of God in Greek philosophy. On the basis of Barth’s inference from God’s being revealed to his ‘inner’ being, we shall have to understand, in God himself, too, God’s ‘being-in-act’ which corresponds to the passion of the Son of God, as in a certain sense a passive being – passive in the sense of obedience. This passivity of obedience in God is also the highest form of activity in so far as it is affirmed passivity. It belongs ‘to the inner life [my italics] of God that there should take place within it obedience’ (201). In the obedience of the Son of God to the Father, the unity of the being of God is not jeopardized through the Son’s inferiority to the Father, but the unity of the divine being is concrete precisely, indeed, in its ‘modes of being which cannot be separated, which cannot be autonomous, but which cannot cease to be different. He is God in their concrete relationships the one to the other, in the history which takes place between them’ (203).

    The unity of being in which God ‘in himself . . . is both One who is obeyed and Another who obeys’ (201) distinguishes God’s ‘being-in-act’ from a being which is to be understood as ‘a divine death’ (561). Precisely because obedience from eternity is not strange to the life of God, and precisely because this being is utterly other than a ‘divine death,’ God can suffer and die as man. This innertrinitarian ability of God must not, however, be thought of as a transcendental condition of possibility for the passion of God in Jesus Christ. Rather, God’s ability means that God is Lord. ‘The image, the correspondence in which He has set it up and revealed it among us, for our salvation, for the reconciliation of the world with God, is, however, His obedience in humility’ (208).

    In this obedience God suffers, in that in Jesus Christ he exists as man. And in this obedience God abandons himself to death. Passion and death are not a metaphysical piece of misfortune which overtook the Son of God who became man. God chose this ‘fate.’ In his passion and death he did not therefore somehow waive ‘His deity (as did the Japanese Emperor in 1945),’ but was rather ‘in this humiliation . . . supremely God . . . in this death . . . supremely alive,’ so that ‘He has maintained and revealed His deity in the passion of this man as His eternal Son’ (246f). And so God as God has declared himself identical with the crucified Jesus. Therefore one must not exclude from this suffering the Father who gave his Son over to suffer death. ‘It is not at all the case that God has no part in the suffering of Jesus Christ even in His mode of being as the Father’ (IV/2, 357). ‘This fatherly fellow-suffering of God’ is rather ‘the basis of the humiliation of His Son,’ in that in the giving up of his Son God suffers ‘the alien suffering of the creature, of man, which he takes to Himself in Him’ (357). Indeed, God’s fatherly fellow-suffering as ‘the basis of the humiliation of his Son’ is ‘the truth of that which takes place historically in His crucifixion’ (357).

    Thus the Father, too, participates with the Son in the passion, and the divine unity of God’s modes of being proves itself in the suffering of Jesus Christ. God’s being is a being in the act of suffering. But even in suffering God’s being remains a being in act, a being in becoming. God persists in the historicality of his being. And this persistence of God in the historicality of his being allows this being to remain even in death a being in becoming. In giving himself away God does not give himself up. But he gives himself away because he will not give up humanity. The Son of God who is united with the Son of Man, the Son of God as man, is certainly dead. This dead man cannot make himself alive. Here Barth thinks in strictly anti-docetic terms. That even in death God’s being remains a being in becoming is not the work of the Son of God who died as man. But God’s being remains a being-in-act only in the constantly new acts of God’s self-affirmation. And so God’s persistence in his historicality in the face of the death of Jesus Christ is a new act also. In the face of the death of the Son of God who died as man, ‘God’s being remains in becoming’ means the new act of the resurrection, which happens to the Son of God and with him to the man Jesus. In saying Yes to the dead Son of God, God also said Yes to humanity, indeed, with the same Yes. In that here God corresponds to himself anew, he also brings humanity anew into correspondence with God. For in the resurrection of Jesus Christ humanity is given a share in the being of God which asserts itself against death. But as grace this sharing, too, belongs to God’s being-in act. And so it belongs to God’s being to become the God of every person.

    —Eberhard Jüngel, God's Being Is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth, trans. John Webster, 98-103.

    Tuesday, August 15, 2006

    The Imago Dei: A Truly Christological Doctrine

    Books & Culture recently published an article on the imago Dei by Stephen Webb, author of the extraordinarily presumptuous book, American Providence: A Nation with a Mission. Webb is a conservative—both politically and theologically—but somewhat hard to classify. He wrote a book on a "theology of compassion for animals" entitled On God and Dogs, and he's coming out with a book on Bob Dylan this fall, Dylan Redeemed. That said, I find that I differ with him on most major topics, and his essay on the imago Dei is no exception. In this post, I will explore his arguments as briefly as possible, then explain how I think the doctrine of the "image of God" should be approached.

    Analysis of "In Whose Image?" by Stephen Webb

    First, this article is not primarily a presentation of Webb's own theological views, but rather a review article on two books: The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1, by J. Richard Middleton, and The Divine Image: Envisioning the Invisible God, by Ian McFarland. Webb's discussion of these books is worth a post of its own, but for now I will focus on Webb's own position, presented as follows:
    I should state up front my own interpretation of the imago Dei. I think this idea is at once impossibly simple and profoundly surprising. The image of God makes little sense in the Old Testament context, where it is mentioned explicitly only three times (Genesis 1:26–27; 5:1, and 9:6). If we are to rescue it from hopeless obscurity, it must be taken both literally and christologically. Our bodies look like they do because God decided from eternity to become incarnate in Jesus Christ. Simply stated, we are like God because we are like Jesus.

    Our bodies are not an accident of evolution any more than the Incarnation is a divine afterthought to the Fall. God did not become incarnate in order to look like us. Jesus could ascend to heaven because he has been the Son from eternity, and our bodies will be glorified in heaven because their form is a reflection of his. This does not mean that the flesh of Jesus is the same as the second person of the Trinity, but it does suggest that the imago Dei is a thread that runs through and ties together the pre-existent Christ, the uniqueness of humanity, the specificity of the incarnation, and the resurrection of the body.

    How else do we explain why Paul calls Jesus "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15)? And how else do we explain all of the passages in the Old Testament that imply the corporeality of Yahweh? When God appears to Ezekiel as having "something that seemed like a human form" (Ezek. 1:26), is Ezekiel the victim of a crude anthropomorphism? Or does Ezekiel see the Son of God, who, as the original copy, so to speak, is the prototype for the image in which humans are made?
    I give credit to Webb for trying to think christologically. This is at least a step up from thinking anthropologically (imago Dei = human sociality) or metaphysically (imago Dei = human rationality as a reflection of the perfect Divine Rationality). However, Webb shows little theological acumen in the fact that he plays fast and loose with Christ by effectively separating Christ's person from his work. The Jesus presented by Webb came to the world almost as if to say, "Hey check it out, ya'll, you look like me, and that means you were all created to be like God! Now go out and live like it." Webb forgets that to think christologically means to think through the 'word of the cross.' This means that the person of Jesus must never be separated from the mission of Jesus, that is, the work of reconciling sinful humanity to a God of grace. The Son did not come to the world simply to show God's affinity with humanity, but rather to execute a radical judgment of sin in the cross and resurrection as the mediator between humankind and its loving Creator.

    Webb thus perpetuates the tragic error in Christian tradition of turning the imago Dei into a general anthropological reality. He simply replaces the rationality of the Scholastics with a modern emphasis on physicality. Granted, he wants to see this physicality as definitely revealed in Jesus, but he nevertheless defines the imago Dei by something naturally available to all people. That is, the "image of God" is not actualized in Jesus Christ. Jesus merely confirms that all people are, in their natural physical form, akin to God. Webb misses the theological import of Genesis and ends up with a washed-out Christology that is entirely disconnected from the salvific mission of Christ. Webb ends up with a crudely anthropomorphized God, an overly literal reading of Genesis, and a Christ without a mission. In other words, like most theologians writing on the imago Dei, he thinks the subject rests on creation, when it actually depends upon soteriology.

    A Brief Exposition of the Imago Dei

    Webb assumes, as most Christians do, that the imago Dei refers to something special that is intrinsic to human creatures. The most common answer given by theologians over the centuries has been human rationality. Thomas Aquinas simply piggy-backed on Aristotle, who defined the human as a "rational animal" and Boethius, who defined a person as "an individual substance of a rational nature." Since then, critics of the "rationality" school have offered other choices, including human creativity (Dorothy Sayers, et al.) and human relationality (many contemporary theologians). What most thinkers fail to recognize is that the early medieval precedent regarding the imago Dei has confused the debate over the image of God. Early on in Christian theology, the concept of the imago Dei was disastrously redirected from addressing the question, "What makes us in God's own image?" (which should be the obvious question) to addressing a different question, "What makes humans different from the rest of creation?"

    To rectify this, the imago Dei must not be understood as something that we possess, something inherent in human beings as opposed to other animals. The early tradition understood that original sin greatly affected our relation to God, but it wanted to retain something of the image in order to distinguish humans from other creatures. They were misguided in trying to use the imago Dei toward that end. We must affirm that God's image belongs to God and God alone; in fact, the image of God is God alone, in that the image of God is Jesus Christ. According to both 2 Cor. 4:4 and Col. 1:15, Jesus is the image of God. We have lost that image and remain separate from it insofar as we are remain separate from God. This does not mean we have lost our humanity, because the concepts of "human" and "image of God" are not coterminous. To be "human" is to be created by God in relation to God, others, and ourselves. To be "in the image of God" is, now after the fall, to be re-created by God as a new creation—as part of the catholic community of the saints who await the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, as the creed affirms.

    The imago Dei is a christological category, not because Jesus came in the form of a human, but rather because Jesus is the image of God and we participate in this image by participating in the person of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit who brings us into ontic correspondence with the Son of God incarnate. The imago Dei is thus a soteriological-eschatological category, because in our brokenness and separation from God, we do not naturally correspond to God. The Genesis account can only be read rightly in the context of the rupture between God and humanity that followed human sin. Similarly, the creation account must be read in close connection with the rest of the Torah and the biblical witness, in which we read of God's persistent desire to establish a covenant of grace with sinful humanity. God's gracious election of humanity is one that establishes a sign of the new creation within this fragmented world in order to witness to the overflowing grace of God upon all creatures. God's election is one that occurs in and through the person of Christ, since all the economic acts of God—from creation to reconciliation to new creation—revolve around him. As the author of Colossians attests, "all things were created through him and for him ... and in him all things hold together" (1:17).

    The imago Dei is, therefore, intimately associated with God's covenant of grace established concretely in the person of Christ. As those who are brought into this covenant, we participate in the person of Jesus Christ, and thus we correspond to the Image that is Jesus. In this correspondence, in which our lives are conformed to the cruciform image of God in Jesus, we bear witness to God in the world. The imago Dei is soteriological in that we depend on this restored relation to God, others, and ourselves, effected in Jesus, in order to be the community that reflects God's image to the world. The imago Dei is eschatological in that we depend upon the consummation of creation according to God's promise to make all things new. The imago Dei is ecclesial in that the church is the people of God called to be a holy people and a royal priesthood. The imago Dei answers the question, "What does it mean to be like God?" with the answer, "Be holy, because I the LORD your God, am holy" (Lev. 19:2). But we must also remember Exodus 31:13: "You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy." And all of this is brought together, in light of Christ, in Colossians 3:9-11:
    Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
    What it means to be "in the image of God" is not having rationality or relationality—something intrinsic to us, something we possess—but being-in-relationship with the Creator, being-holy, being-righteous, being-new. In other words, our new ontological identity in light of the gospel determines our being-in-the-imago-Dei. We must receive from God a new life, and thus receive from God our new humanity conformed to the person of Jesus Christ. When we are conformed to Christ (conformitas Christi) by the creative grace of God, we become agents of reconciliation as those who witness to the abundant love of God made manifest in the true imago Dei, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.


    A truly christological account of the imago Dei forces us to reject Webb's theology, which attempts to locate God's image in our physical humanity. As Webb writes at the end of his article:
    The imago Dei assures us that there is an essential correlation between humanity and God that guarantees our basic intuitions into God's nature. We can properly imagine that God is like us because we are like God. In a world saturated with images, we are the only images that count, and we count only because we were made according to the specifications of someone else.
    The only responsible answer to Webb is a loud and resounding, No! There is no "essential correlation" between us and God, whether such a correlation is based in relationality, rationality, or physicality. We do not have the freedom to "imagine" what God is like. Webb should have learned a lesson from McFarland, who, despite making other errors, at least emphasizes that the "divine is both revealed and hidden in Jesus." God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ is a hiddenness in revelation. God assumes the veil of human flesh and is not self-evidently God even to those who saw Jesus with their own eyes. Peter's confession of faith is, clearly, an act of faith. As Jesus says to him, "For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 16:17). God truly reveals Godself in Christ, but God remains the hidden and invisible God who is not accessible except through faith in God's Word to humanity—the Word incarnate in Jesus.

    In conclusion, we are not the "only images that count." Jesus Christ alone is the Image of God, the self-revelation of the divine, the sole mediator between God and humanity. In him alone we find our identity as the people of God. And in him alone, other human images and words find their proper place as "parables of the kingdom," not as usurpers of God's centrality or distractions from our ontological participation in the reality of God, but as witnesses and signs to the creator and perfecter of creation—Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior.