Friday, September 29, 2006

Falling off a cliff

Americans who are concerned about democracy and freedom have reason to be (even more) utterly appalled at the conduct of the current U.S. administration. Last evening, the Military Commission Act of 2006 passed both the Congress and the Senate, and Bush is expected to sign the bill into law in the next couple days. This is one of the worst events in our government’s history. The American people—and the church especially!—must rise up and denounce this act. If you consider yourself an American, rise up in the name of America. If you consider yourself a Christian, rise up in the name of our only Lord, Jesus Christ.

All anyone needs to do is read the excellent NY Times editorial, “Rushing off a cliff.” Here are just a few of the major problems with the bill as outlined in that editorial:
Enemy Combatants: A dangerously broad definition of “illegal enemy combatant” in the bill could subject legal residents of the United States, as well as foreign citizens living in their own countries, to summary arrest and indefinite detention with no hope of appeal. The president could give the power to apply this label to anyone he wanted.
The Geneva Conventions: The bill would repudiate a half-century of international precedent by allowing Mr. Bush to decide on his own what abusive interrogation methods he considered permissible. And his decision could stay secret — there’s no requirement that this list be published.

Habeas Corpus:
Detainees in U.S. military prisons would lose the basic right to challenge their imprisonment. These cases do not clog the courts, nor coddle terrorists. They simply give wrongly imprisoned people a chance to prove their innocence.

Judicial Review:
The courts would have no power to review any aspect of this new system, except verdicts by military tribunals. The bill would limit appeals and bar legal actions based on the Geneva Conventions, directly or indirectly. All Mr. Bush would have to do to lock anyone up forever is to declare him an illegal combatant and not have a trial.

The United States is rushing headlong into neo-fascism. We cannot shrink back from using such strong language; we have to call a spade a spade. If the government denies habeas corpus to anyone at any time, we can confidently declare that the country has fallen into a kind of governmental dictatorship.

A woman in my theology class is a former FBI agent whose brother is one of the U.S. antiterrorism leaders. But she explained how he is so scared now of what the U.S. is doing under Bush’s leadership that he wants to resign. People who are doing ordinary petty crimes are now liable to the accusation of terrorism. One of the recent antiterrorist operations (which is really a government fabrication) concerned a group of people who were selling tobacco illegally. Five years ago this would have been a minor story about cigarettes. But because there were ties to people who had connections to those who are suspected of terrorism, these people were labeled as terrorists themselves. According to the MCA, terror detainees can be held and convicted without trial. In other words, terror suspects can be denied their basic constitutional rights. More importantly, U.S. citizens may be denied their constitutional rights if the government deems them to be “illegal combatants,” according to Section 948a(1).

I urge people to read a couple articles at Balkinization, an excellent blog run by a professor of law at Yale University. First, read, “What Hamdan Hath Wrought,” which has some key insights:
Viewed from one perspective, Hamdan was nothing more than a democracy-forcing decision that required the Administration to prove that Congress supported what he was doing. The President pushed through a bill that did just that. Viewed from another perspective, the Military Commissions Bill was nothing less than a smackdown of the Supreme Court; the Congress withdrew habeas review for aliens (and all other forms of review except for the appeals of military commissions and Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) mentioned above), limited the enforceability of Geneva, insulated previous and future practices from criminal sanction, and made the President the final interpretive word for non-grave breaches of Common Article 3. ...

First, the MCA puts the President in an interesting position: the U.S. is still bound by Geneva, but there is no way for individuals to enforce violations of Geneva (except that grave breaches of Common Article 3 can still be prosecuted under the War Crimes Statute). However, Geneva's status as the law of the land (under Article VI) was not altered by the MCA. The United States has not withdrawn from the Geneva Conventions, and this fact was quite important to selling the bill to the public. So if the President orders procedures that are inconsistent with Geneva, he is still acting contrary to law even though there may be no way for an individual to enforce the law directly. ...

Let me repeat what I have just said: The MCA continues to recognize that certain conduct is illegal, but attempts to eliminate all judicial remedies for such violations. That means that if the President violates the MCA, he still fails to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, which is his constitutional duty under Article 2, section 3 of the Constitution. (And in case you are wondering, he might well be guilty of a high crime and misdemeanor, but don't hold your breath.) The President wanted it this way: He wanted to be able to say that he was following the law, but, just in case he wasn't, he didn't want to be held to account for it in any court proceeding. But the fact that the courts can't offer a remedy doesn't mean, I repeat, that the President has no duty to obey the law. And although he now has virtually conclusive authority to interpret non-grave breaches of Geneva, he does not have virtually conclusive authority to interpret either the Bill of Rights or the McCain Amendment.
Then read, “Does the Military Commissions Act apply to citizens?” in which Balkin states up front:

(1) Yes, a few parts of the MCA do apply to citizens; and

(2) the MCA is probably unconstitutional in many of its applications to citizens; and

(3) some constitutional applications of the MCA to citizens are deeply troubling.

We have a moral duty to oppose what is happening in our country today. To sit back and allow such things to take place is to support them. I do not have the experience or the resources to know how I can be involved, but I hope to contribute to some sort of protest through posts like this one. Finally, as the church that confesses Jesus to be the only Lord and Savior, we must deny the claim of the president to be the sovereign of this land. We must deny his claim to power, and affirm Christ’s sole authority. We must deny the kingdom of this world that says “might is right” and “U.S. freedom is worth preserving at any cost,” and we must instead affirm the Kingdom of God, which nullifies all other kingdoms. As the church, we confess that God alone lays claim to our lives, because it is in God alone that we find new life. As the church of life, we thus are called to stand against the empires of death. This is our calling. May we walk in steadfast obedience as we seek the glory of God.

In Memoriam: Ellen Swope

This last week the mother of my closest friend passed away due to a brain aneurysm. Ellen Swope is a dear family friend, and she will be greatly missed. Today is her memorial service, and it saddens me greatly that I cannot be there to mourn with my friend, Ian, along with his family and my family. This is a difficult time, and there's no place I would rather be than by their side, supporting them as a friend. In my absence, I composed a short eulogy. The family is reading a number of written remembrances from family and friends, and so I wrote one as a way of mitigating my distance from the people I love. I do not know if they will read it or not, and it doesn't matter. I print it here as a way of publicly honoring Ellen Swope. This cannot replace my presence with the family, but unfortunately it will have to suffice.

In Memoriam: Ellen Swope

The problem with trying to come up with my first memory of Ellen Swope is that my first memories of her are not all that far apart from my first memories ever. I grew up in walking distance from the Swope family home. I recall a little bit of my childhood at Community Bible Fellowship, but my first fond memories of church and friendships began with Clear Creek Community Church. It is in that context that my life, as I remember it, is deeply intertwined with the Swope family. Consequently, the years in which I was shaped most profoundly were the same years in which I interacted with the Swope family the most of any family I know. And Ellen was a constant figure during those times. In the movie-reel of my mind, she is the secondary character who is always on screen, and when the film is over, she is the character you remember over the others.

Ellen was like a second mother at times. She saw me develop alongside her sons, Ian and Colin, with all my quirks, difficulties, successes, and joys. I spent the night at the Swope’s home numerous times growing up. I’ve wandered through almost every square foot of their back yard. I enjoyed her delicious cooking on many occasions. Ellen consistently and lovingly asked me how things were going in my life whenever she saw me. She always displayed a genuine and heartfelt interest in me. I always felt comfortable speaking with her about anything in my life, as if she were family—the kind of family member you embrace as the closest kind of friend. Everything about her radiated familial love. For those who do not know such “familial love,” Ellen defined it in her life.

Ellen lived a life of sheer grace. I have no memory of her in a temper or grouchy mood; if she ever had one in my presence, it has been displaced by the magnitude of her graciousness and love, which were so abundantly evident in her interaction with others. Ellen was tenacious and dedicated; she was persistent in getting every detail right in whatever she did. I recall the many Sunday mornings at Clear Creek, when she would make sure that she had the PowerPoint in-sync with the music for that morning. She refused to let any detail slide; everything was important to her, because all of life was worth her very best effort. Ellen made the most of whatever task she was given, and this is a witness to us all.

The great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, faced the difficulty of preaching a memorial sermon for his own son, Robert Matthias, who fell to his death while climbing a mountain in the Swiss Alps in 1941. In the sermon, he speaks about the distance between the Now and the Then, the Now in which we see “in a mirror dimly,” and the Then when we will see “face to face.” His words are apropos for our remembrance and celebration of Ellen’s life, and I have replaced Matthias with Ellen in Barth’s words:
This is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that we follow him and may stand with him at the border where the Now and the Then touch each other, that we at this border may believe, love, and hope. It is at this border where light falls into darkness, where life always rejoices in the face of death, where we are great sinners yet righteous, where we are taken captive yet free, where we see no way out yet we have hope, where we have doubts yet we are certain, where we weep yet we are glad.

In our thoughts about our Ellen we do not want to put ourselves in any other place than precisely at this border. She has now crossed over it, and we are still here. But we are not far from each other if we put ourselves at this border. In Jesus Christ there is no distance between Now and Then, between here and there, however profoundly they are separated. Our Ellen—just as she really was¬—is in Jesus Christ, yet very differently than the way she used to live with us and we with her. She is the same, yet she has become completely different. Because Jesus Christ has taught us about both, about life and death, death and life, we may now therefore remember our Ellen and thus speak about her.
As Barth so eloquently urged his audience to stand at the border, so may we, in remembering the wonderful and richly blessed life of Ellen Swope, stand at the border between Now and Then. Here and now, we see more dimly than before. Ellen is no longer with us, brightening our lives with her gracious presence. And yet we take hope that we will someday see “face to face,” just as Ellen sees the glory of God even now.

I thank God for Ellen’s great witness, in her life, to the steadfast love of the Lord. Her smile and charisma have left an indelible mark on my own life. I take heart knowing that while she has crossed over the border, we are not far from her if we put ourselves at this border. And we know that Ellen would indeed have us stand at this border, for in standing here, we stand with her Savior and ours, Jesus Christ. Here at this border, though we weep, we are still glad, and though we miss Ellen greatly, we know that “for now we see in a mirror dimly …

… but then face to face.”

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Many thanks to Ben Myers

Ben Myers, of Faith & Theology, has demonstrated the depth of his generosity and Christian character by purchasing a copy of Gerhard Ebeling’s profound little book, The Lord’s Prayer. The book is a collection of sermons on each part of the Lord’s prayer. I am truly grateful to Ben for this gift. Thank you!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

My First Sermon

I preached my first “official” sermon at The Well this past Sunday. The title of the sermon is, “The Glorification of God in Jesus Christ,” and was on John 13:18-38 as part of our church’s series through the Gospel of John. You can listen to the sermon here, or peruse the archive of past sermons. The entire podcast is 34:30, including the Apostles’ Creed and the Scripture reading. My sermon is exactly 30 minutes; I start speaking at the 4:30 mark, on the dot.

I welcome any feedback. I look forward to presenting the Word of the Lord to such a loving, caring congregation in the future. It’s a joy to serve God in this way.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

WIAAU: Outline Update

The outline for my series, “Why I Am A Universalist,” has been significantly updated to show where the series is headed. There will be more beyond the 11 paragraphs listed thus far, but at least for now it gives a good idea of the scope of this series. The atonement section will continue for some time yet, since this is really the heart of the argument. I apologize for the lengthy posts. Any feedback offered is always much appreciated.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Gundry on Ehrman: Misquoting Jesus?

A recent review by Robert Gundry of Bart Ehrman’s controversial bestseller, Misquoting Jesus, has appeared in the recent issue of Books & Culture. Gundry’s review is solid in many ways. He argues cogently and sympathetically with Ehrman, showing why this book should not be controversial but also why it should not be taken as seriously as Ehrman and/or his publishers think it should be.

Gundry critiques Ehrman precisely as I would (and have): Ehrman has “hardened” the categories of humanity and divinity so that the Bible is either the book of God’s Word to us or the Bible is the book of merely human words. While Gundry does not elaborate on this problem as much as he could, I believe we have here a summarized account of the debate between inerrantists and liberals. At the end of his review, Gundry essentially states that if forced to chose between the two, he would have to pick the latter—and I wholeheartedly agree. My sympathies, as with Gundry, are with Ehrman. And yet Gundry rightly perceives that Ehrman is really the victim of a false dichotomy, and I say “victim” because he came to faith in a tradition that made this dichotomy central to its faith. I can only hope that Ehrman sees beyond this dichotomy and sees Christian faith as a belief that embraces the human and the divine together.

(Interestingly, this divide, this “hardening of the categories,” is relevant to Christology before bibliology. The debate between conservatives and liberals has generally been, and continues to be, between a Docetic Christ on the one hand and a mere man on the other. I can only suspect that Ehrman felt forced to choose the latter in this case as well, given that a supernatural, mythic Christ was the only other option. Sadly, this too remains a problem that plagues evangelical America.)

What is perhaps most fascinating about this review is a statement by Gundry. He agrees with Ehrman that John 7:53-8:11 (the woman caught in adultery) should be removed from our Bibles, because the manuscript evidence for this passage is sketchy at best. But then he makes a remarkable statement: “Regardless of one’s opinion concerning historical value, denying canonicity doesn't equate with denying historicity.” In other words, while the story does not have sufficient support to earn canonical status, such a judgment does not mean we must view it was non-historical. This is true, of course, but entirely backwards. For Gundry, apparently, what is first to go is canonical status, and what is last to go is historicity. A story may be denied a place in the canon, but it may still have its place in history. We should rather say just the opposite. Canonicity is more basic and fundamental than history. A story may be denied its place in history, but it can keep its place in the canon. This is because the gospel narratives are proclamations, not scientific accounts of what physically occurred. The kerygma, not facts, is primary.

Now I say all this because I believe that the story of the woman caught in adultery is perfectly acceptable for the canon, though we should probably doubt its historicity. Most likely there was never any such encounter, but that does not mean the story is not true. And herein lies the rub: truth is not determined by history or by textual support but by its coherence within the gospel proclamation of Jesus as the Christ of God. The question we must ask John 7:53-8:11 is not, “Where is your textual support? What is the historical grounding of this passage?” but rather, “Is the Jesus portrayed here in conflict with the Jesus in the rest of John? or with the Jesus of the Synoptics? Is the Jesus portrayed here in harmony with the gospel kerygma that the early church proclaimed in light of the resurrection?” The answer to these questions, I believe, is that this particular story is indeed in harmony with the rest of the gospel narratives.

Gundry nails the problem with Ehrman’s account of Scripture. But he also falls into a trap of thinking that canonicity is more rigorous than historicity. This is only the case if we mean that canonicity depends upon the careful, rigorous analysis of how this text corresponds with other undisputed texts (but historicitiy depends upon similar kinds of analysis). We should rather view canonicity as the more encompassing of the two categories. Historicity (in the modern sense) ought to be a smaller, tighter category than that of canonicity, because with canonicity we are speaking about the gospel, and the gospel encompasses and embraces that which transcends the historical. The gospel is about more than “what really happened.” The gospel says, “This is true.”

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Sacrament of Washing Feet

A reflection on the sermon preached by Todd Hiestand at The Well on September 17, 2006. The text for the sermon was John 13:1-17. Originally posted here.

Foot-Washing vs. Lord’s Supper

It is well known that the gospel of John does not have a last supper with Jesus and his disciples before his death. Jesus does not institute a sacrament of his body and blood as he does in the Synoptic gospels—although, to be accurate, Jesus does institute the Lord’s Supper in John, but it comes early in his ministry (6:53-58) rather than at the end. Rather than a last supper, John’s gospel has Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. The washing of the feet, not the bread and the wine, is the center of John’s gospel.

The writer of John prefaces this central event by stating, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1). Such a statement would seem more at home in the context of the crucifixion. Is not the cross the highest and most concrete example of God’s love? Is not the death and resurrection of the Son the greatest act of love ever known? Indeed it is. So what about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet? What John subtly communicates in his gospel is that the cross and the washing of the feet are not two separate acts of love, but the same act of love revealed in two unique ways. In fact, we can go even further and say that the washing of the feet is a sign pointing us to the cross; better yet, the washing of the feet is the sacrament of Jesus’ death on the cross. But what does this mean?

Rather than belabor this reflection with a discussion of what a sacrament is, it seems more important to connect the foot-washing with the cross. We see the connection in verses 7 and 8. In verse 7, after Peter mockingly asks, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” (you can hear the incredulity), Jesus responds, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” This is our first clue as to the significance of the foot-washing. Only in light of the crucifixion of Jesus will the foot-washing make sense. The meaning of the foot-washing is obscured and darkened until the light of the cross shines upon it and illuminates the meaning of what Jesus did. We can say a similar thing about the Lord’s Supper: it too only makes sense and only functions as a true sacrament because of the cross. Just as the breaking of Jesus’ actual body on the cross makes the breaking of the bread meaningful, so too the radical act of love displayed in his going to the cross makes his radical act of love in washing the disciples’ feet meaningful and understandable.

The second clue comes in verse 8, in which the incredulity of Peter turns into a false humility: “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus responds this time by saying, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Here we reach the pivotal statement. Jesus reinterprets the act of washing another person’s feet so that, in that act, a relationship is formed between Jesus and the one who is unclean and needs to be washed. The act of foot-washing was a customary act of hospitality in which a slave or servant washed the feet of the guests. Here, however, the foot-washing by Jesus is a display of divine hospitality in which God gives abundantly to his sinful disciples out of the infinite depths of divine love. By allowing Jesus to wash their feet, the disciples allowed Jesus to establish a new relation with them as those who are now given a “share,” that is, welcomed into the divine household. Unlike the usual portrayal of Jesus standing outside our door and knocking to come in as our guest, John 13 portrays us as those who are standing outside God’s door and the only way we may enter is if Jesus washes our feet.

The analogy between the foot-washing and the cross should be readily apparent. Like the washing of the feet, Jesus’ passion and death on the cross is the ultimate act of divine hospitality, in which God gives up God’s own life on the cross, dying the death of a sinner in our place in order that we may enjoy new life for all eternity. The event of the cross is a radical demonstration of God’s abundant grace and overflowing love. And it is this event alone which establishes a new relation between God and sinful humanity; only because of the cross may we “share” in the new life that is found in Jesus. If we change slightly the statement by Jesus in verse 8, the relation between the foot-washing and the cross is even more clear: “Unless I die for you, you have no share with me.”

The Washing of the Feet as a Sacrament

The point in all of this is that we cannot separate the foot-washing from the cross. Far too many Christians view the washing of the disciples’ feet as the supreme example for us to follow (which it is, but it’s much more than that), while the cross is the supreme act of God on our behalf. We need to remember that the foot-washing is also an act of God, an act of divine hospitality, which is done for us and, in a way, cannot be repeated. In other words, just as we cannot die on a cross and thus fully imitate Christ’s crucifixion, we cannot (figuratively or literally) wash another person’s feet and fully imitate what Christ did for his disciples. No, there is something unique and unrepeatable in the foot-washing of John 13, and yet there is also something repeatable. What does this mean?

I believe the interpretation of the foot-washing as a sacrament holds the key. In the same way that our partaking of the Lord’s Supper is done after the example set by Jesus, we too must be well aware that we partake of this meal after the cross. This is hugely significant. When Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the crucifixion had (obviously) not yet taken place. It was a sign that looked ahead to what Jesus would do on their behalf and on behalf of the entire world. In other words, before the crucifixion, only Jesus could institute such a sacrament. After the cross and resurrection, however, we as the church are now able to share in Christ’s body and blood as those who are liberated by the death of Christ to be his people in this world. The sacrament is truly a sacrament after the cross, because it is an act of remembrance.

The act of washing his disciples’ feet is a sacrament in much the same way. We too engage, or ought to engage, in such acts of love and humility only after the cross. Jesus washed their feet as a sign to his followers that, in order to have a “share with me,” they had to allow Jesus to be their slave. We, of course, now do such acts after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and thus the situation is radically changed. Of course, Jesus commands us to do as he did, to be the last and the lowest, not the first and the highest. He tells his followers to “wash one another’s feet” and follow his example. But this first act of divine hospitality looks forward to the second and greater act of hospitality: the cross. And we cannot imitate the former without the salvific significance of the latter. In other words, we cannot “wash one another’s feet” unless we recognize that our feet have already been washed in the blood shed for us on the cross.

Slaves of Righteousness

The metaphor of becoming a slave is helpful. Jesus became a slave to his disciples, lowering himself beyond his disciples’ imagination. He washed their feet without obligation but in complete freedom. Paul writes about the metaphor of slavery in the epistle to the Romans. In chapter 6 he writes about two kinds of slaves: slaves of sin and slaves of righteousness. The former are bound by the law of sin and death, while the latter are set free from sin. Paul writes:

But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching in which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. … For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. (Rom 6:17-18, 19b)

But how are we “set free from sin” to “become slaves of righteousness”? Paul answers this question in the first part of chapter 6:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? … We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. … So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:3, 6-8, 11)

From this passage we can say a few things with the certainty of faith: (1) Jesus Christ died for us all; (2) when we are baptized, we are joined with Christ in his death and resurrection; (3) we are set free from sin by the death of Christ and by our baptism to order to be “alive to God” as a “slave of righteousness”; and (4) being a “slave of righteousness” counters how we normally think of slavery in that we are actually and truly free. Thus, in light of these truths, when we partake of the bread and the cup, we partake of the body and blood of Jesus that was shed on our behalf so that we are able to live new lives of freedom and obedience. The Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of what Christ accomplished for us on the cross. We remember in the Lord’s Supper that Christ killed the old self that was a slave to sin and gave us a new self that is a slave to righteousness—and thus free to serve others and obey God.

In the gospel of John, the same can and should be said of the foot-washing in John 13: (1) Jesus Christ died for us all as a slave on the cross, which was embodied in a unique way in the washing of his followers’ feet; (2) in our baptism, we are joined to the unique event of the cross and resurrection, toward which the foot-washing event points; and just as in the Lord's Supper we (like the disciples) receive the body and blood from Jesus, so too in the foot-washing, we (like the disciples) stand as those who are washed by Jesus, who receive the washing as a gift of new life; (3) in our new life of faith, we are washed by Christ so that we may partake in the “share” of his righteousness, and thus we are set free from the pursuit of greatness in order to become a slave to others as Jesus was to us, both in that upper room and on the cross; and (4) being a “slave of righteousness” as one who washes the feet of other people is real freedom, because in obedience to God we find that we are most truly free. The Lord's Supper and the washing of the feet are both events in which we receive from the Lord what Jesus alone could accomplish: the death of the old person and the resurrection of the new. By faith we receive a "share" in this new identity, and our continual acts of taking the Lord's Supper and washing one another's feet are acts which remind us—though a sacrament is much more than mere remembrance—of what Jesus did on our behalf.

We can say more about the relationship between the act of humble service in John 13 and the nature of a sacrament. First, a sacrament is an act which makes present and palpable something that is unique and unrepeatable. A sacrament is not the original event itself but rather its present-day embodiment by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Lord's Supper is not the actual death of Christ but rather the act by which we enter into that original event in the here and now. Something similar can be said for foot-washing. In this act of washing feet, we remember that Jesus became our slave on the cross. Jesus alone took our place as a slave to sin and killed that sinful person on the cross in order that a new person, one who is freed for righteousness, would arise from the grave in his resurrection. The washing of the disciples' feet was a sacramental act which is only understandable in light of what Jesus accomplished on the cross, in which he became the slave on behalf of the world so that we might wash one another's feet freely out of obedience to God.

“You also should do as I have done to you”

Therefore, when we wash the feet of other people today, we are engaging in an act which is truly sacramental. Foot-washing is taken metaphorically by Christians, but that is because we view it as a moral act of imitating Christ’s example. I suggest that we view it primarily as a sacrament which overflows into our moral acts of love and obedience. The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, but it should overflow into ceaseless generosity and table hospitality to guests outside the church. We are called to be a people who invite others to join our fellowship at all times, especially within the home. In the same way, the washing of the disciples’ feet begins as a sacrament and spreads out from the church into an infinite array of acts of loving hospitality for others.

In the accounts of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus commands his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me.” In John 13, Jesus commands his disciples, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Both commands are established primarily in the event of the cross, towards which the last supper and the washing of the feet both point in expectation. We see this explicitly in John 13:7-8 when Jesus tells Peter that the cross alone makes the foot-washing comprehensible, and that apart from this foot-washing, Peter and the others can have “no share with me.” Thus, the foot washing is intimately connected to the cross and resurrection, because it is in our baptism that we are joined to that singular event and given a share in the new life established in Jesus Christ. In conclusion, we can say that foot-washing functions as a sacrament in that it (a) is rooted and finds its meaning in the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for the world; (b) is an embodied act of representing and remembering the self-sacrifice of Jesus in the community of believers; (c) overflows into our life of ethical-moral obedience in which we embody the divine hospitality of the cross in our acts of love and hospitality towards others; and (d) is always a free response of our faith grounded in the fact that, on the cross, Christ freed us from slavery to sin once and for all.

In closing, I suggest that the Christian church should recover the tradition of foot-washing and practice it on a more regular basis—at least once a year. The act of washing another person’s feet may be culturally foreign to us, but it will be a very tangible and sacramental reminder of the extent of God’s love shown to us both in the washing of the disciples’ feet and, more importantly, on the cross where Jesus gave up his life for us all so that we might be “slaves to righteousness” who follow his example out of love and freedom. Jesus became a humble slave in washing his disciples’ feet. In washing their feet, Jesus gave a tangible picture of what he did on the cross: he became a slave on behalf of the world. On the cross he washed the feet of the world with his blood. With our baptism into his death and resurrection, Jesus sends us out into the world for which he died to wash their feet with the love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. God showed us such great love in Jesus that we might show love to others. It was for freedom that Christ set us free. Praise be to God!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Why I Am A Universalist, §8: The Doctrine of the Atonement (Section IV.1)


Section IV.1: Parameters for a doctrine of the atonement: triunity


An orthodox doctrine of the atonement must affirm that God’s economy of salvation is …

(1) … triune. In order to understand the atonement, we have to think through the triune economy of salvation as the act of one subject in three modes of being—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The being-in-act of God is a triune being-in-act in which the works appropriated to each person of the Trinity are perichoretically united in the one Lord, Deus pro nobis, who loves in freedom. The doctrine of the Trinity is essential for the doctrine of the atonement in at least the following three ways: (1) The doctrine of the Trinity forms the dogmatic ground out of which can arise a doctrine of the atonement in which the salvation effected on the cross can properly be both a divine and human event; (2) the doctrine of the Trinity is the interpretation of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, in which the economic activity of God reveals the immanent being of God as the gracious triune Lord; and (3) the doctrine of the Trinity allows us to preserve both the radical nearness and the radical distance between the Father and the Son in the event of the cross through the Holy Spirit’s “bond of love.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar stresses the centrality of the Trinity in the atonement, both as its ontological basis and as the noetic conclusion of thinking through the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Balthasar constructs a kenotic doctrine of the Trinity in which the persons of the Trinity are mutually self-emptying and self-donating from all eternity in a divine drama of love. The protological “primal kenosis” occurs in the eternal generation of the Son from the Father, which corresponds to the kenotic act of creation and reaches a dramatic climax in the incarnation of the Son in Jesus. All of this reveals the “genuine dynamic activity within the triune life of God” in which Balthasar “emphasizes God’s independence from the world” and at the same time “affirms God’s real involvement with the world” (Lauber 58). Significantly, for Balthasar, the kenotic drama between the Father and the Son “implies such an incomprehensible and unique ‘separation’ of God from himself that it includes and grounds every other separation—be it never so dark and bitter” (Theo-Drama IV, 325). As David Lauber makes clear, “God exists in this manner of self-giving and in no other” (58).

We can see from this trinitarian backdrop how the self-giving of Jesus on the cross for the sake of sinful humanity is the economic overflow of God’s own internal being. Who God is eternally ad intra forms the very basis for what God accomplishes in relation to creation ad extra. Lauber writes:
The ‘distance’ between the Father and the Son provides the space for the radical separation experienced by the Son, who has taken on the condition of sin, from the Father. The eternal self-giving of the Father is the ontological condition for the possibility for the extravagance of the self-giving of the Son in willingly taking on the world’s sin and enduring the abandonment that this sin necessitates. (60)
Two quotes from Balthasar illustrate how the ontological drama of kenosis within the triune life of God establishes the possibility for what became actuality in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ:
The exteriorisation of God (in the Incarnation) has its ontic condition of possibility in the eternal exteriorisation of God—that is, in his tripersonal self-gift. (Mysterium Paschale 28)

Everything that can be thought and imagined where God is concerned is, in advance, included and transcended in this self-destitution which constitutes the person of the Father, and, at the same time, those of the Son and the Spirit. God as the ‘gulf’ of absolute Love contains in advance, eternally, all the modalities of love, of compassion, and even of a ‘separation’ motivated by love and founded on the infinite distinction between hypostases—modalities which may manifest themselves in the course of a history of salvation involving sinful humankind. (MP viii)
Balthasar thus stresses the importance of internal difference and otherness within the Godhead. He speaks of this dynamic movement within God in terms of a “primal kenosis” in which the persons of the Trinity eternally give of themselves. It is the eternal event of sharing between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that constitutes this “community of mutual otherness” (Jüngel) as the deity, as God. God is the event of self-differentiation in which the triune Lord is, at the same time, self-positing and self-posited. God determines Godself to be both the sending Father and the sent Son, both the one who commands and the one who obeys, both the priest and the sacrifice, both the judge and the judged. God is in Godself the event of reconciliation. In that God justifies Godself, the world is reconciled to God. Nothing external to God can enable, disrupt, or alter the event of reconciliation, and yet this very exclusivity is the ground for the infinite inclusivity of God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. Reconciliation is accomplished in the triune being of God as the “union of death and life for the sake of life” (Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World 299).
In that God differentiates himself and thus, in unity with the crucified Jesus, suffers as God the Son being forsaken by God the Father, he is God the Reconciler. God reconciles the world with himself in that in the death of Jesus he encounters himself as God the Father and God the Son without becoming disunited in himself. On the contrary, in the encounter of God and God, of Father and Son, God reveals himself as the one who he is. He is God the Spirit, who lets Father and Son be one in the death of Jesus, in true distinction, in this encounter. … Thus God is differentiated in a threefold way in his unity: in the encounter of Father and Son, related to each other as Spirit. But in the fatal encounter, God remains one God. (GMW 368)
While Balthasar speaks of the separation between the Father and the Son, Jüngel speaks of the “encounter” between God the Father and God the Son; in this divine encounter, God is self-differentiated without becoming disunited. God preserves the “mutual otherness” within the Godhead as integral to the dynamic movement within the being of God—both between the persons of the Trinity and between God and the world. Jüngel writes much that is in concord with Balthasar’s theology of the divine kenosis, though instead of speaking of God’s self-emptying, Jüngel speaks of God’s selflessness ad intra and ad extra. Jüngel defines God’s being in light of the tension between divine self-relatedness and selflessness; the former speaks of God’s immanent freedom, while the latter of God’s economic graciousness and overflowing love in the incarnation of Jesus. Thus, Jüngel defines God’s triune being as the “still greater selflessness in the midst of a very great self-relatedness.” The very being of God is the event of love which moves beyond self-relatedness toward selfless donation and overflow. The triune God is the dynamic event of self-giving.
A “still greater selflessness in the midst of a very great, and justifiably great self-relatedness” is nothing other than a self-relationship which in freedom goes beyond itself, overflows itself, and gives itself away. It is pure overflow, overflowing being for the sake of another and only then for the sake of itself. That is love. And that is the God who is love: the one who always heightens and expands his own being in such great self-relatedness still more selfless and thus overflowing. (GMW 369)
The self-relatedness of the deity of God takes place in an unsurpassable way in the very selflessness of the incarnation of God. That is the meaning of talk about the humanity of God. It is not a second thing next to the eternal God but rather the event of the deity of God. For that reason, the “economic” Trinity is the “immanent” Trinity, and vice versa. And thus the Crucified One belongs to the concept of God. For the giving up of the eternal Son of God takes place in the temporal existence of one, that is, of this crucified man Jesus. In him, the love of God has appeared (1 John 4:9), because that love has happened in him. The crucified Jesus belongs to the Christian concept of God in that he makes it necessary that a distinction between God and God be made. Therefore, the incarnation of God is to be taken seriously to the very depths of the harshness of God’s abandonment of the Son who was made sin and the curse for us. (GMW 372)
More than any other theologian, Jüngel conceives of God’s being in light of the Johannine confession: God is love. The event of love requires “mutual otherness” and self-differentiation between the lover and the beloved. This distinction is primary for Jüngel and establishes the ground for the other divine self-differentiations, such as priest and sacrifice, judge and judged. In the divine self-positing as lover (Father), beloved (Son), and bond of love (Spirit), the immanent Trinity is both internally differentiated and externally oriented.
Only in the unity of the giving Father and the given Son is God the event of giving up which is love itself in the relation of lover and beloved. The Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son constitutes the unity of the divine being as that event which is love itself by preserving the differentiation. … It is solely the Spirit of God as the relation of the relations who constitutes the being of love as event. This love as event is what makes up the essence of deity, so that the full identity of the divine essence and divine existence has been thought in these three divine relations: Father, who loves of himself; the Son, who has always been loved and has loved; and the constantly new event of love between the Father and the Son which is the Spirit. (GMW 374-75)
The triune Event of Love posits a dynamic movement toward the Other within God, as the persons of the Trinity exist in selfless giving to one another. In the event of reconciliation between God and humanity, the Trinity moves outward and downward, condescending to be with humanity as Emmanuel—God with us. In the incarnation of Jesus, the God who is love enters into the nexus of nothingness by assuming the full depths of human existence. By identifying Godself with the human Jesus, God involves Godself in the crisis of death, plunging into the abyss of nothingness as our sole mediator and redeemer. The triune Event of Love enters into the dank cellars of lovelessness in order to eradicate the sinful drive toward relationlessness and definitively establish new life in correspondence to God in the place of our “sickness unto death.” The triune God comes to the world in the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, who willingly ‘goes into the far country’ in obedience to the Father; the triune God completes the reconciliation of humanity to God through the ‘event of the cross’; and the triune God perfects the new relation beween humanity and God through the ongoing agency of the Spirit.

This narrative of God’s being-in-coming is what we mean when we confess that “God is love.” God is the infinitely rich story of love—a love that not only enters nothingness but returns victorious, a love which comes into fatal contact with death itself and, behold, still lives! The triune God from eternity past is the one in whom the deepest opposites—heaven and hell, East and West, unity and separation, life and death—are able to cohere within the relational unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But God is not merely the unity of opposites; God moves beyond the tension toward reconciliation, renewal, and redemption. God is the still greater unity in the midst of such great separation; the still greater grace in the midst of such great sinfulness; the still greater life in the midst of such great death.

According to Jüngel, “The being of love unites love and death in that in the event of love life goes beyond itself” (GMW 222). Life goes beyond death, beyond sin, beyond nothingness itself, because life is only found in the God who goes beyond death, beyond sin, beyond nothingness. Life comes to us in the midst of our death and establishes new life. The gospel proclaims that the God of life, the God who is love, came in Jesus Christ in order to “make all things new”; the telos of the incarnation is thus the resurrection, in which the eschatological Yes is proleptically realized in the midst of the hellish No of the grave. The resurrection is the definitive event of life going-beyond-itself; the resurrection is the “still greater life in the midst of such great death.”
Resurrection means the overcoming of death. But death will cease to be only when it no longer consumes the life which excludes it, but when life has absorbed death into itself. The victory over death, which is the object of faith’s hope on the basis of God’s identification with the dead Jesus which took place in the death of Jesus, is the transformation of death through its reception into that life which is called eternal life. (GMW 364)
The God of the resurrection, the God of life, does not exclude death but rather aborbs it. In Jesus Christ, the triune God defeats death by dying; and yet in absorbing death in the crucifixion of Jesus, the triune God still lives. God transforms death by receiving death into the very life of God. The infinite repletion of God’s being means that death is not excluded but included in the inexaustible richness of divine existence. The God of life is the God who brings creation toward its proper end and as such is the God of new life. The triune God who raised Jesus from the dead is the God of the future—a future in which “we will be changed,” because in Jesus Christ, “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:52b, 54b). The God of the resurrection is the constantly new event of the future who overcomes the past and teleologically reorders the present toward the reign of love. It is toward this eschatological hope that the atonement points; the atonement, in fact, is the very ground of our hope. The cross awaits in eager expectation the “day of the Lord,” in which the love that overflowed “for us and our salvation” on Good Friday will reign supreme in the glorious light of Easter. The Event of Love in Jesus Christ, as God’s ceaseless going-out-of-Godself, not only comes from the future but brings us forward out of the past toward the future of God when death will be swallowed up in life, and sin swallowed up in grace. As “the union of death and life for the sake of life,” as the one who assumed our death in order that we might enjoy new life for all eternity, God defines Godself as Love.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

McLaren and the crisis of evangelicalism

On GOTT, a link was posted to a recent Washington Post article about Brian McLaren and the division with American evangelicalism between conservatives and progressives (which is an oversimplification, mind you). The article briefly discusses those who disagree with McLaren:
What makes McLaren's ideas attractive to progressive evangelicals appalls the more numerous conservatives. Noting that he fails to condemn homosexuality, one conservative Web site called him "A True Son of Lucifer" for ignoring "absolute biblical truth." And last year, Baptists in Kentucky revoked a speaking invitation after McLaren said that followers of Jesus might not be the only ones to gain salvation.

"If you have some person or movement coming along calling into question the non-negotiables of Christianity, then those who espouse Christianity find such a challenge dangerous," said Donald A. Carson, professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, who has criticized McLaren's theology.
Now I have my own disagreements with McLaren, and I have serious problems with the entire "emergent conversation" which I discussed in an early post after McLaren came to speak at Princeton Seminary. But I also have points of agreement with him, and we are of one mind in our rejection of the "conservative evangelical" agenda, epitomized by people as diverse as Cornelius Van Til, Jerry Falwell, Stephen Webb, Charles Ryrie, Pat Robertson, and Don Carson. Some of these names are political conservatives who think that America's role in world politics is to further God's kingdom. Others are theological conservatives, who think that inerrancy and double predestination are "non-negotiables of Christianity."

Carson's quote above is disturbing to me, because it is precisely the kind of empty rhetoric that will spell the downfall of both the "conservative" and "liberal" sides of Christianity. The liberal side rejects "non-negotiables" altogether to the point that Christianity loses its distinction in the world. The conservative side rejects those who reject their "non-negotiables," so that their agenda is the only agenda and any dialogue or disagreement on certain points of the faith is off-limits. I see McLaren as attempting to forge a middle way. He may not be very adept at accomplishing this, but he at least has the right idea—at least a better idea than the other extremes. What we need are people with McLaren's concerns who have a greater knowledge of church history, theology, and philosophy.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Cinematic atheism: The Wizard of Oz and Fanny & Alexander

Film, like other forms of art, is often a vehicle for cultural reflection on fundamental issues of human experience. Religion is one of the most commonly addressed topics—particularly the figure of God. In The Wizard of Oz and Ingmar Bergman's masterpiece, Fanny & Alexander, the question of God is addressed in subtle but profound ways that resonate with contemporary culture far beyond the limited scope of the films themselves. Both films attack institutional religion and the concept of an objective “god” who controls our lives, offering instead the usual replacements: individualism and aesthetics, respectively.

The Wizard of Oz is a popular “family” film which conceals a rather subversive and distinctly modern understanding of God and humanity. At the end of the film, the curtain is pulled back to reveal—gasp!—that there really is no wizard; it was all a hoax, an illusion to inspire fear and trembling. While the film comes off in the end as a charming fable about a young girl and three fairy-tale friends, this final revelation is striking in the way it clearly undermines traditional religious orthodoxy. The wizard is a thinly veiled reference to the Judeo-Christian understanding of God. The pulling-back of the curtain is not unlike the efforts of 19th century atheistic philosophy (Feuerbach, Nietzsche), in which God was declared either “dead” or—as in the film and in Feuerbach’s writings—merely an external, transcendent projection of the human consciousness or Ego.

When the wizard is shown to be just an ordinary man pulling off an elaborate illusion, one gets the impression that Oz might refer to Christianity in general, and some men in authority are pulling off an elaborate illusion to keep people believing in the reality of God. Corresponding with this new understanding of God, there is the realization that Dorothy and her friends are all capable of achieving their desires on their own. The Lion can find courage, the Tin Man a new heart, and the Scarecrow a brain without the help of some (divine?) wizard; in other words, any god/God is superfluous. Humanity is itself capable of self-realization. To use the words of Feuerbach, there is “no distinction between the divine and human subject”; humanity can truly and fully be called divine. In this regard, the film is a parable of modern liberal ideals of human autonomy and freedom. The cult of the individual replaces the cult of religion. Any god becomes unnecessary and, therefore, religion is abandoned altogether.

Bergman’s great autobiographical film, Fanny & Alexander, is a massive story encompassing many diverse themes, including the role of the aesthetic, family, marriage, social status, wealth, and the divine. Fanny & Alexander is unquestionably a masterpiece of the art form. It is one of the greatest films ever made, and it provides a beautiful summary of Bergman’s most striking and important motifs. In this film, young Alexander experiences a shattering event when his father dies, but the tragedy is compounded when his mother marries a cold, controlling bishop who lives in an austere environment without love and without meaningful relationships. Thanks to a carefully hatched plot, Alexander and his sister, Fanny, are snuck out of the house and brought to a safe place.

While in this home, a pivotal scene occurs in which Alexander, in the middle of the night, finds himself lost in a kind of basement. Suddenly, a door opens in front of him, and a large puppet-like creature comes forth, speaking with the voice of God. The scene is important for two reasons: (1) Alexander expresses his anger and disbelief in God, because it was this God which permitted all the evils in his life; and (2) at the end of the fearful encounter, the puppet is revealed for what it is, just a puppet controlled by a man playing a joke. The lesson is clear: God is nothing more than a puppet of the church, a joke to be dismissed; the world is simply a dark, foreboding, godless place. This scene brings Bergman’s film close to The Wizard of Oz in their conclusions about God, though for very different reasons. Bergman is much more theologically self-aware. The issue of theodicy and the outrage felt by Alexander at the God served by the evil bishop are both close to the surface. The film’s conclusion is that the unloving God of religion should be replaced by the sacred world of the aesthetic.

Monday, September 18, 2006

For those who grieve

Where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing,
The silent withering of autumn flowers
Dropping their petals and remaining motionless;
Where is there and end to the drifting wreckage,
The prayer of the bone on the beach, the unprayable
Prayer at the calamitous annunciation? ...

There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone’s prayer to Death its God. Only the hardly, barely prayable
Prayer of the one Annunciation.

—T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages” from The Four Quartets


And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and be their God; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

—Revelation 21:3-5

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Why I Am A Universalist, §8: The Doctrine of the Atonement (Section III)


Section III: Foundations for a doctrine of the atonement


In the third and fourth installments on the doctrine of the atonement, I intend to use the constructive theology of Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar to establish parameters for an orthodox doctrine of the atonement. I will rely heavily in these sections on the recently published book by David Lauber, Barth on the Descent into Hell: God, Atonement and the Christian Life (2004, Ashgate). Before outlining those parameters in the fourth section, I first need to clarify and (re)establish basic theologoumena shared by both Barth and von Balthasar. These will serve as essential and specific foundations for the more general parameters that will be set forth in the following section. Much of what I say here will hearken back to earlier paragraphs in this series.

1. God is pro nobis (for us). Barth and Balthasar both have the confession “pro nobis” at the center of their respective theologies, which comes from the Nicene Creed: Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, “He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate.” Balthasar goes so far as to state that the pro nobis “unlocks not only all Christology but the entire Trinitarian doctrine of God that flows from it, as well as the doctrine of the Church” (Theo-Drama IV, 239). Any doctrine of the atonement must start from this essential affirmation: Deus pro nobis. We are able to confess—in fact, we must confess—that God is for us only because God has revealed God’s very nature to be pro nobis in the person of Jesus Christ. The mission of the Son reached its telos in the passion, in which Christ suffered and died in our place for us and our salvation, and thus the internal triune being of God is definable as for the world. The triune Lord desires to be our God, and for us to be the covenant people of God: “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev. 26:12).

2. God alone atones for sin. Barth follows Anselm and the orthodox tradition of the church on this point, but it is worth how Barth develops the tradition through the trinitarian framework of his theology. We see this especially in Barth’s assertion that Jesus as the God-man does not simply satisfy the infinite debt of honor that humanity owed to God. Rather the very incarnation, life, and passion of Jesus Christ is a divine act. As Eberhard Jüngel warns us, “it is not God who sacrifices the human Jesus—this is not human sacrifice! No, God so identifies himself with the human Jesus put to death by humans, that we must affirm that this human being was God’s Son. To put it accurately: God does not identify himself with the executioners, but with the executed one” (Justification 163). The person and work of Jesus is the self-determination of the triune God who alone took the initiative to deal with sin and death definitively once and for all, which is why Jüngel calls the death of Christ “God’s offering of himself,” and he even goes so far as to say, “God sacrifices himself” (164). In terms of Barth’s theology, Lauber says it best, so I will quote him at length:
The passion of Jesus Christ, according to Barth, is from first to last a divine action, and as a divine action it is motivated and carried out by God’s love alone. The goal and the actual consequence of the passion is the single outcome of the reconciliation and redemption of humanity. In the passion, humanity is brought into a proper covenantal relationship with God; humans as sinners are destroyed and, as a result, established as new creatures. Human beings as sinners are purified by the fire of God’s love and are recreated by being put to death and resurrected as new creatures. The passion, which Barth describes as the worst event imaginable, is funded by God’s love, and God’s love is unlike any love known in the creaturely realm. God’s love is pure holy love and it is radical. This holy and radical love takes the initiative in effectively removing the obstacle that separates humanity from God. Sin is the obstacle and can be dealt with only through its radical eradication, which leads to its annihilation. God’s love takes the initiative in that humans do not offer a sacrifice, no matter how pure, in hopes of satisfying God’s wrath, nor do humans benefit from the punishment of a representative human being, and are in turn freed from the punishment that awaits them. Rather, God’s radical and holy love satisfies itself. God’s love takes the form of wrath and God’s love is satisfied through its own activity as a result of the outpouring of God’s wrath. God’s wrath works itself out in such a way that the individual sinner is killed, extinguished and removed. From the rubble of this destruction, the individual is resurrected and recreated, and is established in a right covenantal relation with God as new creature. (36)
Lauber goes on to clarify Barth’s theology so that, in stressing the divine action in the atonement, we do not lose the genuinely human element in the life and passion of Jesus. Both the divine and human elements must be held together in order for the atonement to be truly substitutionary and effective, but we must remember the human element is divinely determined by God who elects to become human in Jesus and assumes humanity into the Godhead in the assumptio carnis, so that nothing human is alien to God’s inner being. “Christ’s suffering and descent into hell is human suffering of God. It is genuine human suffering, death and presence in hell taken up into the very life of God, and as such God triumphs over and destroys suffering, death and hell” (Lauber 37). God is self-determining, self-actualizing, and self-giving. God justifies Godself in the justification of humanity, and God satisfies Godself in the reconciliation between God and sinful creatures. God is not determined by some external definition of justice; rather, God determines the nature of justice in God’s own judgment upon sin and death. The triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit determine and effect what is necessary—“necessary” only according to the divine will—in order to accomplish the destruction of sin and sinful humanity and the resurrection of a new humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.

3. God is the one who loves in freedom. Barth’s doctrine of God consistently brings the perfections (attributes) of God into dialectical tension, refusing to sacrifice either the unity of God or the richness of God’s being. This is especially significant in his treatment of the love and wrath of God. Since love is God’s most essential and primary perfection, wrath is defined as the outpouring of God’s holy love in relation to the sin of creatures. Barth writes:
We can only be overlooking or misunderstanding the biblical message if for one reason or another we try to be spared having to take quite seriously the fact that God is the God who for the sake of His righteousness is wrathful and condemns and punishes. He is not only this, but He is also this. … If we truly love Him, we must love Him also in His anger, condemnation and punishments, or rather we must see, feel and appreciate His love to us even in His anger, condemnation and punishment. For we cannot avoid the conclusion that it is where the divine love and therefore the divine grace and mercy are attested with the supreme clarity in which they are necessarily known as the meaning and intention of Scripture as a whole, where that love and grace and mercy are embodied in a unique event, i.e., in Jesus Christ, that according to the unmistakable witness of the New Testament itself they encounter us as a divine act of wrath, judgment and punishment. (CD II/1, 394)
Lauber writes the following in response to this passage:
Here we see that love is not in tension with wrath; grace is not opposed to judgment; and mercy is not contradictory to punishment. The love of God, when faced with resistance by sinful humanity, takes the form of wrath in order to deal effectively with this resistance, which results in the removal of humanity from its miserable condition. … Here we may conclude that wrath serves divine love. Wrath is the form that divine love takes in the face of resistance and opposition. (17)
In other words, love and wrath, grace and judgment, mercy and righteousness, Deus pro nobis and Deus in se do not stand side by side as different parts of God’s being; rather, these perfections interpenetrate and flow out of a unity in the triune being of God. To be more precise, these perfections are defined out of the concrete center in the Logos incarnate, Jesus the Christ. We know who God is internally out of God’s external acts in the divine economy of salvation. When we thus say that God is the “one who loves in freedom,” we mean that God freely determined in Godself to be God for us in Jesus Christ.

Finally, in the discussion of the triune being of God as the one who loves in freedom, we must also affirm that the self-offering of the Son in the incarnation and passion is not an act that moves God from wrath to love; rather, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is God’s self-donation in a divine economy of love. The Son’s obedience to the Father in going to the cross on Good Friday and then, as Balthasar asserts, “going to the dead” on Holy Saturday, is a divinely determined act of love that flows out of God’s righteousness and grace. God’s very being is such that God takes on the depths of Sheol—even the very depths of hell itself—in order to reconcile humanity in the covenant of grace.
The passion is the goal of the incarnation. The passion is also a continuous divine act in which God is both the subject and object of Jesus Christ’s reconciling work. This being the case, there is no movement from wrath to love on God’s part as a response to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ; rather, God’s love is the source of the reconciling significance of Christ’s death. … Christ does not suffer solely under the wrath of God (wrath abstracted from God’s love) and in this suffering move God’s disposition towards humanity from wrath to love. Rather, God’s wrath is a function of God’s love. Therefore, divine love is the source for what took place on the cross. (Lauber 14-15)
I close this subsection with the words of Eberhard Jüngel, who makes it very clear that we cannot think of the atonement as something that satisfies God’s wrath in order that God may then act out of love towards us. Sinners cannot atone for themselves by making a sacrifice; not even the Old Testament cultic sacrifices operated with this kind of theology. “It is not God who is conciliated, but God who reconciles the world. Sinful human beings do not atone for themselves; the Holy God removes the sin from sinful human beings. He does this by granting his holiness to those who are totally unholy” (Justification 159-60).

"I think of Gloucester, blind, led through the world"


(Ye must be born again.)


I think of Gloucester, blind, led through the world
To the world’s edge by the hand of a stranger
Who is his faithful son. At the cliff’s verge
He flings away his life, as of no worth,
The true way lost, his eyes two bleeding wounds—
And finds his life again, and is led on
By the forsaken son who has become
His father, that the good may recognize
Each other, and at last go ripe to death.
We live the given life, and not the planned.

—Wendell Berry

Friday, September 15, 2006

Predestination and Grace in Catholic Theology

Over at Pontifications, Alvin Kimel has written a lengthy post on the subject of predestination in Catholic theology. I won't spend the time to summarize all of it, nor will I comment on all the interesting things he brings up. What I find fascinating in this post is the way it reveals the contradictions among the various positions on grace and predestination in Catholic doctrine (though this critique applies to Protestants as well, who are usually much worse than this):

Exhibit A: God's "universal salvific will" in Jesus Christ
The Second Vatican Council asserted: “The Word of God, through whom all things were made, was made flesh, so that as perfect man he could save all men and sum up all things in himself” (Gaudium et spes 45). The universal salvific will of the merciful God who has become incarnate in Jesus Christ underlies the documents of Vatican II, the encyclicals of John Paul II, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is true that some Catholic theologians, notably St Augustine, have restricted God’s salvific will to the elect; but the Magisterium of the Catholic Church has achieved dogmatic clarity on this matter and has rejected this thesis.
Exhibit B: God's grace is for all people
In his infinite, comprehensive love, God provides sufficient grace to every human being to turn to him and be saved. The love of God pushes out beyond the bounds of the Church to all of humanity. “For, since Christ died for all men,’ Vatican II declared, “and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” (Gaudium et spes 22). The universal salvific intent of God is sincere. All sinners are provided the opportunity and power to turn to God in repentance and be incorporated into the divine life of God.
Exhibit C: God's grace is not efficacious, but requires human acceptance to be effectual
Joined to the assertion of God’s provision of sufficient grace to all is the rejection of the thesis of the Jansenists that all grace is divinely efficacious. In 1713 Pope Clement XI condemned the proposition that “Grace is the working of the omnipotent hand of God which nothing can hinder or retard” (Unigenitus Dei Filius). There is an authentic grace that is truly sufficient for salvation but does not necessarily and irresistably realize its salvific end. There is a grace that man may mysteriously and inexplicably reject. Even those who have been born again by water and Holy Spirit may fail to persevere in faith and good works. Or as the Synod of Quiercy taught: “God wishes all men without exception to be saved, although not all will be saved.”
Exhibit D: God alone saves; salvation is solely the work of God
The salvation of particular individuals is the work of God and by grace alone. In my earlier articles on Semi-Pelagianism, we have seen that the Catholic Church, grounding her witness in the dogmatic canons of the Second Council of Orange, insists upon the necessity of grace even for the first step toward faith. ... These canons, which the Catholic Church wholeheartedly affirms, dogmatically commit the Church to the sola gratia: the work of salvation, from beginning to end, is the work of God. ... "Catholic doctrine itself, as defined at Trent, does not admit salvation by faith and works" (Bouyer).
Exhibit E: God does not predestine anyone to hell
Fourth, God does not predestine anyone to evil or Hell; he does not reprobate independently of demerits and sins. The Synod of Orange is clear: “We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.”
These five exhibits are sufficient for us to examine the problem at hand. The problem begins with the definition of divine grace. According to the statements in this post, Catholic doctrine believes that grace is (1) necessary for salvation at every step (rejection of semi-Pelagianism) and (2) given to all people unconditionally, yet (3) divine grace is not "divinely efficacious" because it relies upon the acceptance of human persons.

If that is the case, then there two available options. Either (4) the human acceptance of grace is a gift of grace from God — which would follow from Exhibit D — or (5) the acceptance of grace is the one human work necessary for salvation, in which the house of cards collapses and we return to semi-Pelagianism. Now if we accept (4), that the acceptance of grace is a divine gift, we then must conclude that in some fashion, God does in fact predestine people to hell (contra Exhibit E) and God does not give sufficient grace to all people (contra Exhibit B).

I believe the root of this problem rests in the fact that Catholic doctrine has abstracted grace from the incarnation of divine grace in Jesus Christ. In Exhibit C we read, "There is an authentic grace that is truly sufficient for salvation but does not necessarily and irresistably realize its salvific end." Contra this statement, we must define "authentic grace" as that which was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, who came freely for the express purpose of bringing salvation to the world (John 12:47) and reconciling the world to God (2 Cor. 5:19). When we understand grace out of this divine economy we cannot say that grace lacks efficacy or that divine grace is merely a potentiality awaiting the actualizing in each individual human person.

In other words, any definition of grace that makes the actualization of grace dependent upon human persons either (6) believes in a kind of double predestination in which God determines who, by God's grace, will actualize the salvific grace made available in Christ, or (7) affirms semi-Pelagianism, in which human persons must fulfill the necessary human work of accepting grace, by which means the grace is then actualized and salvation effected for that person. Exhibit E would lead me to believe that Catholic doctrine rejects (6), and Exhibit D leads me to assume Catholic doctrine rejects (7). However, Exhibit D is qualified by Exhibit C, in which the best that the Synod of Quiercy can muster is, “God wishes all men without exception to be saved, although not all will be saved.” One is left wondering: Is wishing the best God can do? Is not God capable of willing and effecting something? Is God like the child who wishes for something on Christmas but ends up disappointed? Or does God truly have a "universal salvific will," and not just potentially salvific (leaving salvation up to us again), but actually and effectively salvific?

To answer the aporia in Catholic doctrine, I argue that we must reject (3) and affirm that divine grace is indeed efficacious. God truly actualizes the "universal salvific will" (Exhibit A) which was made incarnate in Jesus Christ. By locating divine grace in the person of Jesus, we are able to affirm the efficacy of grace without running into the problem of denying humans their rightful and divinely granted freedom vis-à-vis God. Human persons are free to accept or reject God, but all such finite decisions have their proper place within the sphere of God's covenantal relations with humankind. That is, human decisions cannot be projected upon the sphere of God's eternal will, whose scope is cosmic and whose telos is determined by God and God alone. Human decisions are circumscribed within the finite realm of creaturely relations, that is, within the grander, overarching will to reconcile all things to Godself—a will that was actualized proleptically in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Jesus Christ, we are given a foretaste of what God will do in the eschatological future of all creation. It is the hubris of humans to think that our decisions for or against God are capable of determining God's ultimate, eschatological will for us and for the world. Our decisions have their place, but it is a place circumscribed by the greater reality of God's grace.

Finally, Jesus came as the Judge judged in our place, as the one human in the place of all others, and in his substitutionary role, Jesus bore all of our sins on the cross—including the sin of rejecting God's grace. The grace of God not only means that God pursues us despite our rejection of divine grace, but even more so, that God assumed in the incarnation our rejection and bore the punishment of this rejection to its bitterest end—death, Sheol, the descent into hell. God's love is such that our rejection is never ultimate, nor is our acceptance salvific. God alone saves, and God alone rejects. But the one God rejected was God's only Son, and the ones God saves are us wretched sinners. Salvation, lest we forget, is by grace alone.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Jesus and the Judgment of the World

A reflection on the sermon preached by Gary Alloway at The Well on September 10, 2006. Gary’s sermon discussed John 12:12-50. Originally posted here.

It should come as no surprise that Jesus demands a lot—more accurately, he demands everything. The passage from Luke 14:26 on the “cost of discipleship” is well known: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” In the passage under discussion, Jesus encounters two groups who wish to compromise the cost of following Jesus based on their own ideas of what Jesus ought to be about:

(1) John 12:12-15. The first crowd praises Jesus as “the King of Israel,” the worldly messiah who will establish a kingdom of justice on the earth in the pattern of King David. The Jews during the time of Jesus had been under foreign rule for hundreds of years, and glorious pre-exilic days were now ancient history. These Jews wanted a national hero, a zealot who would establish an Israelite empire greater and more glorious than anything produced by the Greeks or Romans. The text of John, however, subtly rebukes this crowd by quoting the prophecy from Zechariah 9:9. The book of Zechariah speaks about the coming ruler of God’s people, but it is not a king who crushes a nation’s enemies. Zechariah calls this ruler “humble and riding on a donkey.” Furthermore, the reign of this king is marked by the laying down of weapons, not the shedding of blood: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (v. 10). In other words, Jesus came to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah by bringing peace and not a sword, though the final fulfillment of these words will come only when God definitively establishes the kingdom of God and death will be no more.

(2) John 12:17-19. The second crowd had been with Jesus when he raised Lazarus from the dead. The greatest of Jesus’ signs marveled the people, and they wanted to see more amazing things. These people wanted Jesus the miracle worker, not the Jesus who calls people to carry their crosses and hate life itself for his sake. Because this second crowd was testifying about the Lazarus event, many others came to see Jesus in hopes of seeing similar wonders. But these people were about to be greatly disappointed, for these were the final days of Jesus’ life and there was no turning back; the cross stood squarely before Jesus and every day brought him one step closer to the purpose of his birth some thirty years prior. As Jesus declared, “it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

Now we could—and should—stop here and reflect on our own lives as followers of Jesus: do we mistake the gospel of Christ for worldly power and authority? do we seek Jesus the magician rather than Jesus the cross-bearer? While these are important questions to consider, the most important parts of John 12 come in the second half of the chapter.

First, the author of John very carefully positions the statement of the Pharisees—“Look, the world has gone after him!”—with the arrival of the Greeks who came to see Jesus. Their arrival is significant for a number of reasons. Not only does this confirm what the Pharisees said, but it also indicates a movement in John away from the people of Israel to the whole world. We just saw that many of the Jews were trying to domesticate and compromise the call of Jesus. With the arrival of the Greeks, Jesus restates his call in vv. 23-26, presumably with the Greek audience in mind (if not physically present). The Jewish people were not being abandoned, but the mission of Jesus was not limited to the people of Israel. Jesus came for the whole world, but no matter who comes to Jesus, the call of discipleship remains the same: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (12:25). The Greeks represent the global mission of Jesus. The universality of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is confirmed when Jesus declares, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:32). The presence of the Greeks is symbolic and serves to show that “all people” cannot be limited to just one culture but extends to all the nations of the earth.

The heart of John 12 is a pivot-point for the entire Gospel, as the book transitions from the ministry to the passion of Jesus. In vv. 27-36, Jesus speaks about his death, and in vv. 44-50, Jesus summarizes his teachings. I will pull one passage from each section to explicate.

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (12:31-32)

I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me. (12:47-50)

I will comment on two lines in particular: “Now is the judgment of this world,” and “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” At first glance, these two statements seem contradictory. Is Jesus judging the world or not? What I think is going here is a very nuanced and subtle account of divine judgment, in contrast to human judgment. First, Jesus declares to us that the judgment of the world is now, that is, the judgment of the world occurred in the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The words of Jesus offer a strong corrective to contemporary Christians who are prone to think of God’s judgment as something that will occur in the distant future in abstraction from the actual judgment that took place on the cross. Whenever we separate the future, eschatological judgment from the cross, however, we threaten to miss the point of judgment. The reason God judges the world is not “to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

Second, we must conclude from these verses that the judgment enacted by Jesus in his passion and death is indeed the salvation of the world. Divine judgment, unlike human judgment, is salvific. As Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world,” and this judgment will take place “when I am lifted up from the earth.” Indeed, we do not simply await an unknown future judgment, because the world has already been judged, and the weight of that judgment was borne by the Son of God who became incarnate for this very purpose—to take upon himself the sins of the world. Jesus judged the world in his death and resurrection, and in so doing, he drove out the false ruler of the world along with all sin and death, and in place of the false kingdoms of power, money, and violence he established instead the peaceful Kingdom of God.

Finally, what is the relation between the crowds who were compromising the message of Jesus and the judgment of the world effected on the cross? The writer of John has some gloomy words about the people who encountered Jesus. In John 3:19, it says that “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil,” and in John 12:43 it says “they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.” Jesus faced a lot of rejection in his life, even from those closest to him. Those who truly followed him were few in number. But this does not mean that the people in the crowds (who in many ways represent us all) are hopelessly lost. Jesus declares that such people are judged by his word, which is the word of the Father. And what is this word to us? “I know that his commandment is eternal life” (12:50).

Jesus calls us to follow him, to take up our crosses in obedience, and to lose our lives in order to find them. But this call to follow him in costly discipleship is a gift, not a burden; we follow in freedom, not under coercion. We know that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, even though his yoke is his passion and his burden is the cross. We must not obey in order to earn salvation, nor should we live disobediently because we think grace is cheap. No, we must labor for the gospel and yearn to run the race marked out for us. But we do all of this and more because we know that God’s judgment is salvation, and God’s commandment is eternal life.

All glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Theology for Beginners

Ben Myers has posted the outline of his series thus far at his site. If you have not read the posts yet, do so now. They are a true gift from an excellent thinker. Thanks, Ben.

David Ford: The ethics of feasting

Jesus went to meals, weddings and parties and had a feast-centred ethic. The images are vivid: water turned into wine; guests jockeying for places at table and being told to aim for the lower places; the invitation of a life-time refused because of being too busy with work or family; Jesus challenging conceptions of God’s acceptance by eating with the outcast and marginalised; Dives feasting while Lazarus starves at his gate; children eating messily to the delight of the dogs; a woman sinner shocking the company by anointing Jesus and being forgiven by him; the reversal of expectations as the poor, handicapped and outsiders of all sorts are welcomed at the feast of the Kingdom of God while those who thought themselves sure of a place are left out ....

As millions starve, ought anyone to be feasting? Ought there not to be a long detour of working to feed everyone, postponing the feasting till that has been achieved? Or should we keep alive the hope of food for all by working for justice and, if we have food, simultaneously celebrating the goodness of God? Can we even sustain work of compassion and justice in the right spirit if we are not also having some celebratory foretaste of the Kingdom of God? Or, looking at the story of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles, in the light of the explosion of joy and gratitude that followed the resurrection and Pentecost is it not the most obvious thing in the world both to share with those in need and also to celebrate with them?

That combination of sharing and celebrating is, perhaps, the most radical of all the implications of the teaching and practice of Jesus. Feeding the hungry is not a matter of the well-fed offering handouts and getting on with their private feasting: the vision is of everyone around the same table, face to face. Even to imagine sitting together like that gently but inexorably exposes injustice, exploitation, sexism, hard-heartedness, and the multiple ways of rejecting the appeal in the face of the other. Once we have started doing it in little ways, the implications for politics, economics and church life never cease ramifying. Remission of actual debt becomes inseparable from the forgiveness of sins, and idolatry of money is seen as an inhibitor of everyone’s joy.

Finally, what about the ethics of exclusion? … The feast of the Kingdom of God is described (and acted out) by [Jesus] as generously inclusive beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. That is the main point: the free, surprising love of a God who can be utterly trusted to judge truthfully and then decide far more compassionately than any of the rest of us. There is also a sharp note of exclusion, but it is one that follows from the inclusiveness. The excluded are those who cannot bear God’s generosity and will not imitate it. The Prodigal Son’s older brother is the archetype, complaining against his father welcoming his brother home with a party, and perhaps (the ending is significantly left open) refusing to join in the celebrations. He is matched by those who complain about Jesus eating with tax-collectors and sinners, by those who presume to know where God draws lines between the invited and uninvited or the acceptable and unacceptable, and by those who harden their hearts against the poor, sick, handicapped, hungry, prisoners, children, and others in need. These poor, sick, and needy are at the centre of the feast as the honoured guests, and to reject them is to exclude oneself from their host’s presence. The other side of this is that to seek them out is to relate to their host too, as the parable of the sheep and the goats says (Matthew chapter 25).

Of contemporary issues of exclusion, one of the most sensitive for Christians is that of other religions. It is not possible to do more than touch interrogatively on this vast, many-sided topic, but it is an appropriate conclusion for a mediation on the ethic of feasting before the face of Christ.

What does it mean to realise that those of other faiths (and none) are before the face of Christ? Christians have no overview of how the relationship with them is carried on, or what happens from either side. This ethic therefore begins in agnosticism. Yet Christians need to try to imagine what the implications might be of Jesus being guest as well as host in relation to Mohammed, the Buddha and other founders and their followers. What might be involved in hospitality between religious communities that might give substance to such imagining? What are appropriate anticipations of the feasting of the Kingdom of God? What ethic of communication of the gospel is in line with the face on the cross? How can conversations engaging with crucial matters of meaning, truth and practice be sustained? What new shapes of Christian and other communities might there be if imaginative hospitality helped to generate honest confrontations and new understanding? Where do Christians fall into the temptation of being less generously welcoming than God? How can they come to realise their Christian self ‘as another’ – Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist or whatever? And what happens when guests and hosts become friends?

—David Ford, Self and Salvation: Being Transformed, pp. 269-70