Monday, April 30, 2007

Princeton Theological Review: Theology and the Arts

The new issue of the Princeton Theological Review, a student-run journal for which I am the co-general editor, is now available online thanks to the hard work of our webmaster, Chris TerryNelson. The new issue, on “Theology and the Arts,” includes articles by Gordon Graham, Bruce Benson, Matthew Milliner (of Millinerd), and yours truly. Our book review editor, WTM, did a fine job of putting together some excellent reviews. Chris has put together a nice list of articles by bloggers in this new issue.

My article, entitled “‘A Pre-Appearance of the Truth’: Toward a Christological Aesthetics,” was given as a paper at the Mid-Atlantic Regional meeting of the AAR on March 2 in Baltimore. While it does not quite live up to the proposal I posted online, I am quite happy with the final product. The article has three sections: (1) first, I examine Eberhard Jüngel’s relational-actualistic ontology of justification in order to elucidate the basic shape of his soteriology; (2) second, I offer a close reading of Jüngel’s essay on the beautiful to see how his soteriology and his theological aesthetics are interrelated; and (3) third, I draw from the comparison between the first two sections insights toward formulating a christological aesthetics rooted in the justifying work of Christ.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Sermon: “I am the God of life” - A Dialogue between God and Eve

Scripture Reading: Genesis 4:1-17
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’ Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’

Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and named it Enoch after his son Enoch.

Prayer
Guide us, O gracious triune God, by your Word and Spirit, that in your light we may see light. May your Word disrupt and transform us, and your Spirit sanctify and renew us, that we may hear and respond to your voice calling to us here and now. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: A Dialogue between God and Eve
“Eve. … Eve.”

God speaks with a firm yet gentle voice to the stiff, unmoving body. Where a vibrant young woman once stood, there is only the shell of a person.

A muffled, “What?” comes from the ground, with more than a hint of disdain.

“Why are you so troubled? Speak.”

Silence. God waits, and she begins to speak.

“My son is dead, and you’re asking me what’s wrong? You let him die. I know you must have been there. You must have seen Cain lure him out to the field. You knew Cain was the stronger of the two. So where were you? Or is this still part of the curse? I remember you said something about death. Am I to be punished with the death of my son, Abel?

“You’ve punished me enough already. You must know how much I miss the garden. That was my home. And now it’s gone. Everything is messed up. Nothing works the way it’s supposed to. The world is not right. The world is different now. Everything is out of balance. The world is either plunged into darkness or scorched by the heat. Either we are in the garden or we are outside of it. Either we are obedient or disobedient. Either we are dead or we are alive. Isn’t that how this world works?”

There is no answer. Eve keeps talking.

“The ground torments us with thorns and thistles. Our bodies torment us with disease and death. My body struggles through the pain of giving birth. And now, the only joys left in my life, Cain and Abel, have been taken away. Without them, I am nothing. I no longer have anything left to keep me going.

“And this is all your fault. You told us to multiply and bear children. You commanded us to raise a family, and we obeyed. But you didn’t tell us this would happen! I thought the pain of childbearing was the worst of it! But no. Losing your children is a far worse punishment than the pain of giving birth. I would rather you increase the pain of childbearing than allow my sons to die like this. At least that pain is only temporary. The pain of Abel’s death, however, will last until I die.”

A cloud drifts in front of the sun, obscuring the light and throwing Eve’s face into darkness. Finally God speaks, “What about Cain?”

“Cain? What about him? He is nothing. He is more dead to me than Abel. He not only took his brother’s life; he took away my life as well. What am I supposed to feel towards him? I know (up here) that he is my son. But (in here) I know that he is gone, that it’s as if he were never born. In here, I only have one son, and he lies dead in the ground.”

“But Cain is still your son, and he is not dead.”

“He’ll be dead soon enough, though. If I became an exile after eating of that tree, then the punishment for murder must be the ultimate exile—the exile from life itself. Life for life. That’s how this world works. If you do something wrong, you have to suffer the consequences. So tell me, what will his punishment be? A fatal disease? An animal attack? Or will you just strike him down now?”

“No.”

“What do you mean, ‘No’? Some other punishment? Will he fall to his death? I know how this works. I know the ways of this world of yours. Cain deserves what he did to Abel. So tell me, what will his punishment be?”

“Cain has already received his punishment.”

“Already? Where is he? What happened to him?”

“He is safe, but he is unable to make the ground produce food. He will have to rely upon others.”

“I don’t understand. He killed Abel, his brother, my son.”

“Cain is your son, too.”

“Yes, but … he took life. You commanded us to produce new life, not take it from others. He has contradicted his own existence. He must make restitution, and that is only possible by taking his own life. If he denied life to others, life should be denied to him. Are you not a God of justice?”

“I am.”

“Then why does Abel receive a brutal death, but Cain receives life? How is this just?”

“Are you the one to decide what is just or unjust? I choose to be merciful in carrying out justice, and just in carrying out mercy.”

“But Cain took away Abel’s life and my life! The world no longer has meaning for me; it is empty and pointless. Where there was the hope of life, now there is only a void.”

Not so! Have you forgotten, Eve? I am the one who brought this world into existence out of the void. I am the one who gives meaning. I am the one who said that this world is indeed ‘very good.’ Nothing can change any of that.”

“This world? Very good?? How can the world be good when suffering and death are what happen? Or do you find pleasure in death? Maybe you think death itself is ‘very good.’”

“No! I am the God of life, not of death. I reject death in favor of life. I am opposed to all forms of destruction. When Cain destroyed the life of Abel, he deprived his life, your life, and the lives of others of meaning. His act was evil; it was a return to the void whence this world came. He acted in opposition to me, to you, and to this world, and in those moments, his life became naught. For a moment—just for a moment—death was victorious. But I refuse to allow evil to triumph. I deny death’s desire to destroy what I began. I warned Cain that sin is lurking at his door, seeking to master him. And indeed, sin was lurking and it mastered him. But I lurk stronger still.

“The world is not ‘very good’ because good things happen in the world. No, the world is ‘very good’ because I am very good. The world has meaning, because I am the infinitely deep well of all meaning. The world favors life, because I favor life. That is why Cain still lives. He lives because I do not seek his death or the death of anyone else. Even when he seeks death, I seek life all the more. Have you forgotten that I was the one who first clothed you after you realized your nakedness? I took away your garments of shame, the ones you tried to make for yourself, and I gave you garments of grace and dignity instead. I seek what is best for you even when you choose what is worst.

“And the same is true for your son, Cain. I marked him for life, even though others (including himself) would mark him only for death. He bears my seal of protection, a seal which no amount of sinful acts—be it ten more murders, or even a hundred—can possibly undo.”

“But what he did was …”

“What he did was inexcusable. His denial of humanity was an inhuman act, but Cain is not thereby an inhuman person. He is more than his act of murder, just like you are more than your act of disobedience. Both of you are more than the sum total of your deeds.

“Indeed, Cain will learn an important lesson. Tomorrow and in the days after that, when he finds himself hungry for food, he will have to rely on others to stay alive. The earth will not yield its produce to him, and so others will have to work on his behalf. Cain will realize that he is dependent on others for his very life. He will discover what it means to be human; he will discover what it means to be passive, needy, and helpless. Of course, he will do many great things, even start a family and build a city. But he will always remember that his fate could—and should—have been death. He will remember that he does not deserve to be alive. He will remember that life is always a gift.

“And in a way, this is what the seal represents: the gift of life. But the seal is not primarily for him; it is for you. It is for his children. It is for everyone Cain meets. Wherever he goes, he will go as a marked man. Cain will be a sign to others: your life is not your own. Cain, your son—the one who murdered his brother and forfeited his right to live—will be my messenger.

“Where there was once a void, now there is a city. Where there once was no meaning, now there is meaning. Where there once was death, now there is new life. And this, dear Eve, is very good.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Kryptonite discovered

According to the latest discovery, the writers of the Superman comics were ahead of their time.

Balthasar: the dialogical God

“In the Christian drama God does not speak in monologues. He engages in conversation, shared speech (dia-logos). . . . In contrast to the world, which is closed in on itself, does not want to listen to him and distorts all his words even as he utters them, God is the One who allows himself to be most profoundly affected by this partner so unfit for speech. His willingness to be thus affected goes to the extreme of the ‘wondrous exchange’ (admirabile commercium) of standpoints and situations on the Cross. And only on the basis of the Cross is faith given to the disciples and all subsequent believers, rendering them capable of dialogue with God; thus they are given the childlike prayer to their Abba, Father, inspired by the Holy Spirit, who finds in the hearts of believers that unutterable word which they themselves are incapable of formulating.”

—Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama II, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Spirit of the Lord, §4.2: Death of Death

Second, Jesus Christ not only came to free us from sin and guilt; he came to liberate us from our bondage to death. The death of Christ is the death of Death: “Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55). The final cry of Jesus from the cross—“it is finished” (Jn. 19:30)—assures us that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22). As the death of Death, the work of Christ on the cross is not limited to an internal freedom from sin. The efficacious work of Christ reaches into the very marrow of our being. Death marks all of life; it, too, reaches into the marrow of our being, thus provoking a powerful divine response to the pandemic of death which rages throughout our world. Death pervades creation and perverts a theater of flourishing into a theater of suffering, turning Eden into Sheol and Gethsemane into Golgotha. Death is universally destructive, both on the macro level of stellar decay and on the micro level of cells devastated by invading viruses. It is in the midst of this universality of death that God comes in Jesus Christ to inaugurate a new universality of life: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10). Jesus did not come simply to reverse death’s destructive influence or to release us from death’s totalizing grip; Jesus Christ came to definitively defeat death. Christ came to destroy the destroyer, to kill the killer—and he did it in the most scandalous of ways, by allowing himself to be killed, by going to the depths of Sheol, and then by being “raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Any attempt to spiritualize the death of death commits the doubly great error of minimizing present human suffering and ignoring the magnitude of our liberation from the fear of death—a liberation that frees us for the full enjoyment of life. We are, here and now, freed for life.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Balthasar: unity of objective and subjective truth

“If the Church remains conscious that she has been sent out by Christ, then the only norm to which she may adhere when addressing a new epoch is the Holy Spirit, who is the Lord of all the transpositions of the Christian message. It is therefore not possible for a dogmatically essential difference to exist between a ‘dogmatic’ and a ‘pastoral’ declaration of the Church’s Magisterium. This cannot lie in the distinction between theoretical truth and practical-existential truth, because ... it is no more possible for such a distinction to exist in the Church than it is for such a distincton to exist in the Holy Spirit, who is the objective witness only by being the subjective act of carrying-out, or than it is for such a distinction to exist in Jesus Christ, who is the presentation of the divine, triune truth only in the obedient love that goes unto death, or than in God himself, who is truth precisely to the extent that he is the disclosure of the absolute mutual gift of self.”

—Hans Urs von Balthasar, Creator Spirit: Explorations in Theology III, trans. Brian McNeil, C.R.V. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 275.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Colbert Report: Metaphor-Off

Last night, Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report hosted Sean Penn for the Metaphor-Off (see the video clip below), in which he and Penn went head-to-head in a battle of words. As usual, it was a funny (albeit highly scripted) event. Also, as usual, he had a high-profile judge, this time former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. But what caught my attention (to my delight) was how Colbert allowed criticism of Bush to come through in creative ways.

The first metaphor topic was Dick Cheney. Here, as expected, Colbert offered his pro-Cheney metaphor, while Penn countered with his anti-Bush response. But it was Pinsky’s answer that was most illuminating. Most people probably had no idea what he was talking about, but any educated person should have picked up on his metaphor (the “correct” one, according to Pinsky). He said: “Dick Cheney is a shattered visage, half-sunk in the sand whose frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command tell that its sculptor well those passions read.” For those who do not recognize these words, they come from the very famous poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias.” The full poem is as follows:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
What’s so interesting about Pinsky’s “answer” is that Ozymandias is another name for Ramesses II, the great and mighty Pharaoh. In other words, the metaphor (taken from Shelley) essentially identifies Vice-President Cheney as an ancient Egyptian dictator whose vanity and misguided interest in establishing an eternal legacy is repaid by history in the form of all such works turning into a “colossal wreck, boundless and bare.” It does not take much of an imagination to extrapolate from this that Pinsky’s statement suggests that Cheney as Ramesses has foolishly established the “mighty” and despair-inducing works of war, which will one day be revealed as a “colossal wreck.” And is it really going too far to suggest that the “lone and level sands” of Egypt might in fact be used here as a reference to the sands of Iraq?

Now whether or not the Colbert Report intends its audience to make these connections is beside the point; the fact of the matter is that these connections are there regardless of the intention (though I think it is safe to say that Colbert wanted people to draw these conclusions). As a literature major, I feel obligated to point out the remarkable complexity hidden within a show already full of subtle remarks and clandestine criticisms of our government. I applaud Stephen Colbert for another wonderful episode!

Schleiermacher: our shared guilt

In light of the Virginia Tech tragedy ...
No one can be viewed as the exclusive transgressor in regard to what is done. Rather, the more a person’s action seems to call for condemnation, the easier it is in most cases to show how the agent has in various ways been tempted and provoked and to show for how long the evil in that person has been nourished by the sin of others. Consequently, in all sinful actions a shared work and a shared guilt are involved.
—Friedrich Schleiermacher, “On the Sacrifice of Christ That Makes Perfect,” in Reformed But Ever Reforming, trans. Iain G. Nicol (Lampeter, Wales: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997), 88.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Spirit of the Lord, §4.1: Simul iustus et peccator

First, the overly sharp and simplistic separation between the spiritual and the physical dulls us to the fact that sin and guilt are not just internal, psychological dispositions or spiritual symptoms of our spiritual bondage; sin is rather a term that refers to the entirety of our being. As the Calvinist position states (quite rightly), we are “totally depraved”—meaning sin infects every part of our being, not that we are incapable of doing any good. No part of our being—inner or outer—is free from sin’s grasp. Our bondage to sin is total, and likewise our liberation from sin and our corresponding bondage to righteousness is total. When we are made new, it is not as if we are now in bondage to God inwardly but still in bondage to sin outwardly. Our whole being is in bondage, either to God or to sin—or, rather, both to God and to sin. We are not partly new and partly old; we are simultaneously new and old. As Luther rightly put it, we are simul iustus et peccator—simultaneously justified and sinful.

While Luther used the language of “inner” and “outer” in speaking of our present state as simul iustus et peccator, he did not mean a physical dualism between mind and body. That is, he did not mean the words literally—as if the “inner” part of a person is justified but the “outer” part is sinful—but metaphorically. “Inner” refers to that part of the human person which transcends biology, which already even now corresponds to God’s righteousness through faith alone. “Inner” is thus a reference to our invisible analogical relation to God in Jesus Christ—a relation established by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) according to the word alone (solo verbo). “Outer” refers to the visible reality of the human person who remains caught between Christ and consummation, between reconciliation and redemption. The outer human person is not merely the body but the state of being-not-yet-perfect, the condition of hope and expectation for the moment when “we will all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51). The inner person is passively established through faith in the event of Jesus Christ as that event existentially encounters us in the word of grace; the “outer” person is passively perfected through the eschatological event of Jesus Christ as that event redeems and glorifies us by “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). The reconciled inner person is the product of the triumph of grace in Jesus Christ pro nobis; the redeemed outer person is the product of the triumph of grace in Jesus Christ pro omnibus. The terms “inner” and “outer” are thus different ways of expressing what Barth calls the tension between the “old” and the “new” person.

We might also relate “inner” and “outer” to the words “vertical” and “horizontal,” or to the more specific Latin terms, coram deo and coram mundo—before God and before the world. But here we must be careful, for we might easily be led into the same spiritual-physical dualism to which inner-outer language is prone. To avoid this trap, we must remember that our vertical relation is one that engages our entire being, just as our relation to the world and others involves our whole identity. If we think of “vertical” in terms of worship and “horizontal” in terms of ethics, it should be readily apparent that both terms demand a sense of the whole person in relation to the Other—whether that other be God or the world. To use terms like inner-outer and vertical-horizontal is, therefore, simply a way of speaking about the human person’s relation to what is outside oneself—privileging, of course, the God-human relation—without losing the requisite tension between “already” and “not yet.” Dialectical tensions like the inner-outer distinction is not a tension between equals; the God-human relation is not equal in significance to the human-human relation. Instead, the “inner” precedes and conditions the “outer,” just as worship precedes and conditions ethics. Thus, the “inner” person or the “vertical” relation is central and indispensable to the fulfillment of the “outer” person and the “horizontal” relation. The “inner” correspondence to God makes possible the “outer” correspondence to the “inner” person; that is, who we are in relation to others (coram mundo) must correspond to who we are in relation to God (coram deo). The establishment of new humanity thus moves from “inner” to “outer,” from vertical to horizontal, from invisible to visible, from identity to reality, from Christ to creation, from new creation to new heavens and new earth, from “God with us” to us with God.

Finally, if we are “in Christ,” we are dialectical pilgrims on the way (in via) from inner correspondence to outer correspondence, from completion to consummation. Our being simul iustus et peccator does not mean our being is static; our being is dynamic in accordance with the living, dynamic God who came to us in Jesus of Nazareth, who sustains and sanctifies us by the Holy Spirit, and who will come again to judge the world in grace. We are beings-in-becoming who are being brought into conformity with the being-in-becoming of the triune God. We are creatures in the process of becoming the new creation God definitively established in Jesus Christ. On one hand, we are already new, but still old; already alive, but still dead; already extra nos, but still incurvatus in se. On the other hand, we are old but becoming new; dead but becoming alive; incurvatus in se but becoming creatures who are extra nos in Jesus Christ.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Barth: divine immutability as divine constancy

“God is in Himself the living God, that His eternal being of and by Himself has not to be understood as a being which is inactive because of its pure deity, but as a being which is supremely active in a positing of itself which is eternally new. His immutability is not a holy immobility and rigidity, a divine death, but the constancy of His faithfulness to Himself continually reaffirming itself in freedom. His unity and uniqueness are not the poverty of an exalted divine isolation, but the richness of the one eternal origin and basis and essence of all fellowship. The fact that according to His revelation God is the triune God means that He is in Himself the living God.”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 561.

UnSpun by Amazon

WTM has alerted me to a fun new feature at Amazon called UnSpun, where anyone with an Amazon account can create and rank lists of just about anything you can think of. It’s a great way to waste a lot of time. Of special interest to readers of this blog will be the Top Theology Blogs list created by WTM. Currently, this blog is ranked sixth (a higher rating than I expected!), but if you wish to give me some extra online love, I’d be grateful.

The Anti-Torture Memos @ Balkinization

The great folks at Balkinization have compiled their posts on torture, interrogation, war powers, executive authority, and other issues related to current war policies in one convenient location. The “Anti-Torture Memos” are an incredible resource. They cover just about every major topic that has arisen over the past several years, and they are written by top minds in the fields of law and political science. If you have not been to Balkinization before, I recommend spending a few hours there.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Spirit of the Lord, §3: Deus Nobiscum

All of this is evident from the pericope itself, but things become even clearer when we place Isa. 9 in relation to other prophetic texts. For our purposes, Isaiah 61 and Micah 4 will be sufficient to make clear the meaning of Immanuel—God is with us. If we turn to these texts, we will see that any attempt to interpret the Prince of Peace as offering merely an internal, spiritual peace is bound to deconstruct. In fact, such an interpretation undermines the very heart of the gospel.

One of the important elements of Old Testament prophecy is that they are temporally multivalent; that is, prophecies simultaneously refer to different periods of time, including the present, the near future, and the distant future. As such, they are open to multiple interpretations, since not all temporal meanings are equal in value. For example, Isa. 9:6-7 is most immediately a reference to Isaiah’s own son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz (Isa. 8:1-4), but of course as Christians we also read this passage as a reference to the coming of the Christ child. But there is another reference in the text to the eschatological future when Christ comes again in the parousia to reign on David’s throne “from this time onward and forevermore.”

Isaiah 61 is a key chapter in Third Isaiah (Isa. 56-66). The chapter is written from the perspective of the prophet himself as one called to offer a message of hope and liberation to the refugees in Babylonian captivity. His message is unabashedly holistic; there is no separation between spiritual and physical. The proclamation of liberation is not only to people who are oppressed by sin and guilt; the liberation is proclaimed “to the captives” and “to the prisoners.” They are “brokenhearted” because of their physical displacement and their sociopolitical devastation. In the world of the Old Testament, damnation is death and salvation is life—not just “spiritual death” or “spiritual life,” but rather death as Sheol and life as the kingdom of God. The same goes for the New Testament, where Jesus declares, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10). Any attempt to read “life” as something internal, psychological, and spiritual fails to due justice to the radical wholeness of shalom.

The connection between Old and New is strongest precisely here in Isa. 61, because it is this passage which Jesus himself quotes in the temple at the start of his ministry in the Gospel of Luke. When Jesus came to Nazareth and began to teach in the synagogue, he spoke these words:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Lk. 4:18-19)
And after rolling up the scroll and sitting down, Jesus then tells his astounded audience: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21). Here we see the prophetic multivalence at work in a very rich way. The original text from Third Isaiah speaks most directly about the prophet himself in his calling to proclaim hope to the people in captivity. Then in Luke we see that this text applies to Jesus as the promised Messiah. But the passage has a third application to the eschatological future—“the year of the LORD’s favor”—about which the enthroned Christ says, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

The point is that Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, fulfills this prophecy in a twofold sense. On the one hand, in his life, death, and resurrection, he truly completed the threefold messianic office (munus triplex) of prophet, priest, and king, according to which he accomplished liberation for those in captivity. On the other hand, what he accomplished has not yet been consummated and his proclamation of good news has not yet reached all the poor and the oppressed. In a sense, this is what we mean when we say that the kingdom of God is “already” and “not yet.” However, the already-not yet dialectic can be misleading unless we clarify its meaning. We do not mean that the kingdom of God is “already started” but “not yet complete,” nor is it “already a possibility” but “not yet an actuality.” What we mean to say is that the new creation is “already complete” but “not yet consummate,” or “already an actuality” but “not yet manifest as a possibility for all,” or “already perfected” but “not yet revealed”—the work is finished (Jn. 19:30), but the reconciliation in Jesus Christ awaits its final unveiling at the end of the age. The new creation has come in fullness for all but remains hidden from all. Indeed, the old order has been definitely nullified by the arrival of the new ontological order in Jesus Christ—“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)—but this new creation awaits ontic-existential correspondence. Jesus Christ effected the new creation in his very being, and thus, in a true sense, everything has become new. However, not all creaturely being corresponds to the being of Christ, and thus the fullness of God’s liberative grace has not yet reached “to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6).

The danger we must strenuously oppose is the unbiblical notion that Christ’s first coming is spiritual while his second coming is physical. We see hints of this in Scripture and the church has allowed this dichotomy to seep into our way of thinking about the two comings of God. So we speak of the first as dealing with our sin and guilt, and we speak of the second as bringing about the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” We speak of the spiritual comfort and deliverance which Jesus brought to the world in his incarnation, but then of the physical comfort—“he will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 21:4)—and physical deliverance—“when this perishable body puts on imperishability” (1 Cor. 15:54)—that comes with his parousia. And to an extent this is true: Christ indeed came to liberate us from our bondage to sin and guilt, and our bodily redemption awaits its fulfillment in the resurrection of the dead.

These biblical caveats notwithstanding, we must remember that the distinction between present and future is not between spiritual and physical. While there is indeed a strong strand of ancient thinking that tends toward this kind of sharp dualistic distinction, we must insist that God’s liberative reign encompasses the whole of life even now. Even though, in a certain sense, Christ’s act of liberation is not truly complete until the eschatological reign of God comes and Christ consummates the redemption of the world, we must remember that the eschaton is not a second liberation but merely the universal revelation of the one act of reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ. We must appropriately distinguish between what God has accomplished and what God will accomplish—in which what God will accomplish is the revelation of what God has accomplished—but we must not make the error of dividing the work of Christ into spiritual and physical categories. Dualistic thinking has grave theological consequences, and in what follows I present five theological reflections on why dualism runs contrary to the gospel.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Spirit of the Lord, §2: Sanitized Savior of Suburbia

At the 2006 Christmas Eve service that I attended with my wife’s family, the preacher gave a message that was surely quite similar in content to thousands of other messages given across the country and around the world. He preached on the all-important name of the Christ-child: Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6). Not surprisingly—since this was at a conservative Baptist church—the preacher explicitly presented the peace of Christ as an inner peace, as opposed to an outer peace. He said that Christ came not to address the kinds of peace which we seek in our external relations with others—whether political, marital, familial, etc.—but he came rather to offer us internal spiritual peace. God came in Jesus Christ to be God with us so that we might have the spiritual comfort that we will live with God for eternity. End of story. Amen.

This is the kind of sermon that fits nicely in between the congregational singing of “Awake in a Manger” and “Silent Night.” The whole package is a saccharine, sentimental bedtime story which presents Jesus as a spiritual security blanket—and, quite appropriately, this preacher opened his sermon by relating the baby Jesus to Linus’ security blanket in the Peanuts cartoon strip. This Jesus is the Sanitized Savior for Suburbia (the SSS, we might say). He is innocuous, non-confrontational, safe for the consumeristic spirit of Santa. He has no beef with the materialistic society of America. He has no quarrel with the economic oppression perpetrated by First World countries against the Two-Thirds World. He puts up no nonviolent resistance against the political persecution of Muslims, against the military brutality in the numerous interrogation camps around the world, against the extreme poverty and disease that ravage entire continents. This Jesus is the one who blesses dualism: who only claims a person’s soul and leaves the body up to others, whether to the noncommittal social programs of the governmental or to the oppressive regimes of power which feed off of the subjugation of those lowest in society. This Jesus is the one who blesses suburban complacency, who wanders the urban streets in order to shop but never to sit and talk and love, who always walks on the other side of the road when there is a homeless person asking for money or a man beat up and left for dead. The SSS is the god of America, and insofar as the SSS is understood as “Christian,” we indeed live in a “Christian nation.”

I should come to this preacher’s defense for a minute. His sermon was, to his benefit, quite inconsistent. He began on the right track by strongly differentiating himself from the kind of commercialism and consumerism that plagues Christmas nowadays. And to illustrate the nature of peace, he told a story about a missionary to Papua New Guinea whose propagation of the gospel led to the establishment of peace between warring tribes. So in the midst of presenting the peace of Christ as an inner peace having nothing to do with external reality, he managed to illustrate this peace in opposition to economic and political turmoil. At the least he was inconsistent; at the most it was the Lord speaking truth through this fallible human being in spite of himself—and I would say both were true. Either way, he spoke more truth than he knew.

The problem with many of these Christmas sermons is that preachers use one of the standard SSS proof-texts without understanding the deeper cultural and theological contexts to the passage under discussion. For example, the pastor spoke on Isa. 9:6-7 and somehow came to the conclusion that peace (shalom) concerns the inner, spiritual realm of the human person. But even a cursory glance at v. 7 should demonstrate the indefensibility of that interpretation. The “throne of David” is not a spiritual throne but the actual throne over God’s covenant people. This verse is a reference to the eternal Davidic covenant established by God in 2 Sam. 7. The child promised in Isaiah is the king who will fulfill this covenantal promise and sustain an everlasting reign of “endless peace.” Justice and righteousness do not refer to some inner qualities but rather to the external ordering of life in correspondence to the righteousness of God. Justice and righteousness were the divine principles that Israel failed to abide by throughout its sociopolitical life and especially during the monarchy when kings worshiped foreign gods and exploited the poor. Moreover, rather than being two different problems, idolatry and oppression are two sides of the same problem; worship and ethics are intimately united in the theology of the Old Testament. Who or what you worship determines how you act. When the kings wandered into idolatry, the life of justice and righteousness to which God called them also turned into a life of exploitation and oppression. The child-king promised in Isa. 9 will return Israel to its promised identity as “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6), as “a light to the nations” (Isa. 42:6), as the one through whom “salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6).

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Spirit of the Lord, §1: Introduction

The Spirit of the Lord God is Upon Me: Theological Reflections on Immanuel

§1. Introduction
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Isa. 7:14)

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isa. 9:6-7)

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations. (Isa. 61:1-4)

In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken. (Micah 4:1-4)

Since Christmas Eve, 2006, I have been working on a theological reflection on Immanuel—“God with us,” the Messiah, Jesus Christ. This reflection began as a response to a Christmas Eve sermon I heard, which evacuated Christ of all impact upon our socio-political existence. The final document has become a rather lengthy theological treatise which covers a wide range of theological issues. At its heart, the reflection is a short missional theology rooted in christology with a concluding emphasis upon ecclesiology.

While the reflection is a single document, I will post it here in smaller sections. While I hope each post will stand on its own, they must be interpreted in light of the whole document. I have written it as one whole piece, not in individual sections (as with my series on Christian universalism).

Finally, the passages above are ones to which I will refer throughout the series. They are posted here as a reference and as a way to set the tone for what will come in the future. I look forward to hearing your thoughts in response as the series progresses.

Slavoj Zizek: living in the desert of the real (part 2)

My former professor of political science at Wheaton College, Ashley Woodiwiss, published an excellent essay on the political-religious thought of Slavoj Zizek in Books & Culture late last year. The title of the essay: “Philosophy at the End of the World: The Gospel According to Slavoj Zizek.” Woodiwiss does a fine job of capturing the sheer idiosyncratic brilliance of Zizek by engaging with some of his more pressing publications—i.e., those which address current issues central to our social existence in a world post-9/11.

Woodiwiss quotes Zizek from his pop-philosophy book, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!, on politics after Sept. 11:
[T]he USA, which until now perceived itself as an island exempt from this kind of violence, witnessing it only from the safe distance of the TV screen, is now directly involved. So the alternative is: will the Americans decide to fortify their "sphere" further, or risk stepping out of it? Either America will persist in—even strengthen the deeply immoral attitude of "Why should this happen to us. Things like this don't happen here!" … Or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen that separates it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival in the Real world, making the long overdue move from "A thing like this shouldn't happen here!" to "A thing like this shouldn't happen anywhere!"
Part of the problem, however, is that the U.S. throughout its history has indeed adopted (a version of) the idea: “A thing like this shouldn't happen anywhere!” There is a sense in which anti-Communist America during the Cold War had this kind of pseudo-altruistic spirit. On a certain level, the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war appears similar to this, but Woodiwiss notes, in light of Zizek’s philosophy:
Caught in the grip of this ideology of excess, the U.S. regime has erected a Fortress America model, justifying unilateralism abroad, surveillance at home. What are such moves seemingly (pre-)determining? With the next big terrorist act always imminent, always already en route but never from a known origin, what arises inevitably is the permanent emergency state.
I don’t have time here to expound much upon Zizek’s political thought, especially since Woodiwiss has already done a fine job of this. I will simply conclude by noting a couple phrases in Zizek’s philosophy which I think hold much potential for theological reflection. The following are two statements quoted by Woodiwiss:
An act does not occur within the given horizon of what appears to be 'possible'—it redefines the very contours of what is possible.

The 'utopian' gesture is the gesture which changes the co-ordinates of the possible.
Based on these two statements, we might speak of a “utopian act”—an act which interrupts the framework of present possibilities and reorders reality towards “the construction of a u-topic space, a social space outside the existing parameters, the parameters of what appears to be 'possible' in the existing social universe.” It seems that there are a lot of fruitful connections to theology, particularly the work of Eberhard Jüngel, who views justification by faith as a divine act which also “redefines the very contours of what is possible”; in fact, justification is not only an act of redefinition, but it is in fact an act of reconstitution. Justification is a divine event in which being is remade ex nihilo, in which the contours of actuality are destroyed on the cross and the new horizon of divine possibilities is established instead.

Thus, in his essay, “The World as Possibility and Actuality” (Theological Essays I, 95-123), Jüngel writes:
The absolutizing of actuality and the distinction between the actual and the non-actual as the measure of the world is subject to fundamental critique from the event of justification, a critique which understands the world . . . out of the resurrection of the dead—as creation out of nothing. Theology must establish that the radical nothingness of Good Friday is the other dimension of the being of this world. This is not in order that we may indulge in some profound ontology of nothingness, but rather that we may think of God as the creator and of his creation as justified. Theology does this by establishing the distinction between the possible and the impossible as incomparably more fundamental than the distinction between the actual and the not-yet-actual. Where the distinction between the possible and the impossible is made, we are concerned with truth (as opposed to actuality). The distinction between the possible and the impossible is incomparably more fundamental because it concerns the distinction between God and the world. And in the distinction between God and the world we are not concerned primarily with actuality, but with truth. (110-11)

God is to be thought of out of the event of justification as the one who in the very act of distinguishing himself from the world relates himself to it. In this way he is, and remains, God He has shown himself to exist in this way in the indissoluble unity of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Because of this, there is no true proclamation of the cross which does not take place in the power of the resurrection, and even less is there true proclamation of the risen one which does not proclaim him to be the crucified. The Easter message, the gospel, is the word of the cross. Out of this word, we have to say that God himself is the one who makes the possible to be possible and the impossible to be impossible, and in this distinction between possibility and impossibility lets the world be actual. Beyond the distinction between possibility and impossibility, God himself is equiprimordially both, or, to say the same thing, God is and his being is in becoming. (112)

Monday, April 09, 2007

Barth on Intelligent Design

... familiar with the groaning of all creation, we lend our support to all honest, secular, scientific and historical research; but we dissociate ourselves from every semi-theological interpretation of Nature and of History.
—Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford UP, 1933), 318

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Review in IJST by Ben Myers

Congrats to Ben Myers for having his excellent review of Paul DeHart’s book, The Trial of the Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology, published in the latest issue of IJST!

Reflections on the Cry of Abandonment

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Of all the last sayings of Jesus, the cry of abandonment—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—is the most difficult. It is a cry of agony and suffering. It is a cry of despair and hopelessness. And, if we are honest with ourselves, it is the cry of atheism. Jesus does not ask God, “Have you abandoned me?” Instead, he asks, “Why have you abandoned me?” This is the cry of one who feels stranded, disowned, left (quite literally) high and dry.

Some have tried to lessen the weight of these words by noting that Jesus is quoting the opening line of Psalm 22. Because this psalm ends with a statement of confidence in God, perhaps Jesus actually means to imply his confidence in God the Father. If that is indeed the case, one must wonder why Jesus does not quote from a more confident psalm, like the opening line of Psalm 21, “In your strength the king rejoices, O LORD,” or the opening of Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” But Jesus chooses Psalm 22 to express his suffering on the cross. (It is worth noting that the cry of abandonment is the only word Jesus speaks from the cross in Matthew and Mark, and it only appears in those two gospels.)

So what is the importance of this cry? How is it possible for Jesus to enter into the depths of God-forsakenness when he is God incarnate?

The mystery of the cross is the mystery of reconciliation between a loving God and a God-forsaken world. In Genesis, God commands the first humans to not eat of the tree of knowledge, saying, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:17). But when they do eat of this tree, they continue to live. They don’t die, at least not biologically. Instead, they are exiled from the garden and sent out into a world bereft of God’s presence. This is true death, spiritual death. It is death in God-forsakenness. And it is into this God-forsaken world that Jesus came to live and die in order that we might have life—true life, eternal life. So we read in Romans 5 that “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin . . . Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one’s man act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom. 5:12, 18).

But there is still more to be said. The spiritual death that entered through Adam is what some have called the “second death.” The first death is biological, but the second death is spiritual. In the first death, we descend into the earth. In the second death, we descend into hell. The God-forsaken world of death into which Jesus came as our savior is a world falling over the edge into the abyss of hell. And on the cross, when Jesus cried out to God, we come to understand that Jesus has not only defeated the first death, but the second death as well. The death of Christ is the death of death. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22). Unlike us, who descend into hell and are helpless to escape, Jesus Christ went to the fullest depths of hell in order to rescue us, in order to liberate us from our bondage to sin and death. This is what we confess when we say, along with the creed of the church, “He descended into hell.” In the cry of God abandonment, Jesus confirmed that he died in the place of the greatest sinner in order to rescue even this one from hell’s grasp. In his death in God-forsakenness—as one abandoned by God—he accomplished our freedom from God-forsakenness, our adoption as the children of God.

As we know all too well, however, in the absence of God’s presence, hell makes its presence felt all too often in this world. But the power of the cross extends even here. In his death in God-forsakenness, Jesus died in solidarity with those who felt forsaken in the death camps at Auschwitz, in the killing fields of Cambodia, in the lynchings here in the United States. On the cross, Jesus went to the very depths of forsakenness. He descended into the abyss. He experienced the darkness of damnation, the horrors of hell.

But precisely here the mystery of the cross is demonstrated most vividly, in that Jesus not only died in the place of the ones tortured and murdered; he also died in the place of the torturers and murderers. Jesus demonstrated the extent of God’s love in that he died the death—the second death—of all sinners. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). His death is the death of all death. His descent into hell is the destruction of hell. In the cross of Christ, in his death in God-abandonment, “the power of Hell is already broken (down), the locked door of the grave is already burst open” (von Balthasar).

In closing, I wish to read a few short sections from an ancient Eastern Orthodox liturgy, which I think captures Christ’s death in God-forsakenness perfectly.
A destructive band of God-forsaken,
wicked murderers of God, …
dragged You away as an evil-doer –
the Creator of all, whom we magnify.

Like a pack of dogs they surrounded You, O King,
smiting You on the cheek with their hands.
They questioned You and bore false witness against You,
yet by enduring all things, You have saved all. ...

HE WHO HOLDS THE EARTH
IN THE HOLLOW OF HIS HAND
HAS BEEN PUT TO DEATH AND HELD FAST BY THE EARTH,
TO SAVE THE DEAD FROM HELL'S GRASPING HAND. ...

THOUGH YOU ARE BURIED
IN A GRAVE, O CHRIST,
THOUGH YOU WENT DOWN TO HELL, O SAVIOR,
YOU HAVE STRIPPED HELL NAKED, EMPTYING ITS GRAVES. ...

WILLINGLY, O SAVIOR,
YOU DESCENDED TO HELL.
THERE YOU RESTORED THE DEAD TO NEW LIFE,
AND LED THEM BACK TO THE FATHER'S HOUSE.
Amen.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Sermon: A Funeral Homily for James Pyles

The following is a sermon written for my homiletics course. It is a funeral homily for my friend and roommate of three years, James Pyles, who died on June 24, 2004, while serving on a missions trip to Palestine. I wrote this sermon for those who knew him best, but I was also conscious of some temporal distance between his tragic death and the giving of this sermon. I offer it here in his loving memory.

Scripture
“For I am confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).

Prayer
Gracious Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, remind us again today in the midst of grief, that you have graciously granted us the honor of participating in your story of salvation for the world. As we reflect on the life of your faithful servant, James, grant to us assurance that the good work which you began in his life will be made perfect on the day of Christ Jesus. In the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.


I remember the moment very well when I first met James. I had just finished unpacking my clothes from one of my three suitcases in the dorm room to which James and I had been assigned by the housing office of Wheaton College. I had spoken on the phone with James for only a minute prior to meeting him in person. Any images I had formed of him in my head could not have prepared me for the man himself. I was a shy academic; he was a gregarious person who had a Socratic tendency to pose difficult questions at you until you either gave up or gave in. Not surprisingly, I was the English major, he the philosophy major. I was the pious law-abider; he was the logical law-breaker.

You can imagine my surprise when, during our third and final year at Wheaton together, he suddenly felt a calling from God. Now, I am not usually the kind of person who defaults to language of calling and vocation, but in this situation, there was simply no other option. As some of you may know, James began a weekly small group that met for the purpose of fasting for Sunday dinner and giving the money one would normally spend on oneself to a church or mission organization overseas. Each week they would gather together and reflect upon the call of Jesus to live simply. (This is even more surprising when one considers James’ insatiable appetite and boundless metabolism. He was well-known for eating three full plates of food at a typical meal.) The call of God upon James Pyles extended beyond “simple living.” Over the course of his final year at Wheaton, he felt a calling—to the utter shock of his friends—to travel to Palestine and minister to those living in the Gaza strip. Those of us who knew him were left speechless. Here was a young man who arrived at college seemingly bound by no authority. And after three years, he was ready to give up everything he had for the sake of the gospel, even life itself.

It is in light of such a strong and indubitable sense of divine calling that his death seems all the more inscrutable. How could God call this young man to forsake everything in order to follow Jesus Christ, and yet allow the unspeakable to happen, thus leaving the work that was clearly so important to James unfinished? This is the kind of question with which we are left to ponder in our grief.

So we gather here now to reflect upon the life of our dear James, and to set his calling in the comforting, illuminating, and liberating light of God’s Word. And in this inscrutable situation, there is perhaps no more appropriate word than the one we find in Phil. 1:6, where the apostle Paul—another man called indubitably by God to proclaim the gospel—states: “For I am confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”

For I am confident—this is no naive confidence born out of suburban comfort and Roman luxury. No, this is a confidence purified as through fire; a confidence born out of intense suffering; a confidence whose foundation rests solely in the mercy and grace of God. As Paul states in Phil. 3:8, “For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things …” In this situation, confidence is not flippant, joy is not superficial, and peace is not some inner calm. James had precisely this kind of confidence. There was nothing hollow or artificial about his sense of mission. He had the confidence of Simon and Andrew who, when they heard the words, “Follow me,” immediately left their nets.

But the confidence of Paul is not confidence in the Philippians, just as James was not confident in himself. Both instead were confident in God and God alone. The “good work” is not a human work but rather a divine work; in other words, it is a work which only God can begin—viz., the work of the gospel. The words of Paul in Phil. 1 remind us of very similar words from Eph. 2:10: “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Indeed, the James who gave up meals and traveled to Palestine was clearly a person that God had made and re-made. He was created in Christ Jesus for “good works” to which God called him. And God not only prepared James for this work; God accomplished this work through him. Over and over again in Philippians, Paul makes it clear that this “good work” is God’s good work. In Phil. 1:28, Paul says, “this is God’s doing,” and later in Phil. 2:13, he says, “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

And this is precisely how James would want us to remember him: doing the work of God only by the grace of God. There was nothing “in” James which made him uniquely gifted to carry out this task; those of us who lived with him knew this all too well. He heard the call and responded appropriately. He was, to put it simply, a faithful servant. And as the servant of God, he knew that the mission of the gospel did not begin with him and could not end with him; rather, the mission of simple living, of following the call of Christ, of faithful obedience in response to the call begins and ends with Jesus Christ. The mission of God does not begin with us, but instead began when Jesus Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). In a very real sense, therefore, the mission of God has already been accomplished before we ever arrive on the scene. We cannot add anything to the cross; we must, like Paul, simply proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified. We are freed by Jesus to become faithful servants. We need not reconcile the world, for Christ has already reconciled the world to God (2 Cor. 5:19).

In the meantime, then, we stand between the words of Christ at Golgotha, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and the words of Christ in the New Jerusalem, “See, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:5). We stand on the threshold between the cross and the new creation. Our gaze looks in two directions at once: backwards in remembrance and forwards in anticipation, backwards to death and forwards to resurrection. Here and now, we experience suffering and death, but we look forward in hope to when everything will become new. Here and now, our lives are imperfect and broken, but we have confidence that the God who began this good work will perfect it, so that there and then on the day of Christ Jesus, we will be transformed and made whole. Standing between cross and new creation, between obedience and exaltation, between death and new life, we press on toward the goal.

We do not press on toward just any goal, but rather we seek to be conformed to the person of Christ. He is our goal. He is our reconciliation, our righteousness, our sanctification, redemption, and life. And so Paul writes: “For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him … I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8b-9a, 10-11). In this present age, as we stand between cross and new creation, we seek to gain Christ and be found in him. But to gain Christ is to gain both his death and his new life. We live our lives, so to speak, within Holy Saturday, looking back to Good Friday and forward to Easter Sunday. We stand between the Crucified Jesus and the Risen Lord. Just as new creation is the transformation of the old creation and not a new world altogether, resurrection does not come apart from death. We are conformed by God’s grace into the person of Christ, and even though he is risen indeed, he still bears the marks of his passion. So we, too, must share in his sufferings by becoming like him in his death. And, indeed, this is precisely what James did. He counted all things rubbish “for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord” (Phil. 3:8). He followed the call of God upon his life and became like Christ in his death. And thus we may rest in the promise of God, that James truly knows Christ and the power of his resurrection. Thus, I can say, more so than of any other person I know, James truly gained Christ and was found in him.

So we can be confident—we can be confident that the one who began a good work in James will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. We can be confident that the God who called James did not abandon him or the mission to which he was called. We can be confident that the work of proclaiming the good news of the gospel in the Middle East will not end with the tragic loss of James, but that God will carry it on to completion. We can be confident that it is the Lord who preceded this work, the Lord who preserved this work, and the Lord who, finally, will perfect this work. We can be confident, therefore, that James did not “labor in vain” (Phil. 2:16). Moreover, we can be confident in the statement of Paul in Phil. 3:21, that God will transform our bodies of humiliation, suffering, and death—including the body of James—and conform them “to the body of [Christ’s] glory.” We can be confident that “what is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable,” what is “sown in weakness … is raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:42-43). We can be confident that the “God of peace” will be with us, even in the midst of Saturday, when the gloom of Friday seems so irrepressible and the light of Sunday seems impossibly far away (Phil. 4:9b). We can be confident that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22). We can be confident that God has given us the victory over sin and death, so that sin no longer has power and death no longer has sting (1 Cor. 15:56-57). We can be confident that, one day, death will be no more (Rev. 21:4). We can be confident that, on the day of Christ Jesus, God will indeed make all things new (Rev. 21:5).

Thus, in closing, if the mission of God began when Christ “emptied himself” and became obedient to death on a cross, the mission will end when God will highly exalt him, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). Let us therefore “rejoice in the Lord always,” for “the Lord is near … And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:4-5, 7). Amen.

AAR Proposal: The Sinlessness of Jesus? Karl Barth and Oliver Crisp

My proposal for the AAR Annual Meeting in San Diego was rejected as I expected. I offer it here for people to peruse. If anyone has any constructive feedback for me, I would gladly take it.

Proposed Title: The Sinlessness of Jesus? An Examination of Chalcedonian Christology in Light of Karl Barth and Oliver Crisp

PROPOSAL:

Modern Christian theology has made the novel assertion that the assumptio carnis in the incarnation of Jesus Christ is an assumption of our fallen human flesh. Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance are only two of the prominent representatives of this movement. The argument by Barth and those who follow him is to adopt the patristic formula “only that which is assumed is redeemed” in relation to the “sin nature” of humans. According to Barth, “We stand before God characterised by the Fall” (CD I/2, 153). Barth makes it clear that our humanity post-Fall is marked by the Fall in some important sense, and thus any assumptio carnis that bypasses our fallenness is one that bypasses our humanity which is in need of redemption. Apart from assuming our fallen humanity, the atoning work of the cross lacks efficacy. Thus, the incarnation is central to the atonement.

More recently, however, Oliver Crisp has registered his dissent from the Barthian line of reasoning. In a 2004 article and in his forthcoming new book on the two natures of Christ, Crisp lays out his argument against the fallenness of Jesus Christ’s human nature on the grounds that it is an incoherent position to hold. Crisp lays out the logic that he sees at work in the theology of those who fall in Barth’s camp, and he concludes that these theologians end up positing a Jesus who is actually sinful. Hence, Crisp believes that he must side against the assumption of fallen humanity in order to maintain an orthodox Christology.

This paper seeks to evaluate the current debate over the sinlessness of Jesus in an attempt to clear up misunderstandings as well as to offer some constructive comments on a two-natures Christology and theological anthropology. My thesis is that the sinlessness of Jesus is not a static category of essence but a moment-by-moment actualization of Jesus Christ’s correspondence to God in his historical existence within the fallenness of fellow humanity. The paper will thus proceed through four parts. First, I will engage with Crisp’s arguments by examining his logic and the presuppositions he makes regarding a substantial-essentialist view of Christ’s natures and of original sin. I will argue that Crisp employs a traditional metaphysic in evaluating modern theologians, one that attempts to adhere rather rigidly to the philosophical categories of Chalcedon. This prevents him from adequately engaging the creative reworking of Chalcedon in the theology of Karl Barth. Moreover, he assumes that the logic required to affirm the assumption of fallen humanity is basically the same among the various proponents of such a view. He thus paints with an overly broad brush that inhibits him from recognizing the theological details that distinguish, for example, Barth from Torrance.

Second, I argue that Barth answers Crisp’s concerns regarding a sinful Jesus through his relational-actualistic ontology. Only by taking account of Barth’s historicizing of Jesus Christ’s natures and his actualizing of ontology can one then make sense of Barth’s theology of the incarnation. Here I follow some of the arguments put forward by Bruce McCormack regarding the post-metaphysical theology of Barth and what McCormack calls the “actualistic understanding of the history of God in His mode of existence as Son.” Thus, in this section, I will attempt to take seriously Barth’s insistence that “we have ‘actualised’ the doctrine of the incarnation” (CD IV/2, 105). Barth’s claim has ramifications both for a two-natures Christology as well as for the doctrine of original sin. Regarding the latter, I will examine how Barth’s theology might shed light on the relation between original sin and the classical notions of inherited corruption and inherited guilt. In explicating the relation between Barth’s ontology and human sinfulness, I will examine Rom. 5:12 in relation to a historicized notion of sin and an actualistic ontology of the human person.

Third, I will construct an alternative logic that takes into account Barth’s radical theological ontology and a post-metaphysical conception of original and actual sin. This alternative logic will attempt to answer Crisp’s objection that any proponent of Christ’s sinfulness inevitably posits the sinfulness of Jesus. In particular, I will address the notion of original corruption and the claim by Crisp that, on what he calls the “fallenness” account, Jesus would have to sin on at least one occasion.

Fourth, and finally, in this paper I will offer some constructive remarks on how we might appropriate a Chalcedonian Christology today. While Crisp presupposes a substantial-essentialist metaphysic as the standard for what is traditionally orthodox, Barth and his followers, including Eberhard Jüngel especially, offer fruitful ways of reconceiving a two-natures Christology that upholds the basic demands of Chalcedon within an ontological framework that replaces essence with historical actualization. I will conclude by reflecting on what we gain by affirming both a post-metaphysical ontology and the full assumption of fallen humanity in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.


ABSTRACT:

This paper seeks to evaluate the current debate over the sinlessness of Jesus and the classical tradition of Chalcedonian Christology. Modern theologians like Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance tend to speak of the assumptio carnis in the incarnation of Jesus Christ as an assumption of our fallen human flesh. More recently, however, Oliver Crisp has registered his dissent from the Barthian line of reasoning. This paper argues against Crisp on grounds that he evaluates the modern position without taking into account Barth’s theological ontology in which Barth actualizes and historicizes the doctrines of Christ’s two-natures and human sin. This paper has four parts: (1) an examination of Crisp’s logical argument, (2) an exposition of Barth’s relational-actualistic ontology, (3) an alternative logic more in line with Barth’s theology, and (4) finally a few remarks on appropriating Chalcedonian Christology today.