Thursday, October 27, 2005

Where is Jesus?

A friend of mine was babysitting and asked the kid "Have you asked Jesus into your heart?" He promptly replied, "Yes!" After a pause, the kid got a puzzled look on his face and asked, "Who lives in my ear?"

Although amusing, the innocent literalism of this child challenges our linguistic habits. What do we mean when we say that Jesus lives within us? Do we really take this seriously? And if we do, what happens to our belief that Jesus was raised from the dead? How can an embodied person be present in us?

This puzzle first hit me a few years back, but I have yet to "solve" it. However, I do have a better sense of the options and what is at stake than I used to. So here goes a crash course in the debate surrounding the bodily presence of Jesus.

Either: Jesus is in heaven

After Jesus was raised in bodily form, he ascended to the right hand of God the father, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. Thus Jesus' body is locally present at the right hand of the Father. He has "ascended to the heavenlies." Jesus can be said to be present in us only in the form of his Spirit. Any presence between the believer and Christ is to be understood spiritually. We will only be bodily present to one another at the end of time when he returns.

The advantage of this view is that it holds on dearly to the genuine bodily resurrection of Christ. It also gives a significant place to the Holy Spirit in the relationship between Christ and the Christian. The disadvantage of this view is that Jesus' body appears to be "trapped" in heaven. He lacks the freedom proper to his divinity. He is present only in Spirit, but is that a genuine presence? Is that any different than me being "present" to my friends in California because they are thinking about me? Furthermore, this view merely begs another question: Where is heaven? Is heaven in outer space, tucked behind Saturn? Is heaven even a place at all?

Or: Jesus is everywhere

The alternative view is that Jesus' raised body takes on the properties of divinity, and thus is capable of being omnipresent. Jesus in his glorified form can be bodily present beyond the usual boundaries of space. Thus Jesus really is present to us and in us. This is certainly a mystery, but it is a mystery based on a promise: "lo I will be with you to the very end of the age" and "wherever two or three are gathered, there I will be in the midst of them." So the right hand of God the Father is not some place, but a symbol of the divine power by which Jesus is present.

The advantage of this view is that it can take with radical seriousness the biblical claims to Christ's presence with the believer. It also avoids splitting up the body and spirit of Jesus. The disadvantage is that an omnipresent body is an unthinkable thought. What makes a body a body is that it is bounded by space. A body that is everywhere ceases to be a body. Furthermore, one wonders how the Holy Spirit fits into this equation. Why did Jesus ascend and pour out his Spirit if he is already omnipresent by virtue of his resurrection? On this view, the cosmic narrative of Jesus falls into redundancy.

What do you think?

Is Jesus localized in heaven?
Or is Jesus everywhere?
Which view's advantages outweigh its disadvantages?
Can one view assimilate the concerns of the other?
Is there a third view?
Should the question be reframed? For instance, are these views rigidly spatial and so need to be supplemented by temporal questions?
What else should be taken into account?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Is "God" in the Old Testament the Father or the Trinity?

If the purpose of theology is to make us better readers of Scripture (which I believe), then this is one area where the opposite seems to be the case. The interface between the Trinity and the Old Testament wreaks havoc on the intelligibility of both. The doctrine itself is entirely absent (I'm not one of those who would attempt to "prove" the Trinity from the OT, let alone the New) and hence an imposition on the text. But the OT too loses intelligibility, at least if one is trying to read it in Christian terms (which is not necessarily the only way to read the OT, but must be at least a way).

The nub of the problem is this question: Is "God" in the OT the Father or the whole Trinity?

Option #1: God is the Father

The advantage to this formulation is that it quickly solves the problem by relegating all trinitarian interpretation to the NT. The God of the OT, the one who brought Israel out of Egypt, is the Father of Jesus Christ. The intelligibility of the text is protected against the imposition of later doctrinal developments.

The disadvantage to this formulation is that the doctrine of the Trinity is rendered unintelligible. The whole purpose of the doctrine of the Trinity is to ensure the divinity of the Son and the Spirit, who must be divine in order to bring us salvation and revelation. If the Son is not “there” in the OT, then he is not really “there” in the eternal triune God. Jesus ends up being one historical manifestation of one God, not the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity.

Option #2: God is the Trinity

The advantage to this formulation is that a robust doctrine of the Trinity is maintained. God in the OT is the eternal triune God acting in time with his people Israel. The fatherhood of God is not just a metaphor for the being of God, but is linked to his eternal fathering of the son. The incarnation is not some questionable add-on, but the fulfillment of his eternal design.

The disadvantage to this formulation is obvious: the triune God is nowhere to be found on the pages of the OT text. Only forced exegesis finds the Trinity in the OT. So those who hold this position are cornered into talking about the Trinity being “hidden” during this time. Theological problems abound as well, for the Son becomes detached from his historical incarnation and thus his human particularity can be questioned.

What do you think?

Which one is better?
Which one is worse?
Is there a way to hold on to both?
Is there a third option?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Providence and Predestination

I have noticed a pattern regarding the combination of two complex doctrines: providence and predestination. The two are of course related, providence being the secret divine willing of all events and predestination the eternal election of who will be saved. It is precisely their close proximity that makes the pattern of popular belief so striking. So here's my desciption of how I have observed church folk approach these problems.

Neither Providence nor Predestination - A lot of folks either practically or theoretically reject the two doctrines. Certainly God is not behind everything. Certainly our free will is sufficiently powerful in both mundane and salvific matters. Certainly God's hands are tied by our decisions.

Both Providence and Predestination - Of course, you have the other extreme in what I call "street" calvinists, who piously affirm both the election to salvation and the ordination of all events. Thus you have the legend of the puritan woman who fell down the stars only to say "I'm glad I got that out of the way." There are surely more sophisticated ways of contruing the relationship between these two doctrines. But I am trying to describe common belief and practice here.

Providence without Predestination - Here's where it gets peculiar. The potential extremity of the above views is at least commended for its consistency. But the fact of the matter is a large segment of church folk affirm providence without predestination. So you have folks who firmly believe that God has a particular will for their life and they need to find it. They piously approach suffering and death as "God's will." Yet when it comes to salvation, they are extreme Arminians, proudly claiming free will and a full capacity to accept or reject salvation. They have somehow found a way to separate the pair in their minds, or at least in their lives.

Predestination without Providence - But it gets weirder. You have the opposite combination as well. There are many among us who will go the wall defending God's utter predestination of souls unto salvation, yet affirm complete autonomy in all other matters. These folks might even quote the famous line of Luther's from The Bondage of the Will, wherein he exclaims (in his usual tongue-in-cheek manner) that yes, humans have free will ... to hammer a nail, to go to the market, to get up from bed ... but in matters of salvation we are utterly dependent on God. This can be a very "respectable" position, because one affirms divine sovereignty where it counts for the traditional battle, but can take a world-affirming, humanist viewpoint on all other matters.

The funny thing about this pattern is that it displays our ability to sustain "happy inconsistencies." We have found a way to have our theological cake and eat it too. And maybe I shouldn't spoil the fun, because consistency isn't the only theological virtue. However, one wonders if we have any coherent sense of who God is if we think he works in two completely different ways depending on whether it is a matter of salvation or not. Is this really the God we serve?

Am I on to something here?
Is this pattern descriptively adequate?
Could you think of examples that fit nicely into this pattern?
What am I missing?
Which is the best approach?
Are we doomed to some 'happy inconsistencies' to avoid extremes?
Or is there a way to affirm both without becoming deterministic? If so, how?

Monday, October 10, 2005

New Items Posted Regularly at The Writing of John Drury

Two new items have been posted at The Writing of John Drury, my collected writings page. Just two formal seminar papers on the knowledge of God, one on Calvin and one on Barth. If you are into that sort of thing, check them out here under "hotspot." If you have comments, leave them at this post.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Do Christians make the Church or does the Church make Christians?

Does a gathering of individual Christians make a collective church of Christians? Or is there a realistic entity called “the Church” that makes its participants into Christians? This is the basic theological question that still plagues us today. This perennial tension between individualists and communitarians crops up both between and within the alternative proposals for renewal today. For instance, one can find within the emergent conversation both radical individualists and radical communitarians. Both claim to value community. That is not the issue. This issue is whether the basis of ecclesial community is found in the collective of free individuals or in the community itself as such which then grants communal identity to its members. An arsenal of arguments are assembled, the battle rages on, and yet no victor is in sight.

Part of the problem in the debate between communitarians and individualists is that it remains solely on the sociological plane. The missing piece to the puzzle is the very center of church life itself: Jesus Christ. The debate will go on in perpetuity as long as it remains a struggle between two foci. But when a third point is added, a triangle is formed and a more rich discussion can follow.

So then, how do the Church, the Christian and Christ relate?

The classic way to formulate the basic options was put forth by Schleiermacher (19th Cen). He put it in terms of a contrast between the Protestant and Catholic ecclesiological principles (Christian Faith 103-108):

The Protestant principle is that the relationship between the Christian and the Church depends on the Christian's relationship to Christ.

The Catholic principle is that the relationship between the Christian and Christ depends on the Christian's relationship to Church.

Of course, this leads us into a whole other web of problems. Which principle gives pride of place to Christ? Which principle avoids the perils of the extremes? Are these principles adequate descriptions of the Protestant/Catholic difference? How do we acknowledge both the freedom of Christ and the indispensability of the Church? Is there a way to synthesize the principles? Is there a third option? But at least they are properly theological problems and therefore we might be able to get somewhere. In other words, a good ecclesiology must deal in Christological currency.

Although I enjoy being provocative, it seems appropriate to at least sketch the beginnings of my own solution to this basis ecclesiological problem. I would recommend that we navigate Schleiermacher’s triangle by means of the concept of mission. My inspiration here is von Balthasar, who outlines a missional concept of theological personhood in his Theo-Drama vol. III. Balthasar’s advance is that our personhood is grounded neither in our individual Christianity nor our participation in the community of the Church as such, but rather in the fulfillment of our mission. We are sent by God. This is who we are, both as individual Christians and as a communal Church. Balthasar gives the example of Paul, who as an individual missionary was on the periphery of the church and yet served the church precisely in his peripheral mission. He notes rightly that individualism and communitarianism coincide for Paul, especially when he reflects on his suffering for the church (e.g., Colossians 2).

Here’s how one might render Balthasar’s insight in terms of Schleiermacher’s triangle:

The Missional principle is that the Christian's relationship to both Christ and the Church depends on her participation in the mission to which Christ sends the Church.

My hope is that this way of putting things will keep the Christian and the Church in proper balance as they subsist in the one mission of Christ. This certainly doesn’t solve all the problems, but it may help to reframe it in a fruitful way.

Any thoughts?
Any communitarians or individualists out there who want to take me to task?
Any objections to Schleiermacher’s way of Christologizing the problem?
Any suggestions toward a missional solution to these problems?