Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Taking the Long View on Doctrinal Positions

I am currently in the final stages of the ordination process in my denomination. I just finished filling out a detailed form concerning doctrinal and ethical positions. I will soon have an interview with my ordaining board. Let's hope it goes well.

The interesting thing about this process for many of us is the struggle between integrity and submission. On the one hand, we want to have the integrity to voice our divergence on the substance or wording of denominational doctrinal statements. On the other hand, we want to communicate clearly an attitude of submission to the ecclesial community and its governing bodies. How do walk this tight-rope without falling off?

I realized something this time around. As I answered the question on baptism, I felt the waters of dissent bubble up inside me. I still found a way to word my answer in a submissive yet honest way. This was not the first time I have expressed dissent regarding my denomination's views on baptism. I even had a candid and fruitful discussion with my ordaining board two years ago. But here's the funny thing: this time I found myself questioning our position from the completely opposite perspective. Two years ago I was complaining that our statement was not sacramental enough. Now I am wondering if it is too sacramental. This just goes to show that my "views" about which I desire to have "integrity" are a moving target. I am still "in process" on some of these things. How arrogant of me to judge these statements against my own constantly developing views.

So I came to the realization that submission to the spirit of my denomination's doctrinal statements does not undermine my integrity. Rather, it is a sign of deeper integrity to admit one's own lack of integrity over time. As I twist in the wind of new ideas and arguments, my tradition provides an anchor. Maybe the path to integrity can be found in submitting to one's tradition and learning to be taught and guided by it.

Any thoughts?
Have you experienced similar realizations?
Why are we so obsessed with integrity and so averse to submission?
Am I just "selling out" or is this a genuine approach?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Generously Orthodox

What does the label "generous orthodoxy" really mean? Although I have applied this attractive yet elusive moniker to myself for years, I am still searching for an adequate definition and/or description of it. Well, just a few weeks ago one of my teachers humorously offered the following quote as a "mission statement for generous orthodoxy." I must admit, it may be the best statement on offer. Check it out:

"To become obedient to Jesus is actually to become obedient to God, not a conceived and imaginary God, but to a God as he is in his inmost essence, the gracious God, the god in whom we may believe. Jesus himself is the divine demand which confronts us as a genuinely compelling demand and which is also rigorous in the sense that it can be fulfilled only willingly or not at all; the demand upon us ourselves, which claims ours heart, and therefore the fulfillment of which really brings us ourselves into harmony with the will of God. Nothing that we can do in fulfillment of the will of God is higher and deeper than to love Jesus and therefore to keep his commandments - just because they are his, just because we cannot love him without keeping his commandments. We definitely fulfill the will the will of God when we do this. And whatever is done in line with and in the sense of this action even where Jesus is no longer or is not yet known; whatever bears in itself something in the nature of this action and is therefore an actual witness to the fact that Jesus lives and reigns and conquers, is definitely a fulfillment of the will of God. In all ages the will of God has been fulfilled outside the Church as well. Indeed, to the shame of the Church it has often been better fulfilled outside the Church than in it. This is not in virtue of a natural goodness of humanity. It is because Jesus, as the One who has risen from the dead and sits at the right hand of God, is in fact the Lord of the whole world, who has his servants even where his name is not yet or no longer known and praised. The Church can know and praise him. The Church can live in the consciousness of what is said to us. The Church can call all human beings to the consciousness of what has force and truth for all humanity. How great, then, is the Church's primary task and obligation: to realize for itself that the only thing which has truth and force is that in the fact that Jesus lives and reigns and conquers humanity is claimed by God!"(Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, pp. 568-569 translation revised and emphasis added)

This quote indicates that generosity is not some addition we add to our orthodoxy. Rather, we are generous because we are orthodox. The cosmic claim of Jesus Christ implies that he has servants outside the walls of the church. Therefore, as orthodox men and women, we actively and openly seek out his unwitting witnesses wherever they may be found.

Any thoughts?
Is this a minimally adequate description of generous orthodoxy?
If not, what are some other alternatives?
If so, what are some other insights that can be gleaned from this quote?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Karl Barth Conference at PTS May 21-24

There's a conference on Reading Scripture Theologically with Karl Barth this May 21-24 at PTS. Check out the conference info here. Registration is Due May 1st. It would be great to see some of you there!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Using Biblical Imagery for the Cross

As we celebrate Holy Week and Easter, I have been thinking about the numerous sets of images the Bible employs to describe the work of Christ on the Cross. There is sacrificial language. There is judicial language. There is military language. There is ransom language. For some reason, the Bible does not make it easy for us by simply employing one image set. Rather, we get this collection of images that do not immediately gel together.

The question I have been asking is what to do with all these sets of images. How should we make use of Biblical imagery when presenting the significance of Christ? It seems like we have a few options:

(1) Lowest Common Denominator. One option is to try to ascertain the basic structure of the atonement at the heart of each of these images. Then we can simply present this idea logically without the garnish of images. The potential advantage here is the clarity of presentation. The potential hazard is that something of the richness of Biblical imagery could be lost in the process of boiling down.

(2) Mix-and-Match. Another option is to juggle all the Biblical images. A little ransom here, a little sacrifice there, etc. On the one hand, this method has the strength of sticking closer to the text. It respects the mystery of the cross and the multiplicity of images that it requires. On the other hand, it tends to leave hearers with more questions than answers with regard to their salvation. How do all these images point us to the one work of Christ?

(3) Primary and Secondary. A more bold option is to make a decision to favor one set of images over another. This could be based on the frequency of use, or via a canon-within-a-canon approach, or on the basis of which set of images is the most comprehensive. Some Christian traditions have taken this option, making one set of images dominant, rendering the others as secondary images that cast additional light on the primary image set. The advantage of this approach is that it achieves clarity of presentation without sacrificing Bibilical imagery. The disadvantage is the necessarily problematic move of favoring one set over another, begging the question of justification: why this one and not the other? Also, one might be tempted to interpret the other sets through the lens of the primary set, and therefore run the risk of silencing the unique contribution of these other themes.

(4) Construct New Images. An even more bold option is to take inspiration from these many images and come up with new ones that work better in our context. Judicial and sacrificial language made sense to them. What images make sense to us? The obvious advantage to this approach is that it is more culturally relevant and encourages the creativity of contemporary witness to Jesus Christ. The danger is that the Biblical anchor will be lost, and we may end up talking about something other than the work of Christ.

Any thoughts?
My jury is still out. I would love to hear your thoughts on these options.
Are there any other options I am missing?
Did I describe these options adequately?
Would you lean toward one option over another? Why?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Did Jesus lose his omnipotence?

Someone I know recently asked me about a preacher she heard on the radio talking about Jesus "losing his omnipotence" when he was with us on earth. I hear this phrase enough that it requires analysis.

So, did Jesus lose his omnipotence?

Where does this phrase come from? The idea that something about the Son is suppressed during the Incarnation is referred to as the "kenosis" doctrine. Kenosis is a Greek term which means "emptying" and is found in Philippians 2:5-11. The point is that Christ, who was in the very form of God, empties himself by taking on the form of a servant.

But here is the tricky thing: the passage does not say of what he emptied himself. He just empties. No more clues. So this is one more case where the Scriptures make affirmations that raise questions for further development.

Enter theological thinking: of what did Christ empty himself?

One common answer is that the Son of God simply dumps his divine attributes during the incarnation. This makes for a straightforward story, but creates all kinds of problems. On the divine side, we might ask how exactly it is that the Son of God can relinquish divine perfections without ceasing to be God. If he simply dumps the very things that make him God, than the proclamation of Christ's divinity is rendered null. On the human side, we might ask how exactly it is that the man Jesus with his human words and actions can speak and act in the place of God (as the Gospels narrate) unless he also has a fully credentialed divine nature. So whatever kenosis means, it means something more subtle than simply dumping divine attributes.

A more complex answer with traditional weight behind it is that the kenotic humbling of the Son of God consists in the addition of human nature to his fully intact divine nature. The Philippians passage points toward this position by stating that Christ, while in the form of God, takes on the form of a servant. The language of taking implies addition, not subtraction. Proponents of this “adding” theory are inclined to point out the alternative way of speaking about the incarnation: assumptio carnis. Not only was God put-into-flesh (incarnation), but also God assumed-flesh-to-himself (assumptio carnis). God is omnipotent, yet adds to himself an impotent human nature. Is this still a humbling? Yes, because God in his glory does not need to add humanity to himself. But by grace he does.

Now I would align myself roughly with this second view of kenosis. However, I would not put it that way, or at least not only that way. Why? Because the appeal to addition alone might give the impression that we are trying to protect God's nature from the messiness of this world. Now Christians have had good reasons for so protecting God: we want to affirm the power of God, especially if he is to save us. But we need to be careful to not put God in a bind that he has shown himself not to be in. Whatever God's assumption of flesh means, it ought not to mean we go on thinking about God as usual and just add a human nature to it. Rather, the incarnation of God must tell us something about God's very nature.

So, what does the kenosis of the Son tells us about God?

At the very least, it should push us to reformulate our understanding of God's omnipotence. Our understanding of God's power is too abstract if he has to lose it to become human. But it is equally abstract if we simply add the doctrine of incarnation on top of an otherwise intact concept of God. It seems to me that the incarnation reveals a new definition of divine omnipotence: God is so powerful that he can even embrace weakness without ceasing to be powerful. Weakness is an aspect of divine power. The two are not mutually exclusive. As the Apostle says, "God's power is made perfect in weakness." Or, put more sharply, "God's power is God's weakness."

Any thoughts?
Any insights to offer regarding Philippians 2:5-11?
Is an appeal to the "assumption of flesh" a helpful alternative?
Does this method of inferring things about God's nature from the history of salvation work?