Wednesday, December 26, 2007

And His Name Shall Be Called ... Prince of Peace (Advent Reflections Part 4)

This week contains both the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Day itself. And so we come to the close this year's reflections on the messianic titles of Isaiah 9:6. We have already considered what it means for his name to be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, and Everlasting Father. Let us conclude with some thoughts on the last of these titles, Prince of Peace.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of the birth of a child who will be called "Prince of Peace." The church has long made use of this language to describe Jesus her Lord. And yet the birth of Christ is anything but peaceful. This tension should tell us something about the kind of Peace this Prince brings, which brings us to our first point.

(1) At Christmas, peace breaks through in the midst of strife. Despite the apparent peacefulness of many Christmas songs and scenes, the nativity story is a story full of strife. Mary and Joseph were caught in the middle of a shameful family situation. Traveling down to Bethlehem during her ninth month is hard enough, but they had to do it with the added weight of shame and fear. You add to this that the reason for their travels is a census for the purposes of taxation. Now for us, April 15th is no December 25th, but for them taxation was not merely a nuisance but the sign of foreign oppression. It had not been long since the Israelites led by Jacobus Maccabeus had violently rebelled against foreign rule (the occasion for the Hanukkah holiday) and it would not be long till they would rebel again. And strife not only precedes but also succeeds the nativity, as Herod decrees the slaughter of the innocents. So Christmas is a story full of strife. And yet, the birth of Christ is the birth of the Prince of Peace. Jesus, Lord at his birth, is already the prince of peace, the one who brings the peace of God. Christ's peace is a peace which invades, which breaks through in the midst of strife. It does not find an already peaceful scene. It brings peace into times and places that need peace most of all.

How can this be? How can peace break through in the midst of strife and still be genuine peace? To answer this, we must turn to our second point.

(2) The Peace of Christ is not defined by the cessation of conflict, but by reconciliation. This is why it can break through in the midst of strife. He is the Prince of Shalom, the Hebrew word translated "peace" in Isaiah 9:6. The meaning of Shalom cannot be reduced to the mere cessation of conflict. Shalom is not a temporary ceasefire. Rather, Shalom means a life of wholeness and abundance, were the nations are living and working together and God fulfills his promise to bless all the nations through Israel. Shalom thus has the character of reconciliation. Shalom is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who in his very coming brings reconciliation between God and humanity. Because it is defined by reconciliation, the peace of Christ can break through in the midst of strife. In fact, the announcement of the reality of reconciliation may itself incur greater strife, for people do not always want to be reconciled. Peace can be a rude awakening, as the shepherds can attest. Peace interrupts our seemingly peaceful lives and drives us out of ourselves to encounter God and neighbor.

What does this mean for us? How should we then live if the peace of Christ is defined by reconciliation? Answering this question will bring us to our last point.

(3) Genuine peace consists in relationships. Peace is not a feeling. It is not a state of being. It is not an escape, even an escape from the greatest conflict. Peace is the reconciliation of parties, and therefore the establishment of relationships. Since peace is so defined by reconciliation, it is by definition impossible in the absence of relationships. Beware of false peace which isolates itself from the active life of reconciliation. Beware of the apparent peace of the shepherds, who inhabit a peaceful pastoral scene, restfully tending their sheep at night. True peace disrupts this false shepherds' peace, waking them up and telling them to go. Of course, relationships for so many of us are the very source of strife in our lives. And so we are tempted to recoil and retreat from relationships in order find peace. But isolation is not true peace. This Christmas, let us not isolate ourselves. That will only bring false peace, a temporary ceasefire, a shepherd's peace. Rather, the peace of Christ is expressed in acts of reconciliation. Surely there are times for quiet aloneness, and reconciliation cannot happen overnight. But Christmas points us in the direction of relationships. May we be faithful not to isolate ourselves, and to reach out to those that are isolated, so that the peace of Christ may be seen and heard on earth.

At Christmas, peace breaks through in the midst of strife because the peace of Christ is defined by relationships and therefore genuine peace consists in relationships.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

And His Name Shall Be Called ... Everlasting Father (Advent Reflections Part 3)

I have been organizing my Advent reflections around Isaiah 9:6b. We have already said a little bit about what it means for Christ to bear the name "Wonderful Counselor" and "Mighty God." Let's turn our attention to the third title: "Everlasting Father."

I must admit that I have a hard time with this title. It's not that the Fatherhood language doesn't connect with me; it does. It's rather that "Father" does not work well as a title for Jesus. Although he may evince Fatherly qualities, the New Testament never refers to Jesus as Father. Rather, Jesus distinctly and consistently calls God Father, and his apostolic witnesses followed suit. When ones adds that the traditional trinitarian doctrine says the Son has everything the Father has except that the Son is not the Father, so that the only thing that distinguishes the persons is their constitutive relations, it seems all the more problematic to use "Father" as a name for Jesus. Because of this potential confusion, it may be good to avoid a 1-to-1 application of this messianic title.

Such avoidance does not mean, however, that we should avoid all talk fulfillment. For in Christ we have God as our Father. It is Christ who teaches us to prayer to God as Father. It is Christ who reconciles us to the Father. It is Christ who is not ashamed to call us brothers, so that in him we might have God as our Father. In Christ the Fatherhood of God is forever made manifest and secure.

Note that such a move is, formally speaking, not too far removed of the original meaning of Isaiah 9:6. This passage speaks both of a coming human king and God as king. There are some debates in OT scholarship over whether and how such oracles might be used in the celebration of God's kingship. But whatever the state of this debate, the basic contours of the royal theology of Israel are clear: the Davidic King is the Son of God and as such is the representative of God to the people. God's fatherly care of the people is made manifest and secure in the the King's leadership of the people. So as the Son of God, the King functions as Father for the people. It is in this sense that we speak of the coming messiah as the Everlasting Father. This royal office is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, in whom the Fatherhood of God is forever made manifest and secure.

In Christ the Fatherhood of God is forever made manifest and secure. It is this foreverness, expressed in the adjective "Everlasting," which must require the remainder of our attention. What does "Everlasting" add to the equation? Is not the Fatherhood of God good enough news? Actually, the Everlastingness of God's Fatherhood is what makes him unique. We do not merely think of a good father and extrapolate that notion to God in the nth degree. For God's Fatherhood is unique-in-kind. What makes God's Fatherhood so special? God is an Everlasting Father. The eternity of God conditions the paternity in such a way that he is a father like no other father.

What does it mean to say that in Christ we have God as our Everlasting Father?

On the one hand, in Christ God has always been our Father. Even before the coming of Christ, God was the Father of Israel. Even before calling Israel out of Egypt, God was the Father of all creatures. Even before creating all things, God was from all eternity the Father of the Son who would become incarnate in time for us. In Christ God has always been our Father. Therefore, he's not new at this. God does not have to learn how to be a father by trial and error. He knows what he is doing in his fatherly care for us. So we can be confident that, even when it seems like God is failing us, God knows what he's doing.

On the other hand, in Christ God will always be our Father. Even after Christ died, God vindicated his Sonship by raising him from the dead. Even after Christ ascended, God adopted us as children by the Spirit of the Son. Even after our biological and spiritual parents are gone, God remains our Father. Even after we are gone, God remains our Father. Even after the heavens and earth pass away, God will be for all eternity the Father of Jesus Christ, the firstborn from the dead among many siblings who too will be raised. In Christ, God will always be our Father. Therefore, we never grow out of his fatherhood. God's relationship to us is not conditioned by the anxieties that plague all human relationships. We never have to take over, for he is our Father forever. So we can be calm that, even when all other care fades, God's fatherly care remains.

In Christ we have God as our Everlasting Father. He has always been our Father and will always be our Father. So in him and him alone we can be confident and calm.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

And His Name Shall Be Called ... Mighty God (Advent Reflections Part 2)

Last week we began our Advent reflections with the first of Isaiah's titles: Wonderful Counselor. This week, let us turn our attention the second: Mighty God.

Unto us a child is born ... and his name shall be called ... mighty God. During Advent we remember waiting for the coming of the Messiah, and specifically about his coming as a child. What does it mean to call this child mighty God? What a mystery! Let's unpack this mystery a bit by means of a series of statements that progressively build on each other.

God became a child.

During Christmas we speak of God becoming human. We call this the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh. But this becoming is not only linked to Jesus' public ministry. It refers to his whole life. And a life has a beginning, a starting point. From the beginning of his life, this man is God. And so we say with boldness and wonder that God became a child. This is the central mystery of the Christian faith. If we want to know and love God, we must know and love him through an encounter with this child, whose name shall be called Mighty God.

The Mighty God became a child.

We not only speak of God becoming a child, but also of the mighty God becoming a child. We are talking about the very God who created the heavens and the earth. The God who providentially governs all things. The God led the people Israel out of Egypt. This is the mighty God. This mighty God does not remain only at a distance, perhaps leaving the world to its devices. He comes to us, experiences our world and engages us where we are. This thought is perhaps worrisome, because the mighty God is getting in our face. He is getting in our business. He won't leaving us alone. We must not forget the seriousness with which we must take the coming of the mighty God in the flesh. But we can also thankfully say that it is unto us a child is born. The mighty God is for us. It is good news that the mighty God has come near, for it means he will no leave us to our own devices. The mighty God who comes will use his might for our good. So, although we may shake in awe, we need not fear the birth of this child, whose name shall be called Mighty God.

The Mighty God became a weak child.

But perhaps the most amazing thing about the mighty God becoming a child is that this child is and remains a weak child. The mightiness of God does not overwhelm the weakness of this child. We may sing "no crying he makes," but we have no basis to think that this child was except from the weakness of human nature. In fact, we have every reason to think that he experienced the depths of human frailty and sorrow from the beginning. The passion of the Christ commences at Christmas. He emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and humbled himself. And yet saying that this child is weak is not a denial of God mightiness. Rather, in his weakness his strength shown. God is so mighty that he can become weak without ceasing to be mighty. In it through this weakness that God's mightiest acts take place. He who was mighty in himself became weak so that we who are weak may be made strong. This display of divine might in human weakness comforts us in our weakness. It also critiques us in our use and abuse of might. And it calls us to see his might in weakness.

During Advent we re-await the coming Messiah. In Christ, God became a child. In Christ, the mighty God became a child. In Christ, the mighty God became a weak child. Unto us the Christ-child is born, and he shalled be called "Mighty God."

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

And His Name Shall Be Called ... Wonderful Counselor (Advent Reflections Part 1)

During Advent, the church both remembers the waiting of Israel for the coming of the messiah and remembers her own waiting for the coming again of the messiah. Now how Israel and the church wait looks different. Israel waits for the one who is to come. The church waits for the coming again of the one who has already come. But who we wait for is the same. Despite the different form of our waiting, the content of our waiting is identical. Therefore, we can learn from Israel about the one whom we await. We can learn from them about him.

Learn from them about him. That's what I aim to do in the following four-week series of Advent Reflections. Specifically, I am going to reflect on the four messianic titles of Isaiah 9:6. His name shall be called (1) Wonderful Counselor, (2) Mighty God, (3) Prince of Peace, (4) Everlasting Father.

Now I will acknowledge up front that much of what I will say in the following reflections cannot be gleaned directly from this prophetic text. Much of the content of my reflections will draw on the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ (a.k.a., the New Testament). Isaiah 9:6 will for the most part serve as a way of organizing and orienting my thoughts.

However, I join the church in believing that the truest referent of all prophetic texts is Jesus Christ, even if there is not a perfect one-to-one correspondence between text and referent in matters of detail. In other words, I believe Isaiah really is talking about Jesus. Although it must be applied cautiously, this claim must be affirmed confidently.

Well, enough preliminaries. On to the first title.

Part 1 - Wonderful Counselor

First of all, it is worth noting that there should not be a comma between "wonderful" and "counselor." This disjunction nicely fits the cadence of Handel's Messiah. But such a division disrupts the parallelism of the titles in the original language, each of which consists of a noun and a modifier. So the first thing we must say about the one who was and is to come is that he is a counselor, and wonderful one at that.

So, what does it mean for Christ to be called Wonderful Counselor?

(1) He accomplishes the purposes of God. One's counselor is a party to one's counsels. A participant in one's plans, both in deliberation and execution. The messiah is God's counselor. We'll get to how he is our counselor in a moment. But in the first instance Christ is God's counselor. He is a party to the "counsels of God" (an archaic but telling phrase). He participates in the willing and enactment of God's plans. Although it is difficult to render in English, this notion is probably the closest to the original sense of the phrase. The revelation and execution of God's mysterious plans is celebrated in Ephesians 1:3-10. Although we don't want to turn the trinity into a committee, there is a sense in which the Father and Son make and fulfill plans, plans which glorify God and benefit us. His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, because he accomplishes the purposes of God.

(2) He guides us into truth and righteousness. But he is not only God's counselor; he is also our counselor. He is our counselor not in the sense of accomplishing our purposes, but rather as our guide. I'm thinking here of how Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as "counselor" (paracletos) in John 14 & 16. He says that the Spirit will guide us into truth and righteousness. Interestingly, the Spirit is introduced in John 14:16 as "another counselor" (allon paracleton). The Son is one counselor, the Spirit is another. So, the Christ is our counselor. Though their work must be differentiated, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit share in this guiding activity. His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, because he guides us in matters of truth and righteousness.

(3) He is our advocate before God. But the language of counselor not only connotes friendly guidance but also legal representation. This multi-valence of the Greek paracletos is also found in English. Lawyers are actually referred to as "counselors" in the context of a courtroom. So Christ not only counsels us in our daily knowing and living, but also stands beside us as our advocate before God the Father. He is our advocate. If we sin, we have an advocate before the father, Jesus Christ, the righteous one, who is the propitiation for our sins, and not only our sins but the sins of the whole world (John 2:1b-2). He stood in for us on the cross, he stands up for us now, and he will stand with us at the final judgment. His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, because he is our advocate before God.

Jesus Christ wonderfully accomplishes the purposes of God, wonderfully guides us into truth and righteousness, and wonderfully advocates for us before God. Jesus Christ so counsels wonderfully. This advent we remember waiting for and remember to wait for the coming one, whose name shall be called Wonderful Counselor.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Functional vs. Ontological Ecclesiology: Is that really the Question?

At a recent gathering of Wesleyan and Free Methodist theological educators, ecclesiological questions provided the common theme of the papers and discussion. During the course of the conversation, a conceptual distinction was introduced between functional and ontological ecclesiologies. The basic contrast is between understandings of the church which focus on her doing (function) and understandings of the church which focus on her being (ontology). Now, of course, no one would advocate reducing the church to either her doing or her being. But one can certainly detect tendencies in either direction among the many ecclesiological options available.

As you might have guessed, given the reductive connotation of the word "functional," this distinction often carries with it an agenda: namely, that we should moved from a "mere" functional ecclesiology to a "more robust" ontological ecclesiology. In Wesleyan circles, this prescription often trades on a descriptive narrative of Methodism, which supposedly lost its ontological grounding upon its break from the Anglican Communion. "Beware of treating the church as a mere means to some other end," is the watchword of a ontological ecclesiology.

But, this distinction could in fact be just as easily used to argue in the opposite direction. One could argue that the nature church should be defined by its purpose rather than the other way around. In Wesleyan circles, this prescription trades on the same narrative of Methodism told in a different light: the church was most alive when it was free to focus wholly on its mission without concern for ecclesial preservation. "Beware of an inward focus on the church," is the watchword of a functional ecclesiology.

Now this conversation could go on forever. There is no obvious resolution. The best arguments are usually based on reactions to the abuses of the other extreme. These kinds of arguments are ultimately unpersuasive, and perhaps even pernicious because they just keep the pendulum swinging without moving us forward.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the distinction in the end does not illumine very much. For instance, advocates of both functional and ontological ecclesiologies speak regularly of the mission of the church. In fact, the most extreme forms of each see themselves as representing a missional ecclesiology: the one in terms of mission as a divinely willed activity to which the church contributes in some way, the other in terms of mission as participation in the being of God and God's people. And yet despite these differences, both approaches can be and are used to validate the same old divisive ecclesial options (sacerdotal, evangelical, secularist). If such a basic concept as mission can be so easily shared by the two in such a way that the same old patterns are perpetuated, it is questionable whether the distinction really achieves all that much. You get a lot of idle talk about the church and its mission that in the end serves to justify one's agenda, whether it be liturgical renewal, evangelism programs, community service, etc.

In the face of these problems, I would like to suggest that the functional-ontological distinction itself is fundamentally flawed. The flaw is the presumed disjunction between being and act. Rather, the church's being is in her act. The church has no being prior to its active life as sent into the world as witnesses to the risen Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus it has no "being" which can be cultivated without reference to her "function." And yet she is not "merely functional" in the sense of a dispensable instrument used toward the accomplishment of an end. The active life of missionary witness is a life lived in fellowship with God, which is the end God has in mind for his people and the world. So in her act the church lives and moves and has her being. I think the disjunction between being and act should be dropped, and with it the notion that one must choose between functional and ontological ecclesiology.

So the next time someone asks me whether I have a functional or ontological ecclesiology, I am going to say that I reject the premise of the question (if I'm feeling feisty) or just answer yes to both and explain why (if I'm sensing the need to be more gracious).

Any thoughts?
  • Have you encountered this distinction before?
  • Do you find it helpful? How so?
  • Have you tended to lean one way or the other? Why?
  • Can we speak generically of an "ontological" view of anything without specifying what kind of "ontology" we are presupposing?
  • Is the disjunction of being and act a problem?
  • How does the uniting of being and act bear on the question of mission?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Ecclesiology and Soteriology

When thinking about the church in a genuinely theological fashion (a.k.a., doing ecclesiology), one must think of the connections between our understanding of the church and our understanding of other important doctrinal topics (or loci).

One particular connection that has been historically significant is that between soteriology and ecclesiology. This connection is brought into sharp relief by a favorite quote of mine. Some of my friends will have to forgive me this indulgence, for this is a quote to which I often refer but has not yet made its way onto drulogion. I offer it to all readers, whether it is new to you or not, as a point of discussion:

"The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over Augustine's doctrine of the Church" (B. B. Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, pp. 321-22).

There is much that could be said to unpack this quote as a historical thesis. For instance, one would need to address the tensions within Augustine developmentally, i.e., his sacerdotal ecclesiology was an early commitment which was only intensified during the Donatist controversy, whereas his predestinarian soteriology was a later development emerging out of his anti-Pelagian polemics. Or it could also be noted the sense in which the sacramental soteriology of the medieval period could be considered as the triumph of Augustine's doctrine of church over the his doctrine of grace, and not merely the two existing side-by-side. It would also need to be acknowledged that the Reformers were not merely applying Augustine's soteriology critically to other doctrines, but were in fact radicalizing his soteriology along a trajectory which made its critical function possible and necessary. Finally, the reason why such a radical Augustinianism requires a rejection of a sacerdotal ecclesiology must be explained (e.g., if salvation rests in God alone, then the church cannot be the dispenser of grace).

But all these historical points of exposition and discussion, interesting though they are in their own right, lead to the much more important systematic insight: the intimate connection between soteriology and ecclesiology. One's understanding of grace and one's understanding of the church necessarily impinge on one another. This connection took a certain form in the reformation period. But whatever one's commitments, the connection is unavoidable. Perhaps today's ecclesiological discussions (polity, missiology, worship, ordination, membership, etc.) need to attend to our soteriological assumptions. Who knows, this may illumine our differences and in the end light the path forward.

Any thoughts?
What do you think of this quote historically?
What do you think of it theologically?
How do your soteriological and ecclesiological commitments connect?
How should the logic of the connection run: from soteriology to ecclesiology, or vice versa?
What other ecclesiological connections ought to be made?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Sanctified from what? Sanctified for what?

I have been thinking about sanctification lately. As is my custom, I've been asking "grammatical" questions of our talk of sanctification.

First of all, if sanctification in its most basic sense means "to set apart" or "to separate," then sanctification must necessarily be "from" something. To be sanctified is to be set apart "from" x, y or z.

But once the preposition "from" is introduced, the question of what we are sanctified "for" must also be addressed. We are not only set apart "from" x, y or z, but also set apart "for" a, b or c.

What is of interest to me is how our understanding of that from which we are sanctified necessarily conditions our understanding of that for which we are sanctified.

For instance, if we are sanctified from ordinariness, then we are sanctified for usefulness. I am drawing here on the metaphor of ancient worship, whereby certain objects were "set apart" for use in sacred spaces. Something which is ordinary (e.g., goat), is set apart for a special use in worship (e.g., sacrifice). In a similar way, Christians are sanctified by the Spirit from their ordinariness to be used by God, in his service and for his glory. The risk in this language is to treat sanctification as some kind of priveledged status or sanctified persons as utterly cut off from the secular world. But the basic idea is a right one that has a place in an acccount of sanctification.

But we can and should go further. If we are sanctified from sin, then we are sanctified for righteousness. Of course, here we run into the issue of how to define sin. We can speak of both sin as nature and sin as acts. If we think of sin in terms of our sinful nature, then our sanctification means our being set apart for a righteous nature. Whether this means we are given a brand new nature or that the sinful aspects of our good nature are cleansed will depend on how we understand the effects of sin on our created human nature. If we think of sin in terms of our sinful acts, then our sanctification means our being set apart for righteous acts. Whether this means obedience to law or having right intentions will depend on how we understand what makes an act sinful. Of course, talk of nature and actions cannot be wholly separated. But it can be seen from the above how the understanding of that from which we are sanctified necessarily conditions our understanding of that for which we are sanctified.

Any thoughts?
Do you agree that the "from" of sanctification conditions the "for" of sanctification?
What are some other things from which we are sanctified?
What are some other things for which we are sanctified?
Is there a tendency to separate the "from" and the "for" of sanctification?
Why is this?
What happens when we do this?
Can you think of any "froms" in our talk of sanctification that need to be filled out by a "for"? Any "fors" that need to be connected with a "from"?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Are the Solas of the Reformation Coherent?

You may have heard it said that the solas of the Reformation (solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide) are incoherent. I know I have. How can we be justified only in Christ, only by grace, and only by faith? Can't there only be one "only" at a time? Don't multiple solas cancel each other out?

There may be some important objections to the Reformation doctrine of justification, but this is not one of them. Why? Because this criticism betrays a fundamental misunderstanding concerning the meaning of the Reformation solas. The mistake is taking the adjective "only" in an absolute sense. But the intent of the solas is to rule out very specific answers to very specific questions.

This misunderstanding may arise from the solas functioning as slogans outside the polemical context from which they emerged. In order to avoid such misunderstanding, it may be necessary to re-embed the solas within this polemical context so one can see the relative sense in which "only" is used in each case. This can be done by adding to each of the solas an absque ("apart from") clause.

Christ alone ... apart from law. The mediator of justification before God is Jesus Christ. By fulfilling the law, the law does not function for us as the mediator of righteousness. Rather, we are justified by the alien righteousness of Christ that is imputed to us. God's law is not set aside, however, but fulfilled by Christ. Nor is the ongoing function of the law in the Christian life necessarily ruled out. But with specific regard to our justification, it is in Christ alone apart from the law that we are justified.

Grace alone ... apart from merit. The means by which justification is given is God's own gracious gift of mercy. Justification is not merited or earned from God. It is not deserved. We have no claim to make on God and what he owes us. This does not mean the language of merit or reward need be expunged entirely from our thinking. For instance, Christ may in some sense be said to merit righteousness for us. And we may find ways of speaking of a "reward in heaven" as the Bible does. But with specific regard to justification, it is by grace alone apart from any merit of our own that we are justified.

Faith alone ... apart from works. The instrument through which justification is received is human faith or trust in God's promises. Justification is not accrued through human working. It is received through faith, which is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit who comes to the justified person. Faith bears the fruit of works of love, so they are not ruled out entirely. Works have their place. But with specific regard to justification, it is through faith alone apart from works that we are justified.

"Christ alone," "grace alone," and "faith alone" do not rule each other out. Rather, each rules out a specific aspect of an alternative soteriology. Understood within their polemical context, the solas can be take in their highly specific and relative sense. Therefore, to hold on to the solas does not entail self-contradiction, as some have claimed. Perhaps there are successful criticisms of the Reformation doctrine of justification, but its supposed incoherence is not one of them.

Any thoughts?
Have you heard this criticism before? How did you respond?
Does this re-embedding of the solas in their context illuminate the matter?
Am I correct in attributing a relative rather than absolute sense to the solas?
What are some more significant criticisms of the Reformation doctrine of justification?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fuzzy on the Atonement ...

I often receive questions from students and ministers about the atonement. Here's an edited version of one such email:

"I’m still fuzzy on atonement... [especially concerning] how atonement should be communicated to unbelievers... [I recently heard a preacher] go over substitutionary atonement as what we should be sharing with people to get them saved. Then, after his explanation of that, they had folks from [the church] parade up with signs that they would flip over (eg. Side A-sinner/Side B-saved; side a-broken, side b-whole; side a-living for myself, side b-living for God; side a-cancer, side b-healed.) It was really moving. I know that atonement is at least substitutionary in that Jesus does something for us that we can’t do ourselves. [This preacher] was more particularly talking about Jesus taking the punishment from God that we deserved—that God is able to forgive us because of Jesus taking the fall for us on the cross. As I watched, though, I had a hard time seeing the connect between God’s ability to forgive us because of Jesus’ taking our penalty and some of the life changes that were on the cards. And I wonder why God can’t forgive because of his mercy and not need someone to take the penalty... Ok, John. Tell me what to believe ;-)."

Here's how I responded:

Yeah, its kind of inherently fuzzy, so don't feel bad about that. Although I can't tell you what to believe, I can share some thoughts that may be helpful.

The first is to make a distinction between substitution and penal substitution.

Substitution is the genus: the notion that Jesus takes on something of ours and gives us something of his. The fathers called this the "wondrous exchange," and it permeates the pages of the New Testament. Any account of reconciliation that undermines this pattern is inadequate.

Penal substitution is a species of substitutionary thinking, whereby the penal (forensic/judicial) metaphor is the dominant motif for collecting, ordering, and presenting the substitutionary pattern of exchange. Satisfaction (honor) and Sacrificial (blood, covenant) are additional species of substitutionary thinking, each of which may or may not be easily compatible with the penal motif. All of these motifs appear in scripture, and it is a matter of reasoned judgment of how to employ them. See the introduction to my paper "The Priest Sacrificed in Our Place" for some reflections on relating these species of substitutionary thinking.

The practical pay-off of this distinction is that while you search for more adequate, relevant, and/or illuminating motifs to describe the atonement, be careful to keep the logic of substitution in the background and be open to the breadth of metaphorical explanation it permits. If the judicial metaphor doesn't do it for you, that doesn't mean you should drop substitutionary thinking altogether. Regarding the image of the people with the posters, you can see how that expresses a kind of substitution, provided you believe these changes were wrought by Christ and he in some sense bore the negative side (and bore it away!). The logic of substitution is not restricted to what happened "there and then"; it also characterizes what happens "here and now" on the basis of what happened there and then. In more technical terms, substitutionary thinking provides an arc of continuity between the atonement and justification. Both are substitutionary exchanges, one achieved by Christ in his life, death and resurrection, the other worked out in us by the Spirit of Christ in our particular life-histories.

As for the matter of whether God "needs" the cross to forgive, there is much speculation on the matter, but I am inclined to think in terms of what God has done and infer his character from that, rather than than the other way around. In other words, God became man to die and rise for us, so apparently God can do such things. The cross is the manner and mode of establishing his covenant, which in a principled, speculative sense he doesn't "need" to do, but he did do it, so it must be the way. I trust God's judgment on this account. This is probably not a satisfying answer, but I suspect that going down the speculative road of what God must do or what other options he had will be even less satisfying (we have no information on this; we only known what God has done and must reason from there). The common presentation of the atonement as some kind of "bind" or "problem" in which God is caught and solves with the incarnation and cross is misleading at best, and perhaps has pernicious results. I prefer to just narrate what God has done for us and call people to a life of joyfully obedient witness to such a Lord.

Any thoughts?
Are these distinctions and implications helpful?
Do they make the atonement more or less fuzzy?
What additional insights have helped you speak intelligibly of the atonement?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Bearing With One Another (Col 3:13)

Someone recently asked me about the meaning of the injunction in Col 3:13 to "bear with one another." As this instruction is so seldom followed and yet is so easily abused, it requires some careful reflection. Here's the beginnings of my thoughts on the matter.

(1) Col 3:13 (bearing-with-each-other) can be differentiated from Gal 6 (bearing-one-anothers-burdens).

The former concerns bearing persons; the latter concerns bearing things. To bear another's burden is to help them carry it. This plays out it prayer, service, etc. To bear another person is to have forbearance with regard to them and their way of being in the world, to have compassion on the person even when their actions and attitudes are wrong. I bear a person who is annoying, troublesome, needy, even disobedient, just as God bears me. We are called to bear both persons and things, but the two can be differentiated and we should understand the difference in order to make sure we do the word rightly.

(2) Forbearence should be understood within the context of forgiveness.

Notice that all the other instructions in this verse deal with forgiveness: "Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you." So forbearence does not mean ignoring or blowing off people's wrongdoing, but forgiving them. Forgiveness implies wrongdoing. Therefore, forbearence never means making excuses for people. The Lord did not make excuses for us; he judged us as sinners while taking that judgement upon himself. To forgive as the Lord forgave, then, is not just a word or a feeling, but is a practice, a way of treating people, dealing wisely with the consequences of sin, giving others space and time to be convicted, to repent, to grow, etc.

(3) We are called to bear one another together.

The verb in this verse is a plural imperative: "ya'll should bear one another." Paul is addressing the community as a group and instructing them as a group to bear one another as a group activity. Therefore, this instruction should not be performed by one alone. This is not just saints bearing sinners, or wives bearing husbands, or me bearing everyone else. Such a one-way forbearance can become blasphemous as the individual takes on a messianic role of bearing others. The church, not the Christian alone, is the Body of Christ. So, as the community of Christ, we bear with each other. Unidirectional bearing should be disciplined by the community. One who is forebearing another without any mutual forbearance has just cause to call that other person to account (along the lines of Matt 18). The goal is to bear one another together.


All this implies that biblical forbearance is not just being a dormat. We needn't hide our own grievences in order to forgive others; in fact, doing so just hides them from the light of truth and lets them fester, turning into grudges. Bearing with one another is an active practice of the Christian life, even as it includes a passive aspect.

Any thoughts?
Do these points clarify or obscure the meaning of this text?
What additional thoughts would you add toward understanding and living out this injunction?
Can you think of additional misunderstandings and abuses surrounding the application of this text?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What's concerns drove ancient christological controversies?

We are reading about classical Christology this week in the course I'm TA'ing for this Fall. In addition to revisitng the views and arguments, I've also been asking what concerns were driving these debates? What fueled them? What made the debate a live issue and not just an academic reflection? There are at least three that come to mind.

(1) A hermeneutical concern propelled the debate. Throughout the extant documents, there is much discussion concerning the figure of Christ in Scripture. Apollinaris repeatedly argues for the unity of Christ on the basis of his singularity as a character in the Bible. Leo the Great distinguishes between the acts of Christ that issue from his divinity and those befitting his humanity. Such hermeneutical concerns make sense, since the identity of Jesus Christ is encountered in texts that require interpretation.

(2) A devotional concern fueld the debate. This is especially evident during the Nestorian controversy. Not only did Marian piety occasion the debate when he was asked the phrase "God-bearer" in reference to Mary, but the theological basis of the worship of Christ played an important role in Cyril's argumentation. If Christ is divided into two persons, one divine and the other human, then we are idolaters when worshipping him in his humanity. Such a devotional concern makes sense, since the identity of Jesus Christ as God incarnate raises questions about whether and in what sense he can be worshipped. So Christian devotion to Christ necessarily requires Christological clarification.

(3) A soteriological concern drove the debate. This was the dominant concern throughout its many stages. Gregory's famous "what is not assumed is not healed" formula reveals this concern, as does Cyril's argument that Christ can only overcome death if the incarnate Logos himself impassibly suffers. Christological reflection is not independent speculation into the ontological constitution of Jesus Christ, but a necessary inquiry into the conditions for the possibility of Christian redemption.

Any thought?
What other concerns drove the debate?
Are these concerns viable?
Can Christological reflection proceed without sharing these concerns?
If so, how does that change the conversation?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Purpose of Knowledge

I just finished my last qualifying exam (click here to read it at my writing page) in time to begin a new semester at PTS. With a new semester starts I often get in the mood to ask about the purpose of study. Why grow in knowledge? What is its purpose? I have a lot of pat answers, but few satisfy me.

Then I came across this little verse near the beginning of Paul's letter to the Philippians:
"And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God." (Philippians 1:9-11)

According to Paul, the purpose of knowledge is discernment. Knowledge is not an end in itself. There is no direct line between knowledge and the glory of God, though we often act like there is. Rather, we glorify God by bearing the fruit of righteousness, a.k.a., living holy lives. But living a holy life includes making good and right choices. And in order to make good and right choices, one needs discernment: the skill of making complex judgments. We store up knowledge and deep insight in order to have maximal resources at our disposal when choices are thrust upon us.

What does this look like? Well, it at least implies that study is not necessarily immediately applicable. Perhaps a story or a concept or a model will not produce a virtue or a program or a sermon. However, if one grows in knowledge she will have more to draw on when a touch choice is put before. At a bed side, in a board room, or on a platform, one may be pressed to make a decision without the time to read and reflect. It is for such times that knowledge has been stored up so that we may be able to discern.

Any thoughts?
Do you see the connection between knowledge and discernment?
Would you think through this connection differently?
How has your pursuit of knowledge increased your discernment?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Does the Structure Matter in Theology?

I just took a qualifying exam in systematic theology yesterday. You can click here to read the whole thing posted at The Writing of John Drury. In my first essay, I try to show why structure matters in theology by drawing on the work of Schleiermacher and Barth. I've been thinking about some objections one my raise to caring about structure. I hear these sorts of objections regularly. I thought it would be worth replying to a few of them here at drulogion, since I often bring up issues concerning the order of presentation in theology.

One could argue that consideration of structure is merely aesthetic. Now there is nothing wrong with aesthetics, but if structure is merely aesthetic then it would not matter materially. This sort of criticism could be especially leveled against Schleiermacher, for he makes explicit reference to aesthetic concerns in his Letters to Dr. Lucke on the Glaubenslehre. However, the impression that any ordering would result in the same material exposition is a false one. As we have seen in the case of Schleiermacher, the differences in the doctrine of God between Part I and Part II indicate that structure has material consequences. Since structural decisions set certain limits on what can and cannot be said, then such conditions are more than merely aesthetic; they are materially significant.

One could also argue that structural decisions are ultimately arbitrary. What really matters is one's material exposition of doctrine, and not how such expositions are organized. If organization still manages to condition the material, perhaps structure could be viewed as pernicious and systematic presentations of doctrine should be abandoned. Barth raised this very issue with reference to the motto methodus est arbitraria. What he means by this statement is not that one is free to organize one's thoughts according one's fancy, but rather that material doctrinal decisions are ultimately more important than the formal shape of dogmatics. This qualification, however, does not undermine the claim that structure matters. Rather, the primacy of one's material commitments should guide one's formal structure so that other material commitments are made possible by it rather than obstructed or obscured.

Finally, one could argue that a focus on structure ignores context. All this talk of systematic structure betrays an "ivory tower" approach to theology that is detached from the ecclesial and sociopolitical realities of one's time and place. Now it is certainly true that a sole consideration of structure might lead one to ignore context. However, such a disconnect between context and structural concerns is not necessary. First of all, one could attend to contextual factors without incorporating them structurally. This may be particularly advisable if one's work is spread over many years in which context inevitably changes. Secondly, one could find structural ways of incorporating context. Tillich's method of correlation would be one obvious instance of such an incorporation. Finally, there may in fact be contextual factors that give rise to structural decisions. Schleiermacher's architectonic draws heavily on his understanding of religious experience under the conditions of modernity. So, the theological significance of context does not undermine the fact that structure matters.

Any thoughts?
Does structure matter?
Are these adequate replies to the objections raised?
What other objections could be raised against the concern for structure?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Adventures in Ecumenism (IV): from unity-for-mission to unity-as-mission

During a break-out session at a recent ecumenical gathering, the group leader asked each of us to share how we became interested and involved in ecumenical dialogue. One rather astute participant shared that the purpose of church unity is to advance the church's mission. The disunity of the churches is for many a stumbling block to Christian faith. The move to greater visible unity among Christians can be seen as the removal of this barrier. So unity is for the sake of mission.

There is a long historical precedent behind this perspective. The contemporary ecumenical movement has its roots in the missionary experience. Although it is on the right track in its effort to unite ecumenism and evangelism, this unity-for-mission perspective does not go far enough. Note that I am not criticizing the adequacy of this perspective as an initial personal motivation for engaging in ecumenical dialogue. Rather, I am asking whether the relationship between intra-Christian unity and extra-Christian mission this perspective proffers is adequate.

So, what's wrong with the unity-for-mission formula? The unity-for-mission formula places an interval between ecclesial existence and missionary enterprise. The formula instructs us to "get our own house in order" first, then we can turn to our public mission in the world. This attitude assumes that mission is something the churches do after or beyond being the church. Such an interval is inappropriate because the church is missionary by her very nature. The church's being is in her act of mission. The interval does not recognize this and so leads to negative implications for both unity and mission. On the one hand, unity becomes instrumental to some other action, rather than a part of that action. Such an instrumental approach to ecumenical dialogue easily leads to abandoning the task when it does not bear immediate fruit. On the other hand, mission becomes propaganda, since the convert is being colonized into an already existing church culture, rather than being called to share in the church's missionary existence.

So, if the unity-for-mission formula is inadequate, what is the alternative? How can we properly relate unity and mission? The alternative formula I would suggest is unity-as-mission. This is not meant as a reduction of the church's missionary act to her internal unification. Rather, the process of unity itself is seen as a form of the church's missionary existence. The church is missionary by her very nature, which means concretely that she participates in God's reconciliation of the world to himself, announcing the message of reconciliation in Christ and practicing the ministry of reconciliation (cf. II Cor. 5:18-19). This missionary existence includes the reconciliation of humans to each other, both within the church and outside of it. Acts of Christian unity are parables of God's reconciling work and as such participate in God's mission. Therefore, movements toward Christian unity not only instrumentally serve mission but also inherently participate in mission.

Any thoughts?
How do you understand the relationship between unity and mission?
Whatever its relation to unity, is mission a good motivation for ecumenical dialogue?
Are my criticisms of the unity-for-mission formula warranted?
Is the unity-as-mission formula an adequate alternative?
What other alternatives might better express the relationship between unity and mission?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Review of R. Dale Dawson's The Resurrection in Karl Barth

The Resurrection in Karl Barth. By Robert Dale Dawson. Hampshire: Ahsgate, 2007, 246 pages. Reviewed for Koinonia Journal.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is of central importance to Barth’s theology. It is therefore striking that Dawson’s is the first book-length study in English to focus solely on the resurrection in Karl Barth. Dawson takes the first step toward addressing this lacuna by providing a series of close readings of key texts in Barth. Through the course of this exposition, Dawson advances the thesis that Barth consistently understood the resurrection as the movement of Jesus Christ to others. Dawson traces this theme through five major discussions of the resurrection spread over Barth’s career.

Before delving into these expositions, Dawson reviews the literature concerning the resurrection in Karl Barth. He correctly argues that its systematic significance is seldom acknowledged, let alone understood. He organizes previous accounts of Barth into three categories: the historical-hermeneutical, the theological, and the developmental. The first category is represented by Peter Carnley and Richard R. Niebuhr, who mistake Barth for a historical skeptic because they are guided by themes foreign to Barth’s own thought. The question of the historicity of the resurrection must be understood within the larger theological significance of the resurrection as the movement of Jesus Christ to others. As such, it is special kind of history, though certainly not a-historical as many of Barth’s critics suggest. The second category includes many of the major interpreters of Barth (Berkouwer, Balthasar, Torrance, Jungel). Each falls short in expounding Barth’s doctrine of resurrection by either over-emphasizing some other aspect or failing to develop their insights. The third category focuses on the developmental work of Bruce McCormack. Dawson suggests that McCormack’s four-phase developmental scheme must be refined in light of what Barth says concerning the resurrection at different points in his career. For instance, Barth’s early eschatological time-eternity dialectic is not so much replaced by the Christological God-humanity dialectic as it is transposed into the soteriological Christ-others dialectic. Although it is unlikely that these sorts of developmental arguments can be sustained by the mere exposition of selected texts, Dawson at least underscores the genetic-historical significance of Barth’s resurrection discourse.

In order to establish Barth’s consistency, Dawson begins with Barth’s 1924 exegetical study of I Corinthians, The Resurrection of the Dead. He argues that the work cannot be pressed into received eschatological categories but must rather be understood as Barth’s “discovery” of the centrality of the resurrection in Paul’s theological method. Dawson expounds the centrality of the resurrection in terms of its primordial function, its revelational character, and its realistic status. Although there are some hints here of the theme of movement, it is far from dominant, calling into question the place of this chapter in Dawson’s developmental argument. But, as a stand-alone exposition of Barth’s text, it is accurate and illuminating and therefore contributes to an understanding of the resurrection in Karl Barth.

Dawson turns next to a brief study of Church Dogmatics III/2, §47.1, “Jesus, Lord of Time.” Here the theme of movement emerges clearly in terms of the contemporaneity of Jesus Christ achieved in his resurrection. Dawson’s focus on the theme of Christ’s forward movement to others leads him to overlook Barth’s fascinating discussion of Jesus’ pre-existence (CD III/2, pp. 474-85). Perhaps this chapter could be read as a background study to the main body of the book dealing with CD IV. Yet Dawson explicitly places it within his larger developmental argument as an examination of “Barth’s most important mid-career depiction of the resurrection” (p. 81). He refers to this material “the first extended treatment of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Church Dogmatics” (p. 65). This is a misleading statement, given the significance of resurrection discourse throughout CD I/2. The twenty-year leap from The Resurrection of the Dead (1924) to Church Dogmatics III/2 (1948) renders suspect Dawson’s developmental claims. Of course, Dawson’s thesis cannot be reduced to its developmental aspect. However, the extent to which his developmental argument serves to tie together his series of studies endangers the coherence of the book as a whole.

Dawson is at his best when discussing the transition sections of Church Dogmatics IV, the exposition of which makes up over half of the book. Here is where the theme of movement comes to fruition. Within the doctrine of reconciliation, the resurrection functions as the movement of Jesus Christ to others, the transition from the Christological to the anthropological sphere. Although reconciliation between God and humanity is fully achieved and actual by means of the life-history of Jesus Christ culminating in his death, the resurrection opens up this inclusive reality by revealing it to other human beings. This revelatory movement calls forth a new human way of living in correspondence to the true humanity of Christ. After summarizing these themes in chapter four, Dawson reiterates and unpacks them through independent close readings of the three transition sections: “The Verdict of the Father” (CD IV/1, §59.3), “The Direction of the Son” (CD IV/2, §64.4), and “The Promise of the Spirit” (CD IV/3.1, §69.4). In so doing, Dawson highlights the architectonic significance the transition sections in CD IV, the importance of which cannot be overestimated. His exposition would have been made even stronger by greater attention to the role of transitional language (verdict, direction, promise) as organizing motifs in Barth’s survey of the doctrine of reconciliation (§58). Dawson also speaks of the problem of faith and history as a “pseudo-problem,” by which he means that the problem has already been solved by Christ, but this gives the false impression that Barth was unconcerned by the issue. Here Dawson’s analysis would be enriched by placing Barth in his historical context, both in terms of his liberal forebears and his ongoing debate with Bultmann.

In a final chapter, Dawson ties together some critical comments scattered throughout the foregoing exposition. He argues that Barth should have made a more consistent distinction between Auferweckung and Auferstehung in order to indicate in what senses the resurrection does and does not “add” something to the crucifixion. The Auferstehung (self-revealing presence) of Christ is primarily noetic and therefore does not “add” to Christ’s finished work. The Auferweckung (awakening from the dead) of Christ is the ontic work of God and therefore completes the passion of Christ. Whether or not driving a wedge between these two terms ultimately helps or hinders the main theme of movement, this line of criticism does raise important questions about the complex interrelationship between death and resurrection in Barth’s thought.

Less fruitful is Dawson’s attempt to develop a trinitarian theology of resurrection. With reference to the Father’s role in the resurrection, Dawson is both too radical and not radical enough. He argues that the “resurrection of the Son of God is nothing other than God’s reassertion of his own eternal trinitarian being.” (p. 219). He is too radical in that he reduces resurrection to “nothing other” than this divine self-referential action. He is not radical enough in that he explicates this divine self-referential action in terms of mere self-affirmation. Perhaps the notion of God corresponding to Godself would help sort out these difficulties. With reference to the Spirit’s role in the resurrection, Dawson criticizes Barth for not giving an independent agency to the Spirit. This sort of criticism signals a clear break from Barth’s own trinitarianism. Barth never wavers in his commitment to God’s singular subjectivity in the midst of God’s triune self-differentiation. God is God in three modes of being, not three independent agents. Does the distinct role of the Spirit in the Father’s raising of the Son require a more thorough development than Barth provides? Yes. Does such a development require one to abandon Barth’s most basic insights into God’s triunity? Not necessarily. Perhaps one might come to such a conclusion, but only after a serious attempt to understand what talk of the Spirit’s role in the resurrection would look like in terms of Barth’s own trinitarianism. Here Dawson has identified a very interesting problem, even as he takes the wrong road in trying to solve it.

Detailed exposition of Barth’s texts is always valuable, even when the larger developmental and constructive arguments they serve are less than compelling. Dawson performs a great service to Barth studies simply by exposing the sheer quantity of resurrection discourse in Barth. Identifying the movement motif as the key to Barth’s mature theology of the resurrection is also a significant contribution. Only Barth specialists, on account of the cost of the book as well as its workmanlike style, will likely appreciate Dawson’s contribution. Such limitations in audience are to be expected in light of its genesis as a dissertation. With these limits, this book is a major investigation into the significance of the resurrection for Karl Barth and is therefore a must-read for those who wish to converse with Barth in the ongoing task of theology today.

Any thoughts?
What do you think is the best way to elucidate the theological significance of Christ's resurrection?
Is this a helpful review?
What impression of this book would your get by reading this review?
Any editorial or material comments?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Review of Matt Jenson's "The Gravity of Sin"

The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on homo incurvatus in se. By Matt Jenson. London: T & T Clark, 2006, 202 pages. Reviewed for Koinonia Journal.

Much ink has been spilled in recent years of the importance of relationality for theological anthropology. Unfortunately, this trend has too often spoken of humanity in abstraction from the doctrine of sin. Matt Jenson's new study is a crucial step towards filling this gap in contemporary theology. In this revision of his St. Andrews doctoral thesis, Jenson traces the use of the metaphor of humanity curved in on itself (homo incurvatus in se). His thesis is that this metaphor provides 'the best paradigm for understanding sin relationally' (p. 4). What makes this image the best is its descriptive breadth: various sins can be understood as different manifestations of the gravitational pull away from humanity's constituitive relationships. But this descriptive breadth does not come automatically with the emergence of the metaphor of incurvature. Therefore, Jenson traces the development of this metaphor from its beginnings in Augustine (ch. 1), through its radicalization by Luther (ch. 2), to its broadening by Barth (ch. 4) in conversation with its feminist critics (ch. 3).

Jenson draws on a close reading of Book XIV of the City of God to display Augustine's relational account of sin. Since the goodness of humanity rests in its participatory relationship to God, sin must be understood as a privation of this relationship. Driven by prideful orientation of the will towards oneself, humanity "falls" or "turns" in on itself. This disruption of the proper order of loves (love God and love all things in God) leads to falsehood, pride, and isolation. The remedy for sin is reverent humility before God, brought about by participation in the humility of Christ. Jenson registers a concern that Augustine's profoundly relational account of humanity and sin seems to contradict the inward turn of the second half of On the Trinity. One wonders whether this dissonance could be accounted for developmentally, perhaps as an instance of Augustine's consistent development toward a more pessemistic anthropology. Nevertheless, this ambiguity in Augustine is fruitful for Jenson's narrative, as it paves the way for Luther's radicalization of the metaphor of incurvature.

Based on a study of his early lectures on Romans, Jenson shows how Luther deploys the language of homo incurvatus in se more consistent and thoroughgoing manner than Augustine. Luther's understanding of the Christian as simul iustus et peccator means that sinful incurvature persists throughout the Christian life. Original sin is understood qualitatively as affecting the whole person. The sinner has a propensity toward evil beyond mere privation of the good. One's whole being is inclined in the wrong direction. Such a total understanding of sin requires any equally total understanding of salvation wherein humanity is killed and resurrected. Repentance means turning wholly outside of oneself and therefore away from natural reason, enjoyment (rather than use) of the world, and especially a religious concern with one's virtue. This radicalization of the incurvatus to include the homo religiosus is Luther's most important contribution, according to Jenson. It this kind of move that shows the fecundity of the metaphor. It also reveals the risks of an approach to sin that undermines human flourishing. If all self-seeking is sin, then those who are oppressed are barred from overcoming their oppression. Jenson explores this criticism of the incurvatus in the following chapter.

Jenson dedicates chapter three to a summary of and response to Daphne Hampson's feminist critique of Luther's doctrine of sin. Hampson argues that sin understood as prideful incurvature is not true to women's experience of self-loss. It is therefore an incomplete account of sin. Furthermore, such an account is harmful because it discourages women from seeking the automony they need. Hampson's alternative is to promote a spirituality of "coming to oneself" that emphasizes anthropological continuity. Jenson identifies three problems with Hampson's critique: (1) a strictly gendered account of sin is deterministic, narrow, and ideological, (2) the location of continuity in autonomous persons undermines the seriousness of sin, and (3) the metaphor of incurvature includes but is not reducible to the sin of pride. This last point sets up Barth to enter the story as the theologian who broadens the range of the metaphor of incurvature and thereby anticipates feminist concerns.

Jenson's inclusion of a generous engagement with feminist criticism widens the appeal of his constructive proposal. However, the tension in Jenson's narrative might have been heightened by focusing more on the feminist unmasking of the reduction of sin to pride and less on the particular inadequacies Hampson's alternative. Perhaps he could have selected a less radically post-Christian feminist as a dialogue partner. This would have made Barth's triumph a little less easy and therefore all the more laudable.

In his final chapter on Barth's doctrine of sin, Jenson demonstrates how the metaphor of incurvature can be broadened to include pride and self-loss, therefore vindicating its adequacy as a paradigm for sin. Jenson carefully describes Barth's Christological method for understanding humanity and sin, relying heavily on Church Dogmatics III/2. He then turns to a close reading of the three parallel sections on sin in CD IV/1-3. After summarizing Barth's treatment of pride and falsehood, Jenson gives extended attention to the section on sin as sloth. In keeping with the dialectic of Jesus Christ as servant and Lord, Barth understands slothful self-loss as the dialectic pair of prideful self-seeking, both of which are variations of humanity's incurved resistance to Jesus Christ. This thorough exposition of Barth is offered as evidence that the metaphor of incurvature, if applied carefully, has sufficient explanatory power as a broad paradigm for sin.

Jenson's exposition of Barth is insightful and detailed despite its brevity. He is fair to Barth even as he fits Barth into his own constructive project. On one point, however, his constructive appropriation of Barth creates a blind spot. Jenson chooses to discuss the three aspects of sin out of order. This is understandable in light of his constructive intentions, for Barth's inclusion of sloth alongside pride is Jenson's main point. But it is also unfortunate, for in this case his proposal would have been advanced by a more relentless attention to structural details. For Barth, falsehood as the sinful resistance to Jesus Christ as the true witness leads naturally to the kind of missional ecclesiology that Jenson recommends in his conclusion. Aside from this missed opportunity, Jenson's exposition of Barth is excellent.

As for the book as a whole, Jenson succeeds masterfully at recommending the metaphor of homo incurvatus in se as a sufficient paradigm for sin. In so doing, he has taken a major step forward toward the development of a relational hamartology. Along this constructive path he also offers a rich account of three major figures in the history of theology. Conspicuously absent are any medieval voices that speak of sin as incurvature (e.g., Anselm's Proslogion), though it must be acknowledged that Jenson does not pretend to be offering a full-blown reception history of the motif. Along with many constructive comparisons of figures, developmental concerns get shortchanged. For instance, is it really appropriate to compare the early Luther with the mature Augustine and Barth? Also, the singular focus on one metaphor leaves some interesting themes under-developed. For instance, Jenson repeatedly notes the ironies inherent in human sinfulness, but he does not tie these insights together.

Such problems are dwarfed in comparison to the riches of this book. With crisp prose, Jenson tells a good story and argues a convincing point. The footnotes initiate the reader into a larger conversation. The lack of an index is a disappointment, given that this is the kind of book to be referenced repeatedly. The Gravity of Sin would make an ideal textbook for seminary and upper-level college courses. It is a much-needed book for shaping current developments in theological anthropology, precisely because it takes sin so seriously.

Any thoughts?
What do you think of the metaphor of incurvatus as a paradigm for sin?
Is this a helpful review?
What impression of this book would your get by reading this review?
Any editorial or material comments?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Adventures in Ecumenism (III): Gift-giving vs. Cherry-picking

It has become a commonplace to describe ecumenical encounter as a gift-exchange. We come to the table and share what unique gift each tradition has to offer the church universal. Cardinal Dulles made much of this metaphor in his lecture. Some people find that they learn more about the unique gift of their own tradition through the very process of this exchange.

A number of younger ecumenists, many of whom were present at the Oberlin conference a few weeks ago, experience ecumenism differently. For many of them, ecumenical dialogue is already going on in their own heads. When asked what tradition they represent, many younger ecumenists answer with a hodgepodge identity along these lines: "Well, I grew up Methodist, became a fundamentalist Baptist, then went to a liberal Presbyterian seminary, and now I am a catechumen in the Russian Orthodox Church." Even those who have a more consistent ecclesial identity often draw from a wide range of theological resources, signaled by strange monikers like "high-church Mennonite" or "Holiness Barthian." Diversity is no longer just about living with others, but living with ourselves.

Although this internal diversity may make us more open to dialogue, it may not in fact make us better dialogue-partners. Why? Because we are so prone to cherry-picking the ideas and practices we like from other traditions that we are often blinded to the different logic undergirding them. To cite just one example, some low-church protestants make use of Roman Catholic liturgical practices while rejecting or even ignoring the account of authority that underlies them. Now such cherry-picking may be entirely legitimate, but it can spoil ecumenical dialogue because what the Roman Catholic wants to offer as a gift (let's say, Roman primacy) is overlooked while the dialogue-partner simply takes what they want. The result is that we never get around to dealing with the knotty issues that divide us. So, we need to be careful to not get stuck cherry-pick but also exchange gifts.

Any thoughts?
What have you learned through an ecumenical gift-exchange?
Do you cherry-pick?
What are the benefits of cherry-picking?
What are the dangers?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Adventures in Ecumenism (II) - Inter-Church vs. Inter-Religious Dialogue

One of the most engaging panels at the recent ecumenical gathering at Oberlin dealt with religious pluralism. During the Q&A session, it became clear that there was some confusion and concern over the place of inter-religious dialogue within the church's ecumenical task. During and after this discussion, a number of alternatives presented themselves concerning the relation between inter-church dialogue and inter-religious dialogue.

(1) Inter-Church Dialogue, Good; Inter-Religious Dialogue, Bad. Some expressed concern that we would even speak of inter-religious dialogue at all. The purpose of ecumenism is to unite the churches for common witness and mission. This witness and mission is directed to the world, which includes other religions. Dialogue undermines this witness, and so should be avoided.

(2) From Narrower to Wider Ecumenism. Others indicated that the call to embrace the whole household (oikomene) of God cannot stop with other Christians but must press on to all people. And so inter-religious dialogue is the logical extention of inter-church dialogue. The difference between the two dialogues is primarily quantitative: more are included in the later.

(3) Distinct Tasks Differentiated by Distinct Goals. One participant suggested that both forms of dialogue are appropriate and share certain formal similarities, but at bottom the two can be differentiated by their goals. The goal of inter-church dialogue is full communion, whereas the goal of inter-religious dialogue is mutual understanding and cooperation. Perhaps the goals of each task could be construed differently than this, but you get the idea of how the two could be differentiated with rejecting one or conflating both.

Any thoughts?
Are there some fundamental options I have neglected to mention?
Are you inclined toward any of these ways of thinking? Why?
Do you have any additional thoughts about the relation of these dialogues?

Adventures in Ecumenism (I) - Revealing Questions

This past weekend I had the privilege of participating in an ecumenical conference held at Oberlin College in Ohio to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Faith and Order in the United States. The papers and discussions are worthy of extended reflection, and so I am going to share some stories and thoughts over the next few weeks in a series entitled "Adventures in Ecumenism."

One particular afternoon during a discussion group, a young Lutheran minister asked for clarification on the notion of "apostolic power," a term which had been mentioned a few times earlier that day. A few of us from Holiness and Pentecostal traditions explained how we speak of the power of the apostles being given to believers today. After hearing this explanation, the young collared Lutheran asked a Texan Pentecostal, "And how is it conferred?"

Now it took us a while to even answer this question, because the question itself presupposed forms of institutional mediation foreign to the traditions that speak of apostolic power. Because of this, the question itself turned out to be more interesting than the answer. It is an example of a revealing question: one which tells us more about a person's commitments and concerns than a summary of belief could ever do. The take-away for the practice of dialogue is that we not only learn about others through asking good questions, but we also learn about others through listening to their questions.

Any thoughts?
Can you think of examples of revealing questions in the context of ecumenical encounter?
What revealing questions do you find yourself asking regularly? What do they reveal?
How can we unveil the deeper meaning behind someone's question in a gracious way that does not merely reject their question?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

How should we organize doctrines?

The discussion following last week's post (concerning when to bring up the trinity) revealed that some might object to the premise of the question. The question seemed to presuppose that one should bring up doctrinal topics one-by-one. However, this is not the only way to think, write and teach theologically. So, let me step back and raise the prior question: how should organize doctrines?

Note that I am restricting this question to doctrinal theology, recognizing that there are many other aspects to the theological task (exegetical, historical, practical, etc.). However, I am narrowing our attention to the question of doctrinal organization not only for the sake of time and space but also because doctrinal theology is especially interested in the question of the organization of topics. This is one reason why doctrinal theology is also called "systematic" theology. This concern arises from the fact that organizational decisions can have material consequences. So this is not only an aesthetic or pedagogical question (though it includes these concerns).

A few organizational options come immediately to mind. Note that these may be overlapping, and so it is no surprise that some of the greatest minds in Christian history transcend the boundaries of these categories. But thinking about the basic alternatives is a good exercise.

(1) Topical. A long-standing way of organizing doctrines for teaching and writing is to move one-by-one through the main topics of doctrinal theology. This is also known as the Loci method (most likely traceable to Philip Melanchthon's Loci Communes). The strength of this approach is its clarity of presentation and balanced focus on numerous theological questions. The risk is that one may disconnect the various topics from one another and thereby fall short of a robustly systematic theology.

(2) Foundational. Another approach is to take either a specific doctrine or a particular perspective (philosophical, contextual, etc.) as one's starting point. This starting point might be located at the beginning of a theological text or course, and/or may be reiterated throughout. The point is that every doctrine is at least controlled by if not derived from this starting point. The strength of this approach is the consistency that tends to flow from it. The danger is that one may choose the starting point point poorly. In fact, even a good starting point can spoil doctrines by exercising tyrannical control over one's thought.

(3) Architectonic. One more way to organize doctrines is to interrelate them to one another in a larger superstructure. This could be done by means of broad categories which include doctrines, perhaps placing doctrinal topics in parallel sequences. Such an architectonic organization could perhaps be drawn by a diagram with major categories and sub-categories within each category. The advantage here is all the doctrines would be interrelated without one doctrine or perspective controlling every detail. The disadvantage is that some important topics might slip through the cracks because they do not fit neatly into the architecture. Furthermore, one might become intoxicated by the aesthetic appeal of certain organizational decisions to the point of distraction from the main task of expositing Christian doctrine.

Any thoughts?
Does organization matter? Why or why not?
Are there any options I have neglected?
What are some additional strengths and weaknesses of each approach?
Which approach appeals to you? Why?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

When should we bring up the Trinity?

I have been asking myself when we should bring up the doctrine of the trinity. I am asking this question for a number of overlapping contexts: christian education, theology courses, textbooks, systematic theologies, etc. When should it come up? When does it make sense to come up? Where does it best fit? Where does it do its best work?

Here are some options that come to mind:

(1) At the end of the Doctrine of God. This is probably the most "traditional" place for the doctrine of the trinity. After introducing the subject of theology and discussing God's existence, nature and attributes, one turns to the persons in God to round out the doctrine of God. The advantage here is that one has the trinity up an running early without having to deal with it too early. The disadvantage is that it might give the impression that all the stuff before the trinity is just about "god-in-general" and not the specifically Christian God.

(2) Piecemeal. Another option is to address the doctrine of the trinity in pieces: first the Father under the doctrine of God at the beginning, then the Son under the doctrine of salvation in the middle, and finally the Spirit in conjunction with ecclesiology and eschatology. The advantage here is one is that the complex and cumulative character of trinity doctrine is respected and utilized. The disadvantage is that God's triunity may be split up into parts in the process. Plus, the terminology and concepts needed for trinitarian reflection are deeply intertwined and so may need to stay together to make sense.

(3) First. One way to deal with the problems in both of the above approaches is to front-load the doctrine of the trinity so that it controls all our theological language. The advantage here is that the specificity of the Christian God is emphasized and the triune shape of all theological language can be thereafter perceived. The disadvantage is that, if one is not careful, the trinity doctrine appears to just fall out of the sky without reference to the full history of salvation. Additionally, trinitarian ideas are some of the most demanding and do not make for good "introductory" material.

(4) Last. Another way to deal with the problems above is to do the opposite: put the doctrine of the trinity at the end as a triumphant conclusion of sorts. The advantage here is that the complex and cumulative character of trinity doctrine is respected and utilized yet without splitting the doctrine into pieces. Plus, one will be more ready for the demands of trinity doctrine at the end of theological inquiry rather than the beginning. The serious disadvantage is that the trinity could become a forgotten appendix and the trinitarian shape of all theological language would be at best implicit.

Any thoughts?
Are there any other good options I have overlooked?
Which of these options appeal to you? Why?
Should any of these options be ruled out? Why?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Theological Photo Album: The Seven Ecumenical Councils

During my recent visit to Turkey, we managed to visit the sites of the seven ecumenical councils. Check out these pictures.

1. Nicaea (325)

2. Constantinople (381)

3. Ephesus (431)

4. Chalcedon (451)

5. Constantinople (553)

6. Constantinople (680-1)

7. Nicaea (787)

Any thoughts?