Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"The Father is Greater than I" (Bible Brain Busters)

"The Father is Greater than I" - Jesus

Is the Son less than the Father? Is the Father greater than the Son? Even as it lifts up Jesus Christ to a high position in relationship to God the Father, the New Testament repeatedly and variously subordinates the Son to the Father. Since the church rejected the subordinationism of Arius at the most crucial moment in the development of the doctrine of the trinity (Nicaea 325), these texts deserve comment.

I would love to discuss each text in context with great detail. I may do so at some time. At this point, I'd simply like to highlight the subordinationist language of the Gospel of John, exemplified by but not limited to John 14:28: "The Father is great than I." How might we go about interpreting such statements?

Let me identify a few interpretive options:

(1) Functional Christology. One option is to say, "These are functional, not ontological statements." These statement ascribe a certain saving function to Jesus Christ and that's it. This may not necessarily imply a denial of Jesus' ontological status (a.k.a., the constitution of his being). One could simply say that such affirmations are post-Biblical and not relevant to interpreting the texts at hand. This approach has the advantage of letting the texts speak without overloading them with doctrinal questions. The disadvantage is that one's doctrinal reflection becomes dislodged from scriptural interpretation. Also, it's kind of a cop-out.

(2) Jesus is not divine. Another option is to say that these texts undermine the doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation. These are later traditions that do not match up with the scriptures. The New Testament tells the story of the man Jesus of Nazareth who is a great teacher, leader, and maybe even savior (in some sense), but he is certainly not God. He is a man under the authority of God. The strength of this position is it has the guts to take the scriptures at face value and see where they lead. (Whether this move is "gutsy" anymore is debatable.) The weakness of this approach is that is not only gives up on the tradition of the church but must now deal with the amazing affirmations the New Testament does makes about Jesus. How can the word-become-flesh have been with the father from the beginning? How can Christ be the firstborn of all creation? Basically, this approach trades one set of Bible brain busters for another. As before, one's "problem texts" reveal one's commitments!

(3) Jesus is divine-ish. A mediating option is to affirm the divinity of the Son, but in the sense of a heavenly being mediating between God the Father and us. He is a sort of a half-man, half-God. So the subordination language makes sense because Jesus is on the rung of the ladder right between God the Father and the rest of creation. This is actually a common Christian way of thinking. The strength of this position is that it is probably the easiest position to understand while still assenting to all the various and seemingly contradictory Christological affirmations in the New Testament. The problem with this approach is that it undermines the two-natures doctrine of the church by "mixing" the natures of Christ. It says Jesus is both divine and human, but so undermines the meaning of divinity and humanity that the affirmation becomes meaningless. Jesus becomes a sort of mythic being between God and humanity, rather than true God and true human.

(4) The Father and the Son are equally divine, but the Son's human flesh is subordinated to the Father. One classic "solution" to these subordination texts is to assign all of them to the human nature of Jesus Christ. The Son is the fully equal and co-eternal second person of the trinity. In the course of time, the Son adds a human nature. As a creature, this human flesh is of course subordinated to the Father as its creator. But this in no way impinges on Jesus' divine status. The advantage of this approach is that it is able to account for all kinds of texts by strategical attributing some to the divine nature and others to the human nature. It is also has a long pedigree in the history of the church, and so should be treated as serious option. The disadvantage of such an approach is one is forced to play hermeneutical games: Who are we to say that Jesus is talking about his human nature in one verse and his divine nature in another? On what basis can we make such decisions? Does it even make sense to divide Christ up this way?

(5) The Father and the Son are equally divine, but divinity permits some kind of subordination. A final option is to permit some kind of subordination within the divine nature. The driving assumption here is that one's God-concept should be based on the concrete revelation of God. Where has God revealed himself? In Jesus Christ, who is God-incarnate. If we start with where and when God shows up, the first thing we learn about God is that God can become human. More specifically, the Son became human. And this Son, who is fully God, willingly subordinates himself to the Father -- not just in time, but from all eternity, as the Father sends the Son and the Son proceeds from the Father. This approach helps make sense of why the same Gospel of John has both strong statements of Jesus' divinity and his subordination to the Father. The advantage of this approach is that the unity of Christ's person is held together even as his divinity and humanity are affirmed. No need to deny either of his natures or split up his natures to account for subordination texts. Rather, subordination is permitted but within God's very life, so that we can still proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God. The disadvantage should be obvious: how do we think coherently about subordination within God? This truly is a "hard saying." It might be worth the trouble, but is it inherently dangerous. Such an approach should not be taken without counting the cost.

Any thoughts?
Which of these options appeals to you? Why?
Any distinct options missing?
What are some additional benefits and costs of each of these approaches?
How do you generally deal with subordination texts?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Even what is impossible with God is possible with God

Many thanks to those who submitted those tantalizing Bible Brain Busters in the suggestion box. Please feel free to continue to suggest a Bible Brain Buster here. I look forward to addressing some of these in upcoming posts.

This week I am in the midst of writing one long research paper after another. I ask that you indulge me as I simply quote a great line from a text I was reading this week. Let this quote and following questions for discussion stand as a more than sufficient thursday theological thought:

"Not only what is impossible with us humans, but also what must rightly appear to us impossible with God himself, is possible with God."
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, p. 31, rev.).

Any thoughts?

What are some things that we usually think of as impossible with humans but possible with God? On what basis would we discern this difference?

What are some things that we usually think of as impossible for humans? On what basis could we impute any impossibilities to God?

In what contexts might this quote apply? Where do we need to be reminded that God's possibilities even exceed the boundaries of what we rightly appears to be impossible for God?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Suggestion Box: Bible Brain Busters

During last week's post I identified and addressed a particular interpretive issue (the Christological conundrum of Jesus' Gethsemane prayer) as an example of a Bible Brain Buster. A rich discussion followed. Thank you all for reading and pondering. Thanks especially to those who commented.

I would like to address some more Bible Brain Busters, perhaps in the form of a series. However, I do not want to pick them arbitrarily according to my own pet issues. Thus I would like to request suggestions from you.

Let the comments board for this post serve as a suggestion box for Bible Brain Busters: biblical texts that become puzzling in light of central Christian affirmations. Please identify specific scriptural passages and specific questions connected with those passages. No question is too "simple" or "obvious" (actually, the ones we are embarrassed to ask are usually the best ones, because they deal with the most basic and therefore most important matters). This would be a great time to hear from those of you who do not usually comment, since the request is open-ended and there is no pressure to take a "view" on anything.

I hope to see this suggestion box stuffed full over the course of the week!

Any suggestions?
Do you have any interesting Bible Brain Busters?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Bible Brain Busters: Gethsemane Prayer

I recently had an interesting conversation about Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane, "Not my will but thine be done." What made the conversation so interesting was the lead question: to whom was Jesus' praying in the garden? God the Father? God, a.k.a. the entire trinity? Himself, a.k.a. God the Son? Our conversation marked this as a genuine Bible Brain Buster: a biblical text that becomes puzzling in light of central Christian affirmations. In this case, how do we think through the prayer life of Jesus in light of his divine nature?

Since the question itself is just as interesting as the answer, let me offer a few possible responses before reflecting directly upon the significance of the question:

Option 1: The man Jesus is praying to God.

This first option is not really a solution but a denial of the problem. The story of the Garden of Gethsemane is simply a story of a human being crying out to God. Jesus may have been a perfect human being, but he was a human being nonetheless, and so prays to God like any other human being. Within this option a number of approaches to the divinity of Jesus could be taken: God the Son emptied himself of all divine attributes at the incarnation; Jesus became divine after the resurrection; Jesus' divinity refers to his perfect reliance on God's Spirit; etc. The strength of this option is its emphasis on Jesus' true humanity and its straightforwardness with regard to this particular text. The weakness of this option is the corners it has to cut with regard to a robust affirmation of the divinity of Jesus.

Option 2: God the Son is praying to God the Father.

This second option grounds the historical Gethsemane prayer in the eternal life of the triune God. In the story of the Garden prayer we catch a glimpse into the inner life of the trinity: the Father sends, the Son is sent; the Father wills, the Son submits his will. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity tells us that God is not a single willing person but three persons, each with its own "personality" and therefore "will." So God has these sorts of internal conversations all the time; the Gethsemane prayer is simply a significant instance of this social life of God. The strength of this option is its emphasis on Jesus' true divinity and its decision to locate this problem within the dynamics of the trinity. The weakness of this option is the new problem this solution creates: is a God with three wills really the one God of Israel? To put it bluntly, this multiple-personality theory runs the risk of tritheism.

Option 3: The Incarnate Son as the man Jesus is praying to God the Father.

This third option tries to bring the doctrine of the trinity and the doctrine of incarnation in close connection with one another in order to make sense of the prayer life of Jesus. In the story of Gethsemane we see the temporal fulfillment of God's eternal purpose to become incarnate. The one God with one will chooses to send himself into human history by taking on the human flesh of Jesus. God's eternal constitution as one being in three persons has this incarnational end in view. So the eternal Son (who has no will other than the Father's) wills to take to himself a complete human nature. This complete human nature includes a fully human will. Therefore, God the Son has two wills: the common divine will shared by all three persons of the Godhead and the human will of Jesus. So, in the garden, the fully divine Son incarnate as a human being is praying to God the Father in the power of their Holy Spirit. The incarnate Son submits his human will to the will of God the Father. The strength of this option is the close connection drawn between the trinity and the incarnation as well as its use of the "two wills" doctrine affirmed at the Sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople 680-81). The weakness of this option is the possible implication that God must become incarnate in order to be triune. It is also a terribly complicated answer, which may be perceived as a strength depending on one's temperament.

Well, there's some possible responses to the question of "To whom was Jesus praying?" Now I find this question and the debate between these answers fascinating. I would be happy to discuss the particulars of the matter. But even more interesting to me is that one would even ask this question in the first place. The only person who would treat the Garden of Gethsemane story as a puzzle is someone who assumes a high Christology. You can tell a lot about a person's theological commitments by observing which biblical texts create interpretive difficulties for them. In other words, one's admitted Bible Brain Busters reveal one's deepest beliefs. Even if these beliefs are held implicitly or unreflectively, they exert pressure on us at these critical points. So identifying one's own (and others') Bible Brain Busters helps us to explicitly investigate our beliefs and how they relate to specific Scriptural passages. Hence, they are a worthy entry point for theological inquiry.

Any thoughts?
So, what are your Bible Brain Busters?
Which texts throw you for a loop?
Can you identify what basic beliefs make these texts particularly difficult?
Do you have any thoughts on the example of Jesus' Gethsemane Prayer?

NOTE: If I get a good list of Bible Brain Busters going, I may do a series on them at some point.