Thursday, March 29, 2007

Probing the Problem Jesus Solves

As Holy Week creeps closer and closer, I've been thinking about our problems. Not generally observable problems (though those are on my mind), but the deep problem that Jesus deals with in his life, death and resurrection. What is wrong? What is at stake? What makes Jesus' work so important?

I don't want to focus so much on the bad news as much as I want to understand the good news of Jesus Christ which casts light on our problems. A particularly poignant passage in this regard is Romans 5:6-11. What is interesting here is that Paul make three parallel statements indicating what we were when Christ died for us. So, for a moment, I want to zero in on these three different aspects of our problem in order to come to a greater appreciation of Christ's work.

(1) When we were still powerless ... [v. 6]

First of all, we are powerless. We are weak. We lack the power to overcome the death and disease and trials of life. We have fallen short. We are deprived of the best of life. Nobody's perfect. The language of powerlessness reminds us that we need help. We are weak, but God is strong. Lent and Holy Week is as good a time as any to contemplate our weakness in light of God's strength.

This is all true, but our weakness is not the whole story. If our problem is only that we are weak, then Jesus need only help us out, give us a hand. As Paul's language shows, there is more to our problem than our weakness.

(2) While we were still sinners ... [v. 8]

We are not only weak, but we are sinners. We are unrighteous. We are not right. We have broken God's law and so have broken God's heart. Not only are we not perfect, having fallen short; we are also sinners, people who have turned away from God and endangered our relationship with him. The language of sin is important to bring out our culpability in our problem. We are not just faulty; we are lawbreakers. Lent and Holy Week is as good a time as any to contemplate how we have sinned in light of God's righteousness.

This talk of sin certainly deepens our understanding of our problem beyond that of mere weakness. But even the language of unrighteousness is not the whole story. If our problem is reduced to sin, then God need only forgive. God in his everlasting faithfulness can uphold our relationship with him. But, once again, Paul's language reveals that there is even more to our problem than unrighteousness.

(3) When we were God's enemies ... [v. 10]

We are not only weak. We are not only sinners. We are God's enemies. We have not only damaged our relationship with God by breaking his law. We have twisted our relationship into one of enmity. We have not only turned away from God; we have turned against God. We are not just slipping into unintentional sin, or falling short because our of weakness. We are in a state of rebellion. We do not want to live in obedient communion with God. We want to follow our own way. And so we need radical reconciliation, which has been achieved in Jesus Christ. Lent and Holy Week is as good a time as any to contemplate how we have rebelled against God and made ourselves into enemies.

Of course, even the talk of enmity alone would not do. It is the most extreme of the three terms and therefore a helpful corrective to our excuses. But because it is so extreme, it needs to be clarified by the first two terms. We are not enemies of God because God hates us and God is a mean-spirited tyrant. No, the problem is not with God but with us. We have set ourselves up as enemies by our willful disobedience. Our unrighteousness is the content of our enmity. Our powerlessness in the face of death breaks us off from eternal communion with God.

... Christ died for us.

Of course, all this talk of our problems is not an end in itself. In each case, Paul brings up our problem in order to draw attention to the solution. When we were powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. When we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son. So, even as we probe our problem, we are drawn to celebrate the solution won in Jesus Christ.

Any thoughts?
Do these three terms help to enrich our account of the human problem?
What aspects are not accounted for by these three terms?
Do we tend to focus on one of these to the exclusion of the others?
Is it appropriate to contemplate our problem in order to appreciate the solution all the more? Is there another way?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

In what sense did Jesus "have to" die? (Bible Brain Busters)

During this Lenten season I have been struck once again by the repeated refrain throughout the New Testament that Jesus "had to" die. I am thinking specifically of the Gospels' ample use of the term "dei," which is usually translated by the phrase "it was necessary" but sometimes simply "must" or "had to." Whatever we say about Jesus' death, the language of the New Testament seems to preclude any thought that it "just happened." Jesus didn't just have a bad weekend in Jerusalem; Jesus had to die.

This Biblical habit of speech is not only a Brain Buster for those who object to any kind of necessity imposed on seemingly contingent historical events. It is a brain buster for all Christians, inasmuch as Christians proclaim the deity of Jesus Christ. For if (a) Jesus had to do something, and (b) Jesus is God, then (c) God had to do something. No matter what kind of metaphysical baggage you associate with God, the statement that God must do something requires clarification and/or qualification. In other words, if we aim to be coherent in our speaking of the gospel, we must specify to the best of our ability in what sense Jesus had to die?

So, in what sense was Jesus death necessary?

The following alternative answers immediately come to mind:

(1) Dramatic Necessity. The first and most qualified sense in which we could understand the biblical language of necessity is in purely dramatic terms. Jesus had to die just like any other character in a good story had to do the things they do. Good stories have a sort of internal logic to them, where a character is driven in a certain direction so that what happens is exactly what has to happen. Perhaps this is all the Evangelists mean when they say that Jesus had to die. This option has the advantage of avoiding more knotty issues of necessity imposed on God. On the other hand, this may make the language of necessity meaningless, killing it by the death of a thousand qualifications. There certainly is dramatic necessity in the gospels; but is the death of Jesus a mere dramatic necessity?

(2) Absolute Necessity. At the other extreme, we might say that the death of Jesus is an absolute necessity. Just because of who God is and/or how reality is structured, God will end up becoming human and dying for us. God knows that his creation will rebel but creates anyway, thus making himself culpable for its rebellion unless he resolves it, which can only be done by the death of Jesus. Some of our presentations of the gospel give the impression that God is under an absolute necessity to undergo death for our sakes. Now this approach has the advantage of taking the biblical language of necessity in its strongest sense. It also locates God's history for us as a consequence of his very being. But it runs into serious objections. The first is that it seems to impose some kind of external necessity on God: God must do this or that to be God. This is a weak objection because this absolute necessity could flow from the absoluteness of God's very being rather than from without. But it is dangerous water nonetheless. There is another, much stronger objection: that the absolute necessity of the cross undermines its gracious character. If God had to do it, then why should it be perceived and celebrated as a gift? The language of grace risks the death of a thousand qualifications if the language of necessity is taken in an absolute sense.

(3) Conditional Necessity. A common resolution of this problem is to employ the category of conditional necessity. Jesus had to die in the sense that once God had freely decided to create the world and establish a covenant with his people, the fulfillment of God's covenant in the death of Jesus is necessity. If certain conditions are met, this event must happen. This is a nice mediating option and one worth seriously considering. However, one concern needs to be raised: is God really the Lord of his covenant if he is "backed into a corner" in this way? Is there any indication in the New Testament God's covenant requires this sort of solution? It seems just as likely that the covenant was set up precisely as the context in which God would do what he does in Jesus Christ. The logic of conditional necessity is illuminating and I don't want to rule it out. But if adopted, it must be employed delicately so as to avoid the impression that Jesus is an afterthought.

(4) Willed Necessity. An alternative resolution is to see the death of Jesus as a willed necessity: God chooses that this will happen, it does so happen, and so in retrospect we can say it must have happened. One need not argue that God so determines everything that happens in history in order to take this view with regard to Jesus' death. One need only say that in this special case God willed certain events to take place (cf. Acts 4:28). On the basis of God's self-revelation we can infer that God has chosen to become this man Jesus in order to die for us. The question of whether God could have done something else is either left open as unanswerable or banned as an inappropriate question. The advantage here is that the language of necessity is taken in its full weight without imposing anything on God or undermining the gracious character of his actions. Also, the death of Jesus is taken as definitive for our understanding of God, rather than an afterthought of God's character or actions. The problem, however, is that it does not fully satisfy one's curiosity about the nature of this necessity. Could it have been otherwise? Why this way and not some other? These seem to be fair questions, and thoroughgoing answers to them often illuminate the significance of the cross. Perhaps this approach is wise in closing these speculative doors; but I'll have to admit my own desire for a more clear and comprehensive answer.

Any thoughts?
In what sense do you think Jesus "had to" die?
Do these alternatives cover the field of logical options? What's missing?
Are you inclined towards one of these options? Why?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

What happened to Jesus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? (I Pet 3:19 - Bible Brain Buster)

We talk a lot about the significance of Jesus' cross and resurrection (as we should). But what went on between them? There are some vague but striking references to this interval in both canon and creed. First Peter provides the most intriguing reference and is thus worthy of addressing as a Bible Brain Buster:

"For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built." (I Pet 3:18-20a)

Huh? Was the dead Christ preaching on Holy Saturday? As usual, I'd like to lay out some interpretive options. But it won't be simple list, but a series of questions with multiple plausible answers. Accordingly, one's view could combine different options under each of these headings. Needless to say, one's prior inclinations regarding the significance of Christ's death will affect one's approach to this matter. As with all Bible Brain Busters, we are never interpreting texts in a vacuum but rather in collision with our other beliefs -- that's why they bust our brains!

I. When? The Question of Timing

First we must ask when this stuff took place. Although the title of this post prejudices the matter a bit, I Pet 3 does not itself explicitly identify this activity as happening on Holy Saturday. At least three options present themselves:

(1) The Pre-Existent Christ was preaching to sinners at the time of Noah. If you believe that Christ lived by the Spirit of God prior to his incarnation, it is not hard to imagine that he was performing a hidden work at the time of Noah. Perhaps this explains the Peter's mention of Christ preaching "through the Spirit." Of course, this doesn't answer the question of Holy Saturday, but it may make sense of this particular passage.

(2) The dead soul of Jesus preached during the literal 30 hours that he was dead. After his death, Jesus "through the Spirit" preached to condemned spirits from the time of Noah. This is pretty straightforward, though it requires powerful imagination. Also, one might wonder whether the category of "time" gets jumbled by death.

(3) The Exalted Jesus Christ preaches to spirits in heaven. Another possibility is that this preaching happens at a later time, at the ascension or perhaps even still and into the future. This has the advantage of locating I Pet 3 in a more familiar context: Christ's exaltation to the right hand of the father and sitting as judge of the world and king of heaven. But it leaves open the question of the relation of Christ's death to sinners who died before his coming.

II. What? The Question of Content.

Unfortunately, First Peter only says that Christ preached. It doesn't say what he preached. Some possibilities:

(1) Preaching Bad News. Perhaps Jesus simply reiterated God's judgment on past sinners. This doesn't seem to accomplish much, but at least it is capable of answering the question of what Jesus was doing on Holy Saturday. This would also fit well with option I.1.

(2) Preaching Good News. Perhaps Jesus was giving these past sinners a "second chance." Perhaps all those who died before Jesus were in some kind of "holding tank" until the definitive time of Jesus. This might serve to explain the strange incident in Matt 27:52-53 where the bodies of righteous were raised and seen walking around Jerusalem. These are sensible possibilities with some weight of tradition behind them. But they do require considerable speculation. Note that this could also go with option I.3.

(3) Not Preaching, but Presence. Another possibility is that the language of "preaching" should not be taken so literally. Do dead people really "do" things? Perhaps Jesus' spiritual presence with the dead was a gesture or sign which "proclaims" news of his atoning death (either as good news or bad news, per the previous options). This could be developed in conjunction with the death of Christ as his passive work. Perhaps this is an extension of Christ's death as a substitution for us - he undergoes both physical and spiritual death in our place. Although this interpretation makes some sense, it risks not taking this passage at face value. It says "preached," and we should be careful of skirting past it.

Who? The Question of Scope.

Lastly, we must ask to whom Christ was "preaching."

(1) Just those sinners at the time of Noah. Perhaps First Peter is simply a revelation that Christ had a special mission to those who died at the time of Noah. Perhaps Peter's community had a particular interest in that generation. But why that generation rather than any other? Though plausible and rather straightforward, this seems to be an odd, even superfluous, interpretation of this passage.

(2) More than just those at the time of Noah. Perhaps those at the time of Noah are a symbol of a larger group of spirits to whom Christ proclaims through the Spirit. One could easily see that sinful generation as a synecdoche of the many generations who died before Christ. This makes the passage more significant. However, one would need some kind of warrant for making this leap (such as symbolic usage of Noah's generation in comparative Jewish literature).

(3) All the dead. This is really an extension of (2). If time gets jumbled by death, then we could claim that Christ enters into the spirit world to encounter all those who have died before and after his death. This could be Peter's narration of what Christ does for all in the generation resurrection. This integrates the text and the whole notion of Holy Saturday into a larger nexus of Jesus' identity and work. But, once again, it requires some leaps that risk obscuring the plain sense of the text.

Well, there's some options. Hopefully this helps splice out the possibilities and, more importantly, the interpretive and theological issues at stake in this passage. Wherever one lands, in seems appropriate during this season to contemplate the Christ's death in all its aspects - not just to Good Friday, but through Holy Saturday too.

Any thoughts?
Have I missed any options?
What options attract you?
How might you combine answers to these different questions?
What is at stake in one's understanding of Holy Saturday?
How do you commemorate Holy Saturday in your personal and corporate worship life?

Monday, March 12, 2007

New Items Posted at The Writing of John Drury

Two new items have been posted on The Writing of John Drury:

- Top Ten Reasons to Study Church History - opening lecture for Church History I

- Union with God and the Singularity of God's End in Creating according to Jonathan Edwards

Check 'em out!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Why Did God Create the World?

My reading this week is focused on the question of God's purpose in creating. For the first time I have begun to see the importance of this question. Let me first lay out some basic alternative answers to this question, then indicate why I think this question is important.

So, here's some alternative answers to the question: Why did God create the world?

(1) It is an unanswerable speculative question and therefore shouldn't be answered. We only know of the world as created and governed by God, so to ask of why God created the world is to step outside of our created status and inquiry into the unknown depths of eternity. I am sympathetic to this non-response out of respect for God's mystery. However, as we shall see, there is a lot at stake in this question for one's understanding of God. So I am not sure avoiding the question is the best option.

(2) God did not have a purpose in creating; rather, creation is the overflow of God's goodness. Another option is to reject the premise of the question, asserting that God's act of creating is not purposive. One reason to make such a claim is that if God has a purpose, then God is being moved by the purpose, which would undermine God's self-sufficient, omnipotent, immutability. God is not moved by anything else. Yet God creates simply as an outpouring of his being. God is so great that his greatest expands to includes a created world. The advantage of this view is that creation partakes naturally in God's goodness. The problem with this view is that history is pointless. Also, it seems difficult to see how God and the world are really qualitatively distinct.

(3) God did have a purpose in creating. The last option is that God does have a specific purpose in creating the world. With an end in view, God created the circumstances under which this end would occur. Of course, if we are going to say God did have a purpose, we probably should inquire into what this purpose may be. Two possibilities quickly emerge:

(a) God's purpose in creating was to glorify himself. The first possibility is that God created the world so that his own glory would be extended through his intercourse with something other than himself. In other words, God is so great that he thought it worthwhile to replay this greatest in the history of his dealings with creation. The advantage here is that the problems with purposiveness in creation are overcome, as God is not moved by something other than himself, but is rather self-moved out of regard for himself. The disadvantage here is that God seems to be using creatures (some of whom are persons) as means.

(b) God's purpose in creating was for the benefit of creatures. Another possibility is that God created the world for the benefit of creation itself. Out of regard for otherness, God creates something other than himself so that it may know, love and enjoy him. In other words, God creates the world in order to save it. The advantage here is that God's concern for creatures is in the foreground. The problem is that it is hard to imagine God being positively disposed toward creatures before creating them as a reason for creating them.

Of course, it is possible to say both (a) and (b), because God's desire to glorify himself can be executed in such a way that benefits us, as is certainly the case in the covenant of grace. How to think through the unity of these two as God's purpose for creation is an interesting subject to be left for another day (or the comments board).

The interesting thing to point out is that one's answer to the question why did God create the world tells a lot about one's understanding of God's relation to the world. The first answer puts the relation between God and the world in a cloud of mystery. The second answer puts creation in a continuous connection with God as the highest being. The third answers understands history as the working out of God's purpose in creation. However you slice it, there is a lot at stake in this question.

Any thoughts?
Why did God create the world? What do you think?
Have I fairly represented the options? What further advantages and disadvantages of each can be identified?
What other options have I neglected?
Towards which option are you inclined?