Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Resurrection as the Justification of God, Christ & Us

As some drulogion readers may already know, my dissertation research is focused on the relationship of Christ's resurrection to the doctrine of the Trinity in constructive conversation with Karl Barth. One big piece of this doctrinal puzzle is the extent to which the resurrection is a self-referential event for God. Does God act upon himself on Easter morn? I believe that the answer to this question is yes: God raised himself through himself. For such an answer to work, God must be a self-differentiated subject: the Father raised the Son through the Spirit. In other words, a triune grammar is necessary for resurrection proclamation, which in turn suggests that a triune ground is necessary for the resurrection event.

But this whole line of thinking might be taken to mean that the resurrection is some sort of divine self-enclosed event that has nothing to do with us. Nothing could be further from the truth! The point is that divine self-referential activity is good for us. God is good for us by first enacting himself in history. In so doing God actualizes his goodness to us and so assures us. In raising his son from the dead, God the Father confirms himself as the creator and in so doing secures us as his creatures. In being raised from the dead, our Lord Jesus Christ receives grace from God the Father on our behalf, and so comes to us as one of us. The Spirit who testifies with our spirit that we are children of God does not assure by merely speaking as one more voice demanding blind trust, but by pointing us to the living risen Jesus Christ in whom God has acted for us.

All this serves as an introduction to a quote I'd like to place before you for your consideration. It comes from one of Karl Barth's discussions of the resurrection entitled "The Verdict of the Father" (Chuch Dogmatics IV/1, §69.3). In this summative statement, Barth displays the inner connection of God's self-referential and other-referential activity as they find their unity, distiction and order in Jesus Christ. The argument is put in terms of justification (befitting the forensic context of CD IV/1): God's justification of himself, of Jesus Christ, and of us in him. Here you go:
To sum up, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the great verdict of God, the fulfillment and proclamation of God's decision concerning the event of the cross... In this [acceptance of the act of the Son of God] the resurrection is the justification of God himself, of God the Father, creator of heaven and earth, who has willed and planned and ordered this event. It is the justification of Jesus Christ, his son, who willed to suffer this event, and suffered it to the very last. And in his person it is the justification of all sinful humans, whose death was decided in this event, for whose life there is therefore no more place. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ his life and with it their life has in fact become an event beyond death: "Because I live, you shall live also" (Jn. 14:19). (CD IV/1, p. 309, rev.)
Any thoughts?
  • To what extent are we permitted and encouraged to speak of God's self-referential activity? On what basis can we do so? What are the dangers?
  • Does hearing of God's self-referential activity give you a greater sense of assurance? Why or why not?
  • What other pay-offs might there be in rooted God's activity on behalf of us in God's self-referential activity?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Total Depravity and Parental Discipline

From time to time I hear new parents say that they did not believe in original sin until they had children. Although this is meant partially in jest, it is also meant as a theological claim. It ought to be considered as such, for at least some parents either explicitly or implicitly draw disciplinary implications from this claim. Children are born totally depraved and therefore parents may and must execute harsh discipline, or so the argument goes. Is this a legitimate practical inference from the doctrine of total depravity? I contend that it is not, because said inference betrays a misunderstanding of the meaning of total depravity.

What does depravity mean? The term comes from the Latin verb depravare which means to bend or make crooked. Augustine used the term for the universal human inclination toward evil. More precisely, humans are bent or inclined toward misuse of the good, to use God and God's creatures for the enjoyment of one's self rather than to use one's self and other creatures for the enjoyment of God. To be depraved, despite its contemporary connotations, merely means to be bent or inclined towards one's self at the expense of God and others. So, for my son to be depraved doesn't necessarily mean his intentions and actions are sinister, but rather that he has a bent-ness or inclination towards himself at the expense of others.

But what does total depravity mean? There is a long Christian tradition that goes back at least to the fourth century of distinguishing between different aspects of the image of God in which humanity was created (e.g., moral image, intellectual image, volitional image, etc.). These distinctions served, among other things, to identify which aspects were affected by the fall and in what sense. So, for instance, we lost the moral image but retain our intellectual or volitional capacities. The notion of "total" depravity found in some radical Augustinian traditions emerged as a critique of such a use of this tradition, claiming that all the aspects of humanity have been tainted by the fall. So the "total" in total depravity is extensive not intensive. It's not as though we are as bad as we possibly could be, but rather there's no "safe" part of us that we can count on as innocent and good over against our fallen parts. We are bent as wholes. So, for my son to be totally depraved doesn't necessarily mean that he is as bad as he could possibly be, but rather that he as a whole person has an inclination or bent-ness toward using others for his own enjoyment.

So, does total depravity underwrite harsher discipline of children? No. Total depravity refers to a general inclination toward disorder that affects the whole person. And so a totally depraved child is not necessarily sinister in every intention or as evil as he or she possibly could be. An argument for harsh discipline cannot be made on this ground alone. One could in fact argue the reverse: that the inclination toward self-seeking at the expense of others will be fed by the threat of harsh discipline. A totally depraved child would require caution and care as much as if not more than force and discipline. Furthermore, one could argue that the universality of total depravity would function self-critically to call into question the purity of parental disciplinary intentions. Could it be that much of what passes for disciplining is actually self-serving? If the doctrine of total depravity is true, parents have as much reasons to question their own motives as they do their children's.

But one would not need to make these further moves to at least accept that total depravity alone does not warrant harsher discipline. That's the bottom line of this argument: the doctrine of total depravity does not in itself justify harsher discipline of children. In making this contention I do not claim to have defended the doctrine of total depravity, nor was that my design. Rather, I merely intend to block an illegitimate (and dangerous!) practical inference. This blockade is aimed both at those who might act out this unfortunate inference and at those who would object to the doctrine on account of its deleterious effects. So, the purpose of my argument is that those who affirm total depravity ought not execute harsh discipline on account of it and that those who reject total depravity ought not use this so-called practical implication as an argument against it.

Any Thoughts?
  • Have you heard someone make the connection between the doctrine of sin and methods of parental discipline?
  • Have I described the doctrine of total depravity correctly in terms of its classical sense?
  • Do you find the extensive/intensive distinction helpful?
  • What kind of parental implications might flow from the doctrine of total depravity rightly understood?
N.B.: For clarity's sake, please keep original guilt and total depravity conceptually distinct for the sake of discussion despite their intimate relation. In other words, do not presume an objection to one applies automatically to the other.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Trinity & Subordination, Again

Apparently a new wave of debate over subordination in the trinity and in social relations has irrupted in evangelical circles. Click here to track the debate. I have received some emails from friends in ministry asking how to address the matter. Here's my response to one such email, which asked three questions: What does the Trinity have to do with everyday life? Why should pastors preach on the Trinity? How can we address the rampant subordinationism among church folk?

What does the Trinity have to do with everyday life?

On the one hand, it doesn't. The doctrine of the trinity is the church's attempt to faithfully bear witness to who God is. It is not a ready-made spiritual and/or social program. On the other hand, it has everything to do with daily life. The doctrine of the trinity teaches us that the God we encounter in history corresponds to who God is in eternity. Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are not intermediaries to keep God at a distance. Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God and the Holy Spirit is the eternal Spirit of God, and so God is our eternal Father. When we speak of following Jesus or living according to the Spirit, we are talking about encountering God in our everyday lives. The doctrine of the trinity gives depth and clarity to our everyday Christian walk and talk.

Why should pastors preach on the Trinity?

They shouldn't preach the trinity as a stand alone doctrine. Instead, it should be preached along the way as a necessary tool for understanding and proclaiming the gospel. A sermon series that aims to teach trinitarian doctrine would select key biblical texts where recourse to the doctrine of the trinity helps make sense of the gospel and shows how the doctrine of the trinity gives depth and security to Christian claims. E.g., the baptism of Jesus, the resurrection narratives, the death of Jesus (esp. the cry of derliction), the prayer life of Jesus (e.g., who is he praying to in Gesthename?), Pentecost obviously, the farewell discourse in John (lotsa goodies there, esp. on the spirit in ch. 14 and 16, as well as on the eternally shared glory of the Father and the Son in ch. 17), some of the visions in Revelation with the "one on the throne" and the "lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world," etc. I think this would be the best strategy for preaching and teaching the trinity in the church.

How can we address the rampant subordinationism among church folk?

There are reasons why we slip into subordinationist thinking, some good and some bad. The bad reasons are linked to subordinationist assumptions about the way the world works, and the presumption that this is simply the fabric of being itself and so befits our God-talk. Such presumption must be exposed and set aside -- repeatedly if needed.

The good reason is that Scripture places the Father and the Son in an irreversible relationship, wherein the Father sends the Son and the Son is sent by the Father, the Father commands the Son and the Son obeys the Father. So also the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son. Scripture does not permit a reversal of these relationships, even as it also indicates the unity, equality, and unrestricted fellowship of the persons. The mystery of the trinity is the unity, equality and fellowship of these three persons in their ordered relationships, and not just unity and equality as abstract divine principles.

Strictly speaking, this pattern in scripture is not a "problem" for trinity doctrine per se, because the church doctrine of the trinity has always claimed that the Father and the Son are eternally distinguishable from one another, even as they share all things as equally divine persons. The Father and the Son cannot be distinguished if there is no content to their relationship. So the Father begets the Son, and in begetting we see the distinction and order of their relations. This is not a subordination of being ala Arianism, but it is an ordered relationship.

Now one might try to then squeeze out of this the idea that women are equal to men in being but subordinate in function. Some people make such moves. But when we turn to whatever practical implications that may follow from the doctrine of the trinity, we must remember the following:

(1) Human persons do not relate in exactly the same way as divine persons do, because human persons do not share an identical essence. So there should be no 1-to-1 application of divine relations to human relations. Individual humans share a common human essence (however defined), but a community of individual humans are not a singular identity of essence in the way that the triune persons are one God. So sociopolitical debates cannot be swiftly solved by invoking the doctrine of the trinity. In fact, one could coherently advocate a strongly subordinationist doctrine of the trinity and maintain gender equality, while another could coherently advocate strongly the equality of divine persons and maintain complementarian gender roles. Although the trinity is not irrelevant, it is not the key that unlocks all doors.

(2) We are united to God through our union with Jesus Christ the incarnate Son, and so we should not be surprised that we stand alongside him as ones who are sent by God the Father and so submitted to God. We stand in some kind of "subordinate" relationship to God. Hence, subordination is not a dirty word in all contexts. One should embrace rather than reject subordination to God. Such subordination is of course loving and freeing because it is to the author of our existence and our salvation (which cannot be said of our relations with others). But it is still subordination and submission of the one sent to the one who sends, grounded in our union with Christ as the one sent by the Father. So the question is not whether subordination but what kind of subordination and to whom are we subordinated?

(3) Inasmuch as the relations of the trinity provide a model for human-to-human relationships, such direction should always be mediated through the God-human Jesus Christ, as opposed to some principle abstracted from the history of God with us (e.g., subordination, or equality, or relationality, etc.). It is in Jesus and his life that we see submission to God and to others that fulfills rather than destroys human personhood. In him we see obedience that is the crown and exaltation of human life. In him we see the transformation of fallen human relationships into fellowship that images God's eternal life. In him we hear the call to participate in the mission of God in this world by proclaiming the good news and living lives worthy of this gospel.

So we must tread carefully in applying the mystery of the trinity to our daily lives, not simply because it is so mysterious, but because upon reflecting on this mystery we learn of the uniqueness of the God we worship and do not presume to be like him in ways beyond our means. We must not seek to be gods, but to be godly. And it is in Jesus Christ the Son of God that we understand who God the Father is in his uniqueness and the ways in which he opens himself up to us become like his Son by the power of the Spirit.

So the bottom line for teaching the doctrine of the trinity, both for understanding and application, is to treat the trinity as the grammar and ground of christology. The trinity as grammar helps us to make sense of Jesus as not just some special guy but uniquely as the life of the only-begotten Son sent by the Father in the power of the Spirit, who in turn sends us in the Spirit unto all the nations. The trinity as ground reminds us that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are not just a fluke or oddity but a revelation and outworking of who God is in eternity. If the doctrine of the trinity is true, then God is for us and with us from all and to all eternity. And that's good news.

Any thoughts?