Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Druchesis VI: The Holy Spirit

This week we reach the third section within our series of reflections on the Apostles' Creed. The first three posts concerned the first article of the creed, as we considered our faith in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. The last two weeks were dedicated to the second article of the creed concerning Jesus Christ in his identity and saving significance. The next three posts concern the Holy Spirit, his own special role in God's story with us, and the anticipated completion of that story.

This week we focus on the first phrase of the third article of the creed: "I believe in the Holy Spirit." And so we come to pneumatology, or Spirit-talk. But here we hit a snag, for there is not much Spirit-talk in the creed. "I believe in the Holy Spirit." That's it. That's not a lot to work with. Although we've seen in this series how theologians can squeeze a lot of content out of a few words, we have to admit that talk of the Spirit in the Apostles' Creed is pretty thin. Unlike God the Father, who is praised for his attribute of almightiness and his activity of creation, and unlike Jesus Christ, who is confessed with honorific titles and whose story is told in detail, the Holy Spirit is simply acknowledged before moving on to other things like church, sacraments, forgiveness, etc. The Spirit seems to get short shrift. The Apostles' Creed ought not be singled out here, for such Spirit-forgetfulness is endemic, especially in the Western church. Not that the Spirit never makes an appearance, for outbreaks of exuberant Spirit-talk regularly occur. But such exuberant promotion of the Spirit is in fact a function of our pneumatological deficit, which invites an oscillation between Spirit-forgetfulness and Spirit-enthusiasm.

Now before we get too critical, we should remember that when we move from confession of faith in the Holy Spirit to what we believe about church, sacraments, forgiveness, resurrection and eternal life, we are not in fact "moving on." These are the works of the Spirit, his own identifying narrative, his saving significance for us. That's how the Spirit works -- in and among us. So he can be hard to pick out for direct reflection. The Spirit blows where he wills. But this quite true reminder is no excuse for forgetting to attend to the Holy Spirit in his unique identity. Who is the Holy Spirit? What is the Spirit like? How does the Spirit relate to God the Father and his son Jesus Christ?

In order to answer these sorts of questions, we need to be guided by the thicker talk of the Spirit found in the Nicene Creed. Just as with our reflections on the identity of Jesus we found it helpful draw on the results of that great council, so with our reflections on the identity of the Spirit we return again for guidance from Nicaea. Unfortunately, the original Nicene Creed from 325 does not fare much better than the Apostles' Creed (which shows how easy it is to ignore the Spirit). But this lacuna was filled a generation later at the first Council of Constantinople in 381, which produced what is now commonly called the "Nicene Creed" (a.k.a., the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed). Constantinople both solidified the orthodoxy of the Nicene declarations concerning Son and extended parallel declarations to the Spirit. The first phrase of the third article of the Nicene Creed goes like this:
And [we believe] in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord and Giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father,
who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified,
who spoke through the prophets.
We will organize our reflections around these five lines.

1. "And we believe in the Holy Spirit"

Here we find again that little word "and." Just as the "and" at the head of the second article signaled that faith in God the Father must be paired with faith in Jesus his Son, so this second "and" demands that our faith in God and Christ must be completed by our faith in the Holy Spirit. This is crucial, for we seldom think of the Holy Spirit as an object of faith. It's not that Christians don't believe the Spirit exists (ala the first sense of faith: belief), but rather that the Spirit is not often treated as a person (ala the second sense of faith: trust). Spirit-talk is often more akin to attribute talk: "God, send us your power, give us your grace, pour out your spirit." The Spirit in our everyday language is more of a thing than a person -- a divine thing for sure, but still something less than personal.

This impersonal manner of speaking is not inappropriate. It is in fact a very biblical way of speaking. The Spirit is the power by which God's people say and do things he asks of them. It is by the Spirit that we believe in God the Father and in his Son Jesus Christ. All this stuff we have been confessing in the creed is made possible by the Spirit. As Paul puts it, "Only by the Spirit can one say Jesus is Lord." So the Holy Spirit is in the first instance the means by which we believe.

But we can't stop there, for the Christian church from early on and with little fanfare took another step. Christians began to regard the Holy Spirit as an object of faith. We not only believe by the Spirit, but also in the Spirit. In so doing, the church speaks of the Spirit in personal terms. He is not just a thing about which we believe, but a person in whom we believe. He is not just a thing we may ask for, but a person to whom we may address our requests. He is not just the object of actions (e.g., "God poured out his spirit"), but the subject of actions (e.g., "The Spirit sanctified them"). The Holy Spirit is a person.

Once the Spirit begins to be spoken of in personal terms, we run up against the question of his identity. Who is this Spirit? How do we distinguish this Spirit from all the other spirits we may encounter? Well, we might first identify the Spirit as the spirit of the church. The Holy Spirit is the personified team spirit of the church of Jesus Christ. Now such an answer has a grain of truth, and we will come back to it next week when we speak directly of the church. Yet it is insufficient in itself, for the spirit is not the church, full stop. The church has many other spirits animating it, such as the unholy spirits of its many members and the spirits of the age that so often invade her. No, there must be a more definite way by which the Spirit is identified not only in and with the church but also over against it. The Spirit must be the Holy Spirit.

This more definite way is supplied by asking an alternative question: Whose Spirit is this? The possessive relative pronoun is not meant to revert back to impersonal Spirit-talk. Rather, it is to identify the Spirit by his relations. As we have seen in the case of God the Father and God the Son, there is nothing impersonal about being identified by one's relations. Quite the opposite. At least for the Christian God, persons are always and primarily identified by relations. One could even say persons are their relations. And there are those in the Christian tradition who have said such things, such as Thomas Aquinas, who said it both carefully and thoroughly. So, God the Father is the Father because he is the Father of the Son. And the Son is the Son because he is the Son of the Father. This much we have already stated. So also the Spirit is the Spirit because he is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son.

In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is quite clearly both the Spirit of the Father and of the Son. He is both the Spirit of God the Father and the Spirit of the Lord Jesus (Paul). He is both the promise of the Father and the one who Jesus pours out (Acts). He is both sent by the Father and breathed by the Son (John). Or, to tie all these relations together in one complex sentence: "the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is in you" (Rom 8:11). The Holy Spirit is the common Spirit of God the Father and God the Son, whom God shares with us and by whom we are drawn to God.

2. "The Lord and Giver of Life"

Having identified the person of the Holy Spirit by his relationship to the Father and the Son, we return to the question of his divinity. I say "return," because when we initially spoke of the Spirit, we spoke of him as an attribute of God, the mode of God's empowerment, a gift given by God. And so his divinity was not really questioned. Of course the Spirit of God is divine, just as the power of God and the grace of God are divine. But once we begin to speak of the Spirit in personal terms, the question of his divinity immediately arises. Is this third person truly God? Is the Spirit of God also God the Spirit? Is there room enough in God not only for a Father and a Son, but also a Spirit?

Well, once this question was put to the church, she very quickly said Yes. There were certainly objectors. But the argument was won pretty quickly. Perhaps too quickly, given the trouble the church has had since in clarifying its teaching on the Spirit. The proclamation of the Spirit's divinity is expressed nicely by the second line of third article of the Nicene Creed: He is "the Lord and Giver of Life." Those are two terms within theological discourse that may only be predicated of God. God and God alone is the Lord and Life-Giver. Not only is Jesus Lord, but so is his Spirit. Not only is God the Father Almighty the Creator (a.k.a., Giver of Life), but so is his Spirit. The Spirit is the Sovereign Lord and the Life-giving Creator. In other words, the Spirit is God.

Although these appellations are code-names for divinity, they are carefully chosen to be refracted in light of the unique personal activity of the Spirit. To get at this unique lordly and life-giving activity, let's take our cue from Paul in 2 Corinthians 3. In the course of defending his ministry, Paul speaks of the life-giving Spirit of Christ in contrast to the death-dealing letter of the old covenant. After speaking distinctly of the ministry of the Spirit and the unveiling of the Lord Jesus, Paul declares: "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor 3:17). Here the Lord and the Spirit are identified ("is") and distinguished ("of") in such a way that Jesus' Lordship in and as the Spirit does not bind us but frees us. By the Spirit, who is the Lord and is of the Lord, we are freed. What are we freed from? The letter which kills. In other words, from death. To be freed from death is to be given life. The Spirit by whom the Father freed Jesus from the dead is the Spirit who frees us from death. This is the Spirit of the living God, the Spirit of resurrection, the Spirit of new creation. God is Spirit, which means God as Spirit is free -- free from the chains of death, free from arbitrary restraints, free to be our Lord, free to adopt us as children and share his freedom with us. The Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, is the Spirit of freedom. So the titles "Lord" and "Life-giver" indicate both the Spirit's divinity and the Spirit's way of being divine, his unique personal activity of liberation. The Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life.

3. "Who proceeds from the Father"

We must, however, return to the question of the Spirit's divinity a second time in order to sharpen the question. Up to this point, much of what we have said could be said of a quasi-divine intermediary being. The Spirit's role in Scripture is so clearly one of mediation, that it is easy to think of the Spirit as a sort of super-angel, God's primary agent of interaction with his world. If this were so, the Spirit would certainly be God-like and worthy of respect. Yet, if this were so, the Spirit would not be truly God. To be truly God, the Spirit must be God as God is God. For the Spirit to be truly divine, the Spirit must be God himself, God as he relates to himself, God in eternity. Is the Spirit God in eternity?

The Council of Constantinople answered this question in the affirmative. It confessed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. Just as the Son is truly God because he eternally generates from the Father, so the Spirit is truly God because he eternally proceeds from the Father. Now "procession" may sound like a technical term, but it is simply the noun form of the verb "comes forth." In Scripture, Jesus says that the Father will "send" the Spirit, who will "come forth" from the Father to his disciples (cf. John 16). What the fathers of the council wished to say was that this coming forth of the Spirit in time has as its ground a coming forth in eternity, and eternal procession of the Spirit from the Father. This distinction between the eternal procession and the temporal mission of the Spirit parallels the distinction between the eternal generation and the temporal mission of the Son. Each in his own way relates to God the Father eternally, and we know this because each is sent to us by God the Father in time. The divine missions reveal the divine relations. The personal distinctions in God's story with us correspond to and are rooted in personal distinctions within God's own eternal life.

Now let's us conclude with two briefer points, each of which turns in a slightly more practical direction.

4. "Who with the Father and the Son together
is worshiped and glorified

If the Spirit is an eternal divine person, then he is a proper object of worship. He is not only to be believed in, but also worshiped. It is worthy of note that the worship of the Spirit sparked the controversy that eventually led to the Council of Constantinople. Although the person of the Spirit can sometimes be a bit slippery in the New Testament, his presence in its many doxologies alongside the Father and Son is thoroughly anchored. Paul's blessings often take on a trinitarian structure, and Matthew's baptismal formula is unmistakably triadic. These doxological references to the Spirit flowed naturally into the worship life of the early church. Many of the arguments for the divinity of the Spirit emerged in order to defend this practice against its critics. The fathers argued that the Spirit is not just honored but truly worshiped, not alone but together with the Father and the Son. The phrase "together with" points to the doctrine of perichoresis, the mutual indwelling of the persons of the trinity. The fullness of the Father dwells within the Son and the Spirit. The Father and the Son mutually glorify one another throughout eternity (cf. John 17). The mutual glory of the Father and the Son dwells fully in the Spirit, and so the worship due the Father and the Son may and must also be given to the Spirit.

The practical important of the doctrine of the Spirit's divinity in particular and the doctrine of the Trinity in general is a summons to worship God in his triunity. Orthodoxy means, in the first instance, "right praise." So my advice to those who doubt the doctrine of the trinity is to begin to worship and glorify the Father and the Son together with the Spirit. Try it and see if it seems appropriate to you. My advice to those who are confused by the doctrine of the trinity is to pray to the Father with the Son in the power of the Spirit. Try it and see if the logic of their relations comes into view. My advice to those find the doctrine of the trinity irrelevant is to let the grammar of the trinity guide your proclamation and praise. Try it and see if makes any difference for you, even if its just a word here or there.

5. "Who spoke through the prophets"

Having moved from the mission of the Spirit in time to the procession of the Spirit in eternity, the creed turns its attention back to the Spirit's activity in history with the phrase "who spoke through the prophets," and thereby terminates its direct talk of the Spirit. Such a "coming back down to earth" is appropriate, for all that talk of eternal procession and mutual indwelling is not a speculative end in itself, but rather a necessary means to a very practical end. The eternal procession of the Spirit within God's own triune life assures us that the Spirit's work among us is trustworthy. The Spirit who speaks to us can be trusted to speak the very mind of God, for he is God. The Spirit searches the deep things of God. The Spirit who testifies with our spirit that we are God's children is not just any spirit but the very Spirit of God. The Spirit of adoption is God's own Spirit, by which we cry Abba Father. God's eternal Spirit gives us confidence to speak the word of God, to say that Jesus is God's only Son and our Lord, that we are his brothers and sisters and so therefore sons and daughters of God the Father Almighty. The assurance of faith is the gift of the Holy Spirit--God's gift of himself to us.

How does the Spirit so testify? How does the Spirit assure us that we are children of God? By speaking through the prophets. Here is the right place to speak of the inspiration of Holy Scripture. Although we have been using the Bible all along as the source and norm of our knowledge of God, we chose not to speak of its inspiration earlier in order to avoid the impression that an inspired text provides some kind of foundation on which theology builds its towers. Theology does not build on Scripture, it lives by Scripture. So here, in the third article of the creed wherein we speak of the life-giving power of the Spirit, is the right place to talk about the inspiration of Holy Scripture.

The holiness of scripture is grounded in the holiness of the Spirit who inspires it. God the Father set apart the writings of the Bible to bear witness to his Son Jesus Christ by the power of his Spirit. All scripture is God-breathed, inspirated, equipped for its task so that it will not return void. This extends not only to the prophets of Old Testament but also the apostles of the New. In a different but related way, the Spirit illumines the Christian to believe and understand and apply the Bible today. The import of inspiration is that we must always contend with both the Word and the Spirit. The Spirit never blows without using his concrete inspired Word. Yet the Word never speaks without the empowerment of the Spirit.

Practically speaking, what does this mean for us? On the one hand, we ought to test the spirits against the written word to see if they are of God. In light of the eternal relation between the Spirit and the Son and Father, we should expect the Spirit to reveal today in a way consistent with the way he has revealed in the past. The Spirit is not predictable, but he is faithful. On the other hand, we ought to be filled with the Spirit as we read and hear the written word. We must listen to the written word of God always and only by the power of the Spirit. The Spirit guides all genuine reading of Scripture. As one medieval monk put it, we cannot understand the Word of God if we are not filled by the Spirit who inspired it.

Any thoughts?
  • What are some of the causes of our Spirit-forgetfulness?
  • What are the limitations of speaking of the Holy Spirit in personal terms? Does understanding triune persons in terms of their relations help or hurt the matter?
  • Is it right to think of the Spirit's Lordship and Life-giving power in terms of divine freedom? What are some other ways of refracting these divine code-names in light of the unique personal activity of the Spirit?
  • Is the doctrine of the eternal procession of the Spirit a necessary one? What problematic avenues of reflection does it wisely seal off? What problems to it create?
  • How do you speak of the person of the Spirit in your own life? Do you address the Spirit in prayer and praise?
  • Any thoughts on the place of the inspiration of scripture within the context of the Spirit's unique role in the story of God with us? Was this the right place to bring it up? If not, when should it come up?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Druchesis V: Crucified and Risen

As we mentioned last week, Christian faith is centered on a person, the person of Jesus. And persons can be identified by two interconnected ways: by their relations and by their narrative. Last week we focused primarily on identifying Jesus within the context of his relations: he is Israel's Christ, God's only Son, and our Lord. We also considered the first episode in Jesus' narrative and the corresponding claim that he is fully God and fully human. This week we turn our attention fully to Jesus' narrative. In so doing, we are both filling out our understanding of his identity begun last week and bringing into focus a new topic: his saving significance. In many traditional discussions of Jesus, these two topics are variously divided under the headings "person" and "work" of Christ or "Christology" and "Soteriology." Such a distinction has a measure of heuristic value, but it is ultimately misleading because it so easily separates the identity and significance of Jesus. But these cannot be separated, for Jesus' significance for us consists precisely in his identification with us in the depths of our suffering and sin. Jesus is Immanuel, God-with-us. Such a statement is an indication of both his identity and his saving significance. So, as we attend to the plot of his story and its significance for us, let's not leave behind reflection on his identity as though it were a finished task.

The story of Jesus can be organized in a number of different ways. Obviously, one could try to reassemble all the details of his narrative. We have already noted that such comprehensiveness is not the goal of the creed. Instead, the creed highlights the key turning point in the story: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Now if such a selection were merely arbitrary, we would have a problem. But the creed is in fact following the lead of the New Testament: not only do the Acts and the epistles contain brief statements of faith that highlight the death and resurrection of Jesus (cf. I Cor 15:3-4; Acts 4:10), but the Gospels themselves present Jesus' life story as resolutely oriented toward its climax in his death and resurrection (cf. Mark 8:31 & parr; Luke 9:51). So the Creed is in good company when it highlights the death and resurrection of Jesus as the central episode in his story. Following this creedal pattern, we will organize our reflections into four headings, speaking first of his suffering and death, then of his resurrection and ascension. All along the way we will meditate on the saving significance of the one who is identified by this narrative.

Suffered under Pontius Pilate

As already noted, the historical antecedents to the Apostles' Creed were decidedly anti-gnostic in orientation. The gnostic movement within the early Christian church downplayed the genuine historical suffering of Christ. Such an approach is a function of a wider docetic Christology in which the Son or Logos only appears to be human (dokeo means "to seem"). With such ideas on the radar, it should be no surprise that the suffering of Christ makes it onto the creed's short list of things to affirm.

However, such an affirmation has never been easy for Christians. Christians have consistently stumbled over the notion of God experiencing suffering in Christ. This probably has to do with the Greek philosophical inheritance and its presumption of divine impassibility (the notion that God transcends suffering). But whatever the source, the discomfort with divine suffering is a long-standing habit of Christian thinking. Reconciling this discomfort with an affirmation of the incarnation has motivated the creation of many careful distinctions that contributed significantly to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. Many of these theological moves were made to protect either the Father or Christ's divine nature from the suffering Jesus undergoes according to the New Testament. Appropriating these doctrines today does not require that we share all their philosophical motivations or assumptions, but we ought to at least understand them so that we can grasp the complexity of this heritage.

Christian discomfort with suffering is not merely a by-gone habit from another time. It continues today. The belief that true faith guarantees immediate relief from suffering is widespread. Such a belief tends to treat the suffering of Jesus as a temporary ordeal, a bad weekend in Jerusalem that he quickly overcame by the power of his faith. Even Christians who valorize and idealize suffering, often with reference to the suffering of Jesus, have a tendency to undermine its seriousness precisely by valorizing and idealizing it--turning suffering into some kind of instrumental good or pleasure in itself. But the Christian story neither despises nor valorizes suffering. The story of Jesus shows that God in his mercy has compassion on the suffering of his people and yet overcomes it precisely by entering into it. That is the good news of the gospel: God did not stand aloof over our suffering, but participated in it. In Jesus Christ, God suffers with us.

Was Crucified, Dead and Buried
He Descended into Hell

But Jesus not only suffered with us, he also suffered for us. That little prepositional phrase "for us" brings us to our second heading: the death of Christ. As Christian Scripture and Christian piety repeatedly attest: Christ died for us. Jesus' obedience to the will of his Father led not only to his suffering and death in solidarity with us, but also to his suffering and death on our behalf, in our place, for our sakes. His was not just a death like any other. His was not even a death like any other horrible criminal's or political prisoner's. Jesus died as our representative, as our head, as the one true human who stands in for all the rest. Christ died for us.

How can we speak this way? What is it about the death of Jesus as narrated by the Gospels and highlighted by the Creed that indicates his death was for us? The clue in this direction is the manner of Christ's death. Jesus Christ died the death of a criminal. He was crucified. Crucifixion was the Roman punishment for political criminals. But what was his crime? The Gospels consistently present the trial(s) of Jesus as a sham, and the New Testament as a whole witnesses to his innocence and even sinlessness. So if Jesus' death was a punishment for a crime, yet Jesus committed no crime, why did he die?

This is where the notion of exchange or substitution comes in. Jesus the innocent died for us the guilty. Jesus the righteous died for us sinners. Jesus died so that we may live. Now such a substitution or exchange is not usually permitted in the legal world. Of course, one could appeal to God as the supreme judge who can do whatever he wants. But the Christian tradition at this point has usually shifted gears into the language of sacrifice, which already contains the logic of substitution (e.g., scapegoat, passover lamb, etc.). Whether mixing judicial and cultic metaphors is all that helpful can be debated. But the basic model shines through: Christ died instead of us so that we may be reconciled to God. Christ died for us.

Christ died for us. In order to hammer this point home, the Creed rattles off three verbs: "crucified, dead, and buried." Not only was he crucified, but he really died, and they put him in the ground. Then the creed takes it up a notch. The Creed highlights a muted but very real theme in Scripture: Christ "descended into hell." Upon his death, Christ went down (not up), to join the dead who are separated from God on account of their sins. If there was any question that the crucifixion itself functions as a punishment, the fact that Christ suffers the ultimate fate of dead sinners in his descent should seal the deal. Now there is some debate as to whether this descent should be understood as a continuation of his substitutionary suffering or as a victorious invasion of the realm of the dead. I personally am attracted to the former option, but that does not necessarily require a rejection of the latter. What is most important at this juncture is to acknowledge that this obscure episode manages to make it into the creed and to hear this inclusion as an invitation to intentionally reflect on the saving significance of the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

On the third day he rose again from the dead

If Jesus' death saves us, if by dying in our place he reconciled us to God, then why is that not the end of the story? Why not just end the story of Jesus with the climactic episode of his death? Unfortunately, too much Christian preaching does in fact end there. So many sermons reduce the story of salvation to the death of Christ. That is not to say that these Christians don't believe in Christ's resurrection. But it does betray that Christ's rising from the dead has no theological function -- no place in the plot -- in Christian faith and practice. What purpose does the resurrection have? What is its place in the plot of the gospel story? Why did Jesus rise again from the dead?

No one can see nor come to the Father except through the Son. If the Son is dead, the Father is inaccessible. What good is our reconciliation with God if we cannot see or hear or taste it? Jesus was dead. The disciples scattered. His death may have saved them, but he was unavailable to them. But that was not the end of the story. In fact, it was only the beginning. Jesus came to them. Jesus appeared in their midst. He showed himself to be risen from the dead. The angels and women bore witness to his now empty tomb. On the third day he rose again from the dead. Jesus who died for us and for our salvation now comes to us as our savior.

There are many theological implications that follow from the resurrection of Christ. I will mention just three. First, God confirmed his work of creation. By raising his son Jesus from the dead, God confirms his intention not to give up on his creation but to redeem it. He will not save us by annihilating us or by tearing us out of his created order. He will save us by transforming his creation from within. This means that the hope of resurrection, far from being pie-in-the-sky escapism, teaches us to value God's good creation and hope for its redemption.

Second, God rendered the incarnation permanent. The eternal Son of God did not just become human for a little while. The incarnation was not a vacation, but the fulfillment of God's master plan. Jesus is and remains human unto eternity. This means that seeing God face to face will always involve the face of Jesus. This is why the name of Jesus is so crucial in the meantime. He is not just a way to God that can be discarded once we reach the goal. By his resurrection, Jesus is now the goal, the end, the purpose of all human life. It is worthy of note that the permanence of the incarnation is the theological reason why resurrection must be bodily resurrection. Perhaps you have heard a preacher harp on the bodily character of Jesus' resurrected body, or perhaps you have heard someone dismiss this claim as being too "literal." The issue at stake here is deeper than questions of Biblical literalism and historical verifiability. The issue cuts to the heart of the identity of Jesus and therefore the very identity of God. Is God truly revealed in Jesus Christ? Is God forever the God who takes up the cause and need of humanity? Is God really for us? Incarnation rendered permanent by resurrection ensures that the answer to all these questions is a resounding "Yes!"

Third, God saves by giving life. By raising his Jesus from the dead, God shows that his ultimate intention for humanity is not death but life. God wants us to live! This means that salvation cannot be reduced solely to forgiveness. Now the power of forgiveness should not be dismissed. Forgiveness releases us from our past and thereby opens up our future. But our future is not merely a timeless state of being forgiven. The future opened by Christ's forgiveness is the eternal dynamism of life. Salvation is a matter of life and death. "I come that you might have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). This eternal life breaks into to our lives in the present. "The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is in you" (Rom 8:11). The resurrection of Jesus reminds us that salvation includes the life-giving power of the Spirit at work among us.

He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
from whence he come to judge the living and the dead.

A final word must be added to all the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The crucified and risen Lord ascended into heaven. The second article of the creed concludes with Jesus sitting down at the right hand of the God mentioned in the first article: God the Father Almighty. The Creator and Lord of the universe has at his side his very own Son who is one of us, a human being, our brother. So we need not fear his coming at the end to judge, for he has shown himself to be on our side. This observation does not dismiss the seriousness with which we all must take the final judgment. But shaking knees are not called for. Hope and expectation are the proper attitude of those of who live in the time between the ascension of Jesus and his last descent.

But why ascend? Why not just wrap things up on Easter morning? Why is the resurrection of Jesus only a first-fruits, and not the harvest? Ascension is in fact good news, for it means that Jesus is giving us time to reap, to join along side him in his mission to the world. In the New Testament, the ascension of Jesus is consistently linked with the sending out of the disciples on their mission to the ends of the earth. In Acts 1 the connection is explicit: after forty days with his disciples, Jesus sends them out right before being taken up into a cloud. In Matthew 28 there is no explicit mention of an ascension, but in Jesus' last appearance to the disciples (which is equivalent to ascension) his final word is a word of commission: go and make disciples of all nations. In the gospel of John, resurrection and ascension and pentecost are all scrunched together chronologically in such a way that upon his first appearance to the disciples, Jesus breathes his spirit on them while saying, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 20:21). In all these cases, the gift of the ascension is that Jesus gives us time to join him in his mission. The ascension means time for us, time for the church, time for the world, time for action, time for teaching, time for the Spirit. Ascension means the gift of time. May we use this time faithfully and joyfully as we join him on his mission.

Any thoughts?
  • How do you think of the place of suffering in the life of Christ and God's relationship to it?
  • Can Christ's death be thought of as saving? Should this salvation be thought of in substitutionary terms? What problems come with this model? Can they be overcome?
  • Why do we so easily forget the soteriological significance of Christ's resurrection? Is the general line I took on the matter (that in his resurrection Christ reveals himself as savior) helpful? What of the implications I noted?
  • Do you see the connection between ascension and mission? What other significance can be assigned to the ascension?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Druchesis IV: And in Jesus Christ...

We now turn to the second article of the creed. The focus of the second article is Jesus. We have already bumped into Jesus when reflecting on his Father in the first article. But now we focus directly on him. This article is not only placed at the center of the creed, but is also the longest of the three articles. One could say it is the heart of the creed. And that seems appropriate, for Christians bear the name of Christ. Explicit reflection on the one whose name we bear is central to the theological task of the church in all ages. It is with his name that the second article begins, followed by a few titles, before it tells a brief version of his story. This week, we will take up his name and titles, as well as the first episode of his story. These items bring into focus this week's topic: the identity of Jesus. Who is Jesus? He is the Christ, the only Son of God, our Lord, the who (among other things) was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. But before considering these things, let's begin at the beginning with the name, the name that is above every name, the name of Jesus.


At the heart of the Christian faith we find a person: Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, many communities organize themselves around significant historical persons. But Christians are consumed directly with the person of Jesus. Christians concern themselves not only with Jesus's teaching or mission or ideals or accomplishments, but also with Jesus himself. The little word "and" at the head of the second article is significant, because it means that just as we believe in God the Father Almighty, we also believe in Jesus. We believe in Jesus, not just an idea or a rule or a feeling, but a person.

We already indicated that the Christian God is personal. Such a claim required some reflection about the kind of God we believe in. In fact, the claim that God is personal is grounded in the person of Jesus. We know God is personal because Jesus is personal. Personality is not some abstract quality of the Christian God. God the Father relates personally to Jesus, and through him relates personally to us. In Jesus, God is personal.

But the claim that Jesus is personal does not require any complex logical moves. Jesus is a person in the most straightforward sense of the term. Jesus lived at a certain place in a certain time with a certain way of being in the world. He can be distinguished from other persons of his time and place. He is Jesus of Nazareth--a particular first century Galilean Jew. These particularities are decidedly historical: Jesus is a person located within the flow of human history. There is much that makes Jesus unique within this historical flow. Most importantly, he was raised from the dead and therefore he lives. So Jesus is not "historical" in the sense of being dead and gone, a great man to be remembered. But even as the one who overcame death, Jesus is and remains a historical person, a full participant in human history. The risen Jesus is and remains the Jesus he was in his own particular time and place. This is why the Christian Scriptures are organized around documents that tell his story: the four Gospels. The Gospels ensure that our faith in God and in his son Jesus does not fly off into fantasy or legality or idealism, but remains rooted in the historical person at the heart of its faith.

So what do we know about the person of Jesus? Well, persons can be known in two interconnected ways. We know persons by their relations: who they are in relationship to their parents and friends and associates picks them out from among all other persons. We also know persons by their narrative: what they do and how they do it, as well as what is done to them and how they take it, locates them in their unique place in human history and reveals much about their character. The Apostles' Creed identifies Jesus by three titles, all of which identify him by his relations. Let's reflect on each of these titles before turning to the first episode in his narrative.


Jesus is the Christ. "Christ" is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word "Messiah." Both mean "anointed one." The Messiah is the anointed one. By proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ, Christians are identifying Jesus by his relationship to Israel. He is the anointed one of Israel. He the one from among the Israelites who is set apart as their representative to perform a special task. Now Christians have had a long-standing habit of thinking that there was a secure concept of "messiah" within Israel's Scriptures and/or among Jews at the time of Jesus. The basis for this habit has been successfully deconstructed in recent years. There were in fact many messianic ideas on offer, and even many who claimed to be the messiah, as well as those who were suspicious of the whole messianic trend. The deconstruction of a stable messiah-concept need not trouble us theologically, for three things remain true: (1) at least in the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus, many Jews did live in a state of expectation and such expectations were tied up with the messiah, (2) the core element of anointing for representative service appears throughout the various messiah-concepts on offer, and (3) the meaning of "messiah" in the New Testament was from the beginning determined by Jesus himself and his unique identity and activity, not the other way around. The second point is instructive, because it locates Jesus within the long Israelites tradition of prophets, priests and kings. Jesus is anointed to enact the prophetic, priestly and royal missions within Israel and on behalf of Israel. But the third point is decisive. If Jesus does not "line-up" perfectly with any specific messianic expectation, that does not undermine his messianic status but rather indicates the way he fulfills and surpasses even the expectations of his own people. Yet precisely as the one who fulfills God's covenant with Israel, Jesus is identified by his unique relationship to Israel.

His only Son

Jesus is the Son of God. We already mentioned the sonship of Jesus when we spoke of the fatherhood of God. There we hinted at a key building block in the later doctrine of the trinity: the eternal sonship of the Son. Or, in the classical lingo, the eternal generation of the Son from the Father. Here we are merely turning that wild claim on its head: instead of identifying the Father by way of the Son, we are now identifying the Son by way of the Father. By declaring that Jesus is the only Son of God, Christians are identifying Jesus by his unique relationship to God. He is the Son of God, the only begotten of God. He is therefore God the Son. Now it should be noted that "Son of God" does not necessarily carry such "divine" connotation in the New Testament. In fact, the language of "Son of God" had distinctively royal connotations, both in Israel and in the Roman Empire. On the one hand, Israel's king was the representative of God to the people and so was spoken of as God's Son (cf. 2 Sam 7 and Psalm 110, both of which became crucial Christological texts for the early Christian movement). On the other, Rome's emperor claimed quasi-divine status to secure his totalitarian rule. The former points us back to the first title (Messiah); the second points us forward to the third title (Lord). Suffice it say that "son of God" language in the New Testament does not serve as a simple proof-text for the divinity of Jesus. And yet, the church was not entirely without precedent as it moved forward in the development of its doctrine of the divinity of Jesus. For the New Testament does identify Jesus by his unique relation to God. He is spoken of as the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). In these last days, God has spoken through his son, who is the exact representation of his being (Heb. 1:2-3). And the Gospel of John is replete with explicit reflection on the unique relation of Jesus the Son to God his Father. And so it is not without warrant that the church, after centuries of struggle and refinement, came to praise Jesus as "the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father" (Nicene Creed 325/381). These words of praise identify Jesus as uniquely and eternally related to God the Father.

Our Lord

Jesus is Lord. This was the most basic Christian confession, which predates even the documents of the New Testament. To be a Christian was publicly to confess that Jesus is Lord. By confessing that Jesus is Lord, Christians are identifying Jesus by his relationship to us and to the world. The notion of lordship implies a domain: to be a lord one must have people or places over which one exercises his authority. A Lord without a domain is a laughing stock. Whose Lord is Jesus? First of all, he is "our" Lord, the Lord of those who believe in him--Christians. This confession got Christians in trouble, because the phrase "such-and-so is Lord" was reserved for Caesar. "Caesar is Lord" was the official gesture of political loyalty, expressed in everyday life, political pomp, and even religious ceremony. Now the Christians could have clarified that when they say, "Jesus is our Lord," they only meant he is their private Lord--their religious guru--and so not a threat to imperial authority. But the Christians did not make this clarification. Rather, they clarified themselves in the other direction: he is the Lord, the bearer of the divine name, the rule of all things. The early Christians would commandeer many of the appellations given to the emperor, declaring that Jesus and he alone could claim such titles. By doing so, Christians have from the beginning spoken of Jesus not just as a significant religious person but as the ruler of all things. Therefore, there is nothing outside the purview of Christian thought and action. This is not necessarily a justification to seize earthly powers, but it is certainly an indictment of any fearful or disinterested escape from the affairs of this world. The creed identified Jesus by his unique relationship to us as our Lord and to the world as the Lord.

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary

Having identified Jesus by his relations, the creed begins to tell his story. This story is introduced by the relative pronoun "who." The remainder of the second article of the creed hangs on this little word. The basic form of Christian belief is, "I believe in Jesus, who ... [insert narrative]." The basic form of Christian proclamation is, "Jesus, who ... [insert narrative], is Lord." Now the narrative found in the creed is anything but complete. Instead, it highlights key episodes in his story that Christians over the years have deemed the most crucial for understanding who he is. Many of the elements listed appear precisely because they were contested. So if something important is missing, it may be because it was never challenged. Of course, we know that things taken for granted are quickly forgotten and easily corrupted, so it is important to be ready to respond to new challenges to the story of Jesus. But as they stand, the classic creedal statements still serve to highlight the most crucial episodes in Jesus's story.

This week let's look briefly at the first episode: the origin of Jesus. Attention to the first episode is appropriate here, because even as this supplies the first moment in the story of Jesus, it continues to identify Jesus by his relations. One the one hand, Jesus is identified by his relation to the Holy Spirit by whom he was conceived. On the other, Jesus is identified by his relation to the Virgin Mary of whom was born. This twofold statement points to the unique origin of Jesus. Of course, this statement has become hotly contested as some find the idea of a miraculous virginal conception impossible to believe. Though the virgin birth may be difficult to believe, the miracle itself points to something deeper and perhaps even more difficult to believe: the incarnation of the God. The Son who is eternal with God, the Word through whom God created the world, has become flesh in Jesus Christ. This "becoming flesh" took place at a particular moment of time: when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary. The miracle points to the fact that the incarnation of God is not something that emerges naturally within the flow of history. The incarnation is a gift. It is the gift whereby God, without ceasing to be truly God, becomes a genuine human being. God is with as one of us.

The twofold structure of this statement corresponds to the twofold structure of Jesus's person: he is both fully God (conceived by the Holy Spirit) and fully human (born of the Virgin Mary). The fact that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit means that he was in fellowship with God from the beginning of his existence, not adopted into such fellowship at a later point in time as we are. He is truly God, not just godly or godlike. The fact that he was uniquely born without an earthly father sets him apart from among his brothers and sisters as a man with an unprecedented mission, but it does not separate him from the human community. He is truly human, not just human-seeming. He is fully God and fully human.

Fully God and fully human. This twofold structure of faith in Jesus Christ, while traces of it can be found in New Testament (cf. Rom. 1:3-4) and it is implicit within much early Christian teaching, was declared orthodoxy at the Council of Chalcedon (451). Countering extreme views on all sides that either undermined his genuine divinity by separating divinity and humanity in him or undermined his genuine humanity by mixing divinity and humanity in him, Chalcedon confessed "one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, complete in divinity and complete in humanity... is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division or separation. The distinction between natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person." This so-called "two-natures" doctrine functions as a rule for interpreting Scripture and for proper worship. No reading of the Gospel story is permitted which undermines Jesus' divinity or humanity or tears apart his person. Within these boundaries, one has great freedom in how to construe the complex relationship of divinity and humanity in Christ. But the point of all such ruled constructions is to point back to the central fact at the heart of the Christian faith: that God's word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Druchesis III: Maker of Heaven and Earth

Let's continue our series of reflections on the Apostles' Creed. Last week we spoke of the first clause of the first article of the creed: I believe in God the Father Almighty. There we discussed God's priority, relationality, identity and character. God is God. God is Father. God is Almighty. In all these things we attempted to speak of God as he is in himself. This week we turn to the second clause of the first article of the creed: maker of heaven and earth. In so doing we turn to speak of God as he relates to us. Of course, last week we already spoke about how God relates to us, since there is no other way to think about God as relates to himself except as he relates to us. But this week we turn our attention directly to God's relationship to things other than himself.

Specifically, we turn our attention to God's relationship to all things other than himself. God is the creator of everything. That is the claim made by the second clause of the first article of the creed. It is an audacious claim. It may not seem audacious at first, for the definition of God as "maker of the universe" has come to be taken for granted in much of Western culture. When you ask someone whether or not they believe in God, they usually take you to mean, "Is there a personal power that made everything?" But during the early centuries of their missionary outreach, Christians could not presume such a definition of God. Some Christian preachers (Marcion, famously) even claimed that God did not make the world, and that such a denial is good news. Hence the declaration that God is the creator of everything finds its way into the earliest creeds. Against this background, Christian leaders developed the first crucial building blocks toward its own unique understanding of God's relationship to the world. This unique understanding is worthy of our sustained attention in order to see if there is more going on here than the now taken-for-granted definition of God as maker of the universe. What is taken for granted is quickly forgotten, easily corrupted, and eventually rejected. One of the tasks of theological reflection is to probe the depths of that which is taken for granted. So let's probe the depths of the claim that God is the creator of everything.

God is the creator of everything.

The first task of the Christian doctrine of creation is to clarify who creates. This was at the heart of the controversy with Marcion, mentioned above. You see, Marcion did not deny the existence of a creator. Of course there is some primary source or first principle from which all things emerge. What Marcion denied was the identity of this creator with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The good God revealed in Jesus Christ is in a great battle with the evil god who made the world, known as the demiurge (Greek for 'craftsman'). The God and Father of Jesus Christ is concerned with eternal, spiritual things that lift us up, whereas the demiurge is concerned with temporal, material things that draw us down. Of course, such an opposition is difficult to reconcile with the picture of God in the Old Testament (not to mention the New), in which God is said not only to create the world and but also to get involved in the world with its temporal and material concerns. And so Marcion and others like him drew the logical conclusion that the God of the Old Testament -- the God of Israel -- is the demiurge, the evil god who created the world. On this theological basis he rejected the Old Testament as scripture, and while he was at it edited out much of the emerging New Testament.

Now this little historical foray is necessary inasmuch as it shows the interconnectedness of doctrinal topics. When we talk about creation, we are also taking about God, Israel, Jesus and the canon. In Christian theology, everything is related to everything else. That's, by the way, why the adjective "systematic" gets attached to some forms of theological reflection. The point here is that, thanks to Marcion and his willingness to follow his own insights to their own logical conclusions, the early Christian church identified a puzzle inherent in its own proclamation that required clarification by means of rational reflection. Key leaders in the Christian community -- most famously, Irenaeus of Lyons -- successfully encouraged the church to identify the maker of the universe with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The God who creates is the God who saves. There is no opposition between creation and redemption, between the Old Testament and the New, between matter and spirit. There is one God, the Father Almighty, who is the maker of heaven and earth.

In doing so, the church upheld a number of theological values, which have been developed and explored in various ways over the centuries. First, creation is good. God in Genesis 1 declares the goodness of creation. The creedal word of thanks and praise to the God who creates ensures that no interpretation of Genesis 1 (or any other relevant text) is permitted which would impinge on the goodness of God's creation. For human beings in particular, this means that there is no part of us which is essentially bad, no part which we should seek to simply cast off. We will return to this in a few weeks when we speak of the final destiny of human beings. For know let's just make sure to agree with God when he says, "It is good."

Second, creation and redemption are positively related. The redemption wrought in Jesus Christ and perfected by the Holy Spirit are not an escape from the world which God the Father has made. To seal this point, Christians speak of creation as an act of the triune God. God the Father creates through the Son by the Spirit. The Word and Spirit are the "two hands of God," as Irenaeus put it. Including a first century Jew in the act of creation is not an easy claim to swallow. But doing so develops a line of New Testament teaching (cf. 1 Cor 8:6; John 1:1-4), however such passages might be variously interpreted in their original context. The point of such a development is to ensure a positive relationship between creation and redemption. There are a number of ways of construing this relation. There are two primary alternatives: either redemption is a restoration of what was lost in creation, or redemption is the fulfillment of an original creative purpose. Both may in fact be true in some sense. But either way the point gets across: creation and redemption are positively related.

Third, Israel is an essential character in the story of God told by the Gospel. The affirmation of creation and its material history makes room for the story of Israel within the story of God. Just as Marcion's rejection of God as creator led to the rejection of Israel, so the Church's affirmation of God as creator may lead to the affirmation of Israel. I say "makes room for" and "may lead" rather than "secures the place of" and "necessarily leads" because the church has consistently failed to remember the positive place of Israel in its message. The rejection of Marcion makes the affirmation of this positive place possible, but does not guarantee its execution. The terrible treatment of the Jews by the church throughout history is a testimony to this failure. In our time, especially in the wake of the Holocaust, we ought to go out of our way to speak positively of Israel as an essential character in the story of God with us.

Okay, that's enough for now on the identity of the creator and its implications. Let me just add two briefer points concerning the mode of God's creating and its scope.

God is the creator of everything.

The creed praises God as the maker of heaven and earth. But how does God make the heavens and the earth? It should be observed that Genesis 1 (and other relevant texts) use the verb "create" in addition to, and in distinction from, the verb "make." Creatures also "make" things. But only the creator "creates." But therein lies the problem: if only God creates, if creation is an absolutely unique activity, then how can we understand how it works? Are we simply forced to say that God creates and that he does so in a way wholly mysterious to us? Well, we should stand in awe of the mystery of God's creating. But such an awe-filled stance does not bar an awe-inspired inquiry into the mode of God's creating. When it comes to God's unique acts, the limits of our understanding are not set by our dumbfoundedness but by God's revelation. If God has revealed the mode of his creating, then we ought not suffer in silence but spring forth with praise for his mighty deeds.

And God has so revealed his mode of creating: God creates by speaking. In Genesis 1, God says, "Let there be ... and so there was ..." God in his awesome power (almightiness!) creates with his sheer word. Now we might just cast this off as poetic license in the opening chapter, if it were not such a pervasive theme in Scripture. God calls Abraham by speaking. God delivers the law to Moses by speaking. God judges his people through the prophets by speaking. God's speaking becomes flesh in Jesus Christ. God creates by speaking, and thereby initiates a history of speaking to and with his people.

Creation by speaking rules out a number of other modes of creation. Two particular alternative ways come to mind. On the one hand, God could be said to create by emanation. All things emanate from God. This was a particularly popular notion during the early centuries of Christianity. Emanation means that creation flows naturally out of God's over-abounding goodness. The world "spills out" of God, so to speak. And so creation is a lesser extension of God himself. Now there is a element of truth here. God does create out of his goodness, and there is a certain familiarity and fitness between God and his creation. But the emanationist model undermines God's purpose in creating. It is as if creation just "happens," almost out of necessity. Such a narrative does not cohere with the story of the God who creates by speaking in order to engage in a conversation with his creatures.

On the other hand, God could be said to create by sheer will. All things simply are because God willed it. This option emerges whenever Christians overreact to the emanationist tendency. Sheer will means that God arbitrarily brings worlds into existence, and so can just as arbitrarily change the rules of the world and destroy the world. Now there is an element of truth here too. God does create in freedom. He is not compelled by any force or necessity to create. And God remains Lord over his creation; creation has no inherent "claim" on God. But the sheer-will model also undermines God's purpose in creating. It is as if creation happens for no reason whatsoever, but simply because God wanted it that way. Such a narrative does not cohere with the story of the God who creates by speaking in order to engage in a conversation with his creatures.

God is the creator of everything.

Lastly, we should make a comment regarding the scope of what God creates. All along, we've thrown around the phrase "all things" as if it can be assumed. But this deserves our direct attention, for much of what we have already said could be maintained of a God who creates most but not all things. In fact, such a claim is probably easier to maintain. It is easier to think of God creates the good parts of the world. It is harder to give thanks and praise to a God who creates everything, because we are not always thankful for everything. Now we can make a caveat that some things are not God's direct will, such as the sinful things that humans do. We will come back to that. But even if that were an adequate answer on its own, we would still have to deal with the problem of those horrible things that cannot be blamed on any human agent (e.g., hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.). It might be easier to say that God is the creator is most things.

But that is not the claim of the Christian creed. God is the maker of heaven and earth. The phrase "heaven and earth" is there on purpose. It is to indicate the scope of God's creating. God creates everything, from top to bottom. God creates the spiritual and the material realms, and everything in between. As the Nicene Creed puts, "of all things seen and unseen." This blocks any gnostic half-way house that may avoid the extremes of the Marcion brand that rejects the creator outright. A God who creates some or even most things is still not the God of the Bible. A gnostic half-way house can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Perhaps God fashions some pre-existing material. Or perhaps God creates matter along a space-time continuum that is co-eternal with him. Or perhaps more crudely we can fall into the thinking of a full-populated heaven with angels, etc. co-eternal with God. But even angels are God's creatures; they may be immortal, but they are not eternal. The Christian church has blocked all these avenues by saying that God creates out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). There is no thing which God draws on to create. Nothing pre-dates God's creation. But the doctrine of creation out of nothing does not stand on its own. It is rather a negative rule that guards the positive praise that God is the creator of everything.

Any thoughts?
  • Do you see the connection between the identity of the creator and the character of creation? Am I right to make a big deal about this?
  • How do you understand the relationship between creation and redemption?
  • Are there any further implications of God's creating by speaking and out of nothing?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Druchesis II: God the Father Almighty

Two weeks ago I began a series of reflections on the Apostles' Creed, oddly (or aptly) titled Druchesis. Last week I simultaneously attended a conference and came down with a cold, so the second installment was delayed. So, here's an attempt to unfold the significance of the first phrase of the first article: "I believe in God the Father Almighty."

This statement contains three terms worthy of reflection: God, the Father, Almighty. These three terms imply three claims: (1) God is God. (2) God is Father. (3) God is Almighty. Let's consider each in turn.

(1) God is God.

I believe in God. God is the first object of belief in the creed. And rightly so. Christian faith begins with God. Although we began with some reflections on faith in our first installment, this must never be taken to imply that our own faith and its needs and concerns supply the starting point of Christian theology. We enter with our faith, for it is the appropriate stance before the subject-matter of our reflection: God. So faith is the starting posture, but not the starting point. True faith is consumed not with itself but with its object, God himself.

So, what does it mean to "start" with God. Well, it means reminding ourselves that God starts with God. God does not come from us; we come from God. God is who he is prior to what we make of him. God is not just a big version of us (a.k.a., the big man upstairs). God is not a necessary postulate of the human mind, a projection of our dreams and wishes, a fulfillment of our needs and desires. If God is any of these things, he is these things after he is God in himself. God is God. That is the first thing theology must say. Before we specify who God is in relation to us, we must say who God is in relation to himself.

Of course, right there we bump into a difficulty. For how can say anything about God himself? How can we know God in relation to himself? Do we not only know God as he relates himself to us? Do we not only know God as we believe in him, not as he is in himself prior to our belief in him? These are not just academic questions. These are genuine questions that emerge within the life of faith. On the one hand, we only know the God that we know. We only talk about God or talk to God as we believe in and understand him. On the other hand, when we talk about or to God, we really believe we are talking about or to something or someone other than and beyond the images in our head. We believe God truly is God.

Thankfully, this is not an irresolvable difficulty. And I really do mean "thankfully" (that's not just window-dressing). God in his grace has chosen to reveal himself as he truly is. God is the God who makes himself known as God. That is a gift worthy of our thanks and praise. We can talk about and to God as God truly is, for God reveals himself. We can and must say God is God, but only because God reveals himself.

Perhaps that last bit is too abstract a way of putting this. Let me put it another way: God is the God of the Bible. God is not just an idea about which the Bible supplies information. If that were so, we might ask whether the Bible is the only such source of information and whether the information it yields is adequate. But God is not just some idea. God is rather a character in a story. God is the central character in this particular story. God is a person who speaks and acts. God introduces himself, names himself, identifies himself in and through this specific story. God creates the world. God elects Israel. God speaks with Abraham and to Moses and through the prophets. God sends his son Jesus. God pours out his Spirit on his church. God is the God who does these things. To start with God means to tell God's story. The God who appears in this story is who God is in himself. Therefore, when we say that God is God, we say so not to keep God at a distance, enclosed in himself, but to point to this God, the God of the Bible, as the one and only true God. We can and must say God is God, but only because God is the God of the Bible.

So, what can we say about the God of the Bible? Who is the God who reveals himself? What else can we say about God beyond the fact that God is God? Such questions could prompt us down many different paths, provided we are guided by Scripture in our answers. But since taking this next step corresponds nicely to the next term in the creed, let's follow the church's lead and develop our understanding of God in terms of his fatherhood.

(2) God is Father.

God is certainly spoken of as "father" throughout Scripture. We find it in the teachings of Jesus. We find it in the letters of Paul. We find it embedded in the imagery of Israel's prophecy and poetry. What do we mean when we speak about God as Father? What do we mean when we address God as Father?

Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that God is like a father. God is fatherly. He loves and cares like a father. When we say this, we are employing the procedure of analogy. We are trying to describe what God is like by pointing to something similar. When we employ analogies, we always have to be careful to note the dissimilarity as well. This is always true of analogies, but it is especially when we use them for God. God is like a father, and yet he is also quite unlike our earthly fathers. We must always acknowledge the limits of theological analogies, especially because language that is intended to be positive (e.g., a caring and providing father) can so easily become twisted in light of negative experience (e.g., absent or abusive father). And even the positive aspects of the analogy are limited, because God is not just an father but the greatest father there could ever be, the first and primary father by which all other fathers are judges. So, when we use analogies, God's own unique activities should inform what we mean by them. Provided we remember these limitations, we can and should use analogies, and especially those found in Scripture.

But the creed does not here say that God is like a father. Rather, the creed speaks of God the Father. The definite article seems to be implying that, even as we employ analogical language here, we are not merely describing what God is like, but picking out who God is. Who is God? God is the Father. Of course, such an answer immediately demands a follow up question: the father of whom? You see, "father" is not only an analogical term, it is also a relational term. One could perhaps be fatherly by exhibiting certain father-like characteristics without in fact being a father. But to be a father one must have a child. If God is not only fatherly, but also a father, God must have children. Does God have children?

Well, in fact, he does. Christians speak of themselves as children of God, and not without reason. To be a Christian is to be adopted as God's child. But does this mean God was not a father before Christians came along? No, because God had already chosen the people of Israel to be his children long before. But what about before he called Abraham? The early chapters of Genesis as well as some vague references in the prophets indicate that God is in fact the father of all people and of all creatures. God is the father of all.

But what about before there was anyone or anything to be father of? Although it may sound a little strange, Christians believe that God has always been a father because God has always had a son, and his name is Jesus Christ. We will say more about Jesus when we come to the second article of the creed, which is dedicated to him, but we cannot avoid mentioning him here because the eternal fatherhood of God is grounded in the eternal sonship of Jesus. And this move is not thrust upon us by some speculative necessity, but is rather a heralding of the good news. For the adoption of Christians, the election of Israel, and the creation of the world are grounded in the eternal sonship of Jesus Christ. God is our father because, first and foremost, he is the Father of Jesus.

(3) God is Almighty.

We have said much already about the identity of God--who God is. But we must also say a bit about the character of God--what God is like. Since I wrote a rather extensive series on the attributes of God two years ago, I refer you directly there. I don't think I would demur much from that presentation. However, I will say something here about the almightiness of God, both for the sake of creedal exposition and because my entry on God's omnipotence in the aforementioned series merely raised a classic question and did not attempt even a brief exposition of God's power. So, in light of of what we have said about God's identity, what does it mean to say that God is Almighty?

God is mighty. God is strong. God is powerful. But God is not just mighty, strong, powerful. God is all-mighty, all-strength, all-powerful. As the classical attributes of God put it, God is omnipotent. The "all" or "omni" is the point here. All candidates for god claim to be mighty. People call on gods for their strength, especially in times of trouble. What makes God the true God is his almightiness. Anything less than all-powerful is not God. The rules governing analogy apply here too. God is powerful, but unlike the various competing powers we encounter, God is all-powerful.

The importance of the "all" in the almightiness of God is crucial historically. The antecedents to the Apostles' Creed were developed during the controversy over gnosticism in the early church. One of the dangers certain key Christian leaders saw in gnosticism was its tendency to posit a fundamental dualism: an eternal competition between good and evil. Although this helps to solve the problem of evil (the bad things that happen can be attributed to the evil power), it undermines the lordship of God. In this scheme, God may be the central character in the story, but he is not the ultimate author of the story. Even if we root for him in the narrative, we have questioned his lordship over the narrative. So the early Christians put forth the almightiness of God to rule out this other way of telling the story.

But here we can easily hit a snag. For the almightiness of this God is revealed in weakness. This God rules over his people, yet at the same interacts with them, listens to them, and even becomes one of them and suffers and dies. Now that is a strange sort of almightiness. There is a habit in the Christian tradition of distancing God from all these impotent moments. These moments in the story are called "anthropomorphisms," or in the case of Christ it is said that only his "human nature" expresses such weakness. This is a bad habit, for it traps God within his almightiness. We must not allow omnipotence to become an abstract concept that can rule over what God can and can't do. God is omnipotent with a specific purpose and so in a certain way. God is not simply omnipotent, full stop. God is omnipotent in a way that befits his identity as God for us, and so in a way that advances his story with us. In some cases, this may very well mean that God overpowers his creatures. In other cases, God rules through weakness. In either case, God rules not by might or by power in their usual senses, but by his Spirit. God's power is the power of his Spirit, who is himself as he drives his story. The form which his power takes in particular cases is not arbitrary, but fits each case within the context of God's larger story. In this way -- and only in this way -- God is almighty.

Any thoughts?
  • Does my exposition of the statement "God is God" successfully account for both God's priority over against us and his relationship to us? Is the appeal to "revelation" here appropriate? Are divine priority and relationality theological values worth upholding?
  • Are my brief comments on analogy helpful?
  • Is the move to link God's fatherhood to Jesus the right move? What are some consequences of making this move? What are some consequences of not making this move?
  • Is the "all" in God's almightiness really as crucial as I suggest? Could God's power be spoken of without the "all" or "omni" attached? Are such alternatives satisfactory?
  • Does my talk of purposeful almightiness make sense? Is it a good idea?