Wednesday, September 24, 2008

N. T. Wright's Suprised By Hope (Part Three)

Having sketched the cosmic context of God's future plan, N. T. Wright turns his attention to the central role of Jesus in this plan. He dedicates three chapters to Jesus as the central figure of new creation: the first on his ascension into heaven (ch. 7), the second on his return (ch. 8), and the third on his role as judge (ch. 9). In this post I will focus on Wright's understanding of the parousia of Jesus Christ, which comes to the fore in chapter 8. However, we will consider chapter 7 as well, because, as we shall see, his understanding of the parousia relates to his understanding of the ascension. I'll say at the start that while I agree with Wright's main point that Jesus returns to stay not to take us away, his understanding of the parousia is inadequate. Specifically, his view defines Christ's parousia in exclusively future terms and consequently construes Christ's ascension in terms of absence. By way of contrast to Wright's view, I'll briefly present an alternative construction of the parousia drawn from the later theology of Karl Barth. But first, let's get Wright's position before us.

How does N. T. Wright define the New Testament concept of parousia? Although this one Greek term does not carry all the conceptual freight that some think it does, parousia is a key term for describing the future of Jesus Christ. This technical term "is usually translated 'coming,' but literally it means 'presence'--that is, presence as opposed to absence" (128). The term had two major uses in Greco-Roman culture: (1) supernatural presence, such as "the mysterious presence of a god or divinity," and (2) royal presence, such as "when a person of high rank makes a visit to a subject" (pg. 129). Early Christian expectation of the paraousia of Jesus revolted against Greco-Roman imperial presumption. By so co-opting the concept of parousia, the early Christians give us a glimpse into the character of Jesus' return: namely, that he will come again not to take us away but to stay, transforming us and reigning with us forever in his transformed world. And so the parousia of Jesus, in conjunction with the other terms often found in its close proximity, refers to the royal appearance of Jesus when he comes again to stay.

Now the general trend of this position is right. It counters the world-denying mistakes of rapture theology without abandoning the personal return of Jesus Christ. And it keeps in view the crucially future dimension of the parousia of Jesus Christ. However, Wright so exclusively links the concept of parousia with this future dimension that he construes the meantime in terms of absence. His use of the language of "absence" is not just to explain the basic terminological sense of parousia (as quoted above). He is making a theological claim: "When we put together that big picture [ch. 6] with what we've said in the previous chapter about the ascension of Jesus [ch. 7], what do we get? Why, of course, the personal presence of Jesus, as opposed to his current absence" (123, emphasis original). According to Wright, if Jesus's future relation with us is one of presence, then Jesus's present relation with us must be one of absence. It is not a coincidence that he refers to his chapter on the ascension here, which, despite its helpful insights regarding heaven as the "control-room" of earth, ultimately defines Jesus's ascension in terms of his absence from the church and the world. Now surely there is some sense in which Jesus is absent from us in the time between the times. But in my view there must be a way of understanding the future parousia of Jesus that does view Jesus as strictly absent from the church and the world in the present. Fortunately, such an alternative can be found in the later theology of Karl Barth.

In a sub-section entitled "The Promise of the Spirit" (Church Dogmatics, Volume 4, Part 3, §69.4), Karl Barth explores what he calls the threefold parousia of Jesus Christ. The context of these reflections is important to note: Barth is arguing that Jesus Christ in his resurrection supplies his own transition from his atoning and revealing life-history to its effects and consequences in our sphere. The central claim in this argument is that universal revelation is objectively accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Barth is aware that such a claim is audacious, and makes one wonder why the world doesn't simply comes to its end on Easter morning. In order to answer this question, Barth appeals to the three forms of the parousia that he argues makes sense of the complex temporal dynamics of the New Testament.

Parousia in its most basic sense means effectual presence, used to speak of the visitation of God to his people in judgment and grace. When predicated of Jesus Christ, it refers to the coming again of the one who came before. The first coming again of Jesus is quite obviously his being raised from the dead. And so Easter is the first form of the parousia. It is the primal and basic form of Christ's effectual presence. But it is only the first form. For it points forward to the final return of Christ, the final or "third" form of the parousia. Between the primal and final forms of the parousia, we find not empty space-and-time but the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which is the second or intermediary form of the parousia. Jesus Christ wills that there will be a time between the times, not as a delay of his parousia but to give time and space for his people to go to the ends of the earth, working alongside him as bearers of the promise of the Spirit. So there are three forms of the one parousia of Jesus Christ: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the outpouring of the Spirit, and the final return of Christ.

The point of all this for our purposes here is that none of these forms should be seen as less than the others. Each form of the parousia has the same content: the personal and powerful presence of Jesus Christ. And so the time between the times, the missional space opened up between the dawn of new creation on Easter morning and the consummation of all things at the final return of Jesus Christ, must not be construed as a time of absence. Such an absence too quickly invites the church or some other human venture to fill in the gap left by Jesus. Wright is right to not strictly identify the risen Jesus with the church, but such a proper distinction between Head and Body can be maintained without appeal to the absence of Jesus. Jesus is present with his church in the outpouring of the Spirit. This is the second or intermediate form of his parousia. It cannot be collapsed into the first form, for we do not walk with Jesus now the same way as the apostles did during the 40 days. Nor can it be equated with the final form, for we are not yet like him for we do not see him as he truly is. But in all its distinction, the form of his parousia with us today is real, personal, and, most importantly, sufficient for the gift and task of Christian mission to which we are called.

Any thoughts?
  • How do you understand the parousia of Jesus?
  • Is Wright's general point (that Jesus comes not to take us away but to stay) a helpful one?
  • Does my critique of Wright hit a nerve, or miss the point?
  • What do you think of Barth's threefold parousia? Does it account for the temporal dynamics of the New Testament as he claims? What problems are there in his position?
  • In what sense does the ascension of Jesus entail his absence? In what sense does it commence a different kind of presence?
  • Just for fun: What was Jesus' relation to his apostolic community in the ten days between the ascension and pentecost? [This is a speculative but perhaps revealing question]

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

N. T. Wright's Suprised By Hope (Part Two)

Last week we discussed the structure of the first part of Wright's new book Surprised By Hope and the historical argument concerning the resurrection of Jesus found there. Having introduced his readers to hope-in-person as he stepped forward on Easter, Wright turns to our future hope in the second part of the book. This part moves in three steps: (1) the cosmic dimension of future hope [ch. 5-6], (2) the central figure of new creation [ch. 7-9], and (3) the personal dimension of redemption [ch. 10-11]. In this series, we'll spend a week on each of theses steps, starting with the first this week.

Wright makes a good case for starting with cosmic rather than personal hope. We have a tendency to make the future all about me. Now there is hope for my personal life and identity, but that hope must be located within a larger vision. In fact, some of the mistakes made regarding personal hope (e.g., forgetful of the body) are more easily remedies when one begins with the big picture (e.g., space, time and matter). So I think it is helpful that Wright starts here.

But I will raise a concern: the central figure of Jesus and his return as the risen Lord should not be controlled by a concept of cosmic hope already constructed before turning to him. The future of Jesus Christ is the key to the future of the world. In Jesus Christ the cosmic and the personal meet. So despite the wisdom of moving from the cosmic to the personal, there is a risk of turning Jesus into the prime instance of hope and thereby obscuring that he instigates hope. For example, Wright refers to the personal presence of Jesus as "the other vital element of the New Testament picture of God's ultimate future" (108). Jesus is certainly vital to Christian hope, but he is not just an element alongside others. Wright acknowledges this problem at certain points and makes clear statements concerning Jesus's centrality in the coming kingdom. But the structure of his presentation and the general trend of his thought placing the accent on the cosmic dimension as the determinative context for understanding Christian hope. This fits with Wright's overall tendency to emphasize continuity over discontinuity in his understanding of history and eschatology.

Having raised this concern, I want to say that Wright has some wonderful insights on the cosmic dimension of Christian hope. After addressing the debate between optimism and despair in chapter 5, Wright succinctly presents the fundamental structures of hope and the biblical images or themes of hope in chapter 6.

The three fundamental structures of hope are
  1. The goodness of creation,
  2. The nature of evil as real but not created by God, and
  3. The plan of redemption as re-creation.
The biblical six images or themes of hope are
  1. Seedtime and Harvest [1 Cor 15],
  2. The Victorious Battle [1 Cor 15],
  3. Citizens of Heaven, Colonizing Earth [Php 3:20-21],
  4. God will be all in all [1 Cor 15:28],
  5. New birth [Rom 8], and
  6. The marriage of heaven and earth [Rev 21-22].
Since Wright is already summarizing his own previous work in this chapter, it would be unwise to attempt a summary. Instead, I'll just highlight my favorite one: "citizens of heaven, colonizing earth." This section is both classic Wright in its style of argument and a helpful alternative to the reduction of Christian hope to 'going to heaven.' Let me just quote this passage (pg. 100-101) at length and let you consider it for yourself.
...[W]e look across to another royal image, found in Philippians 3:20-21. It is very close in theme to I Corinthians 15, quoting in fact at a crucial point from the same psalm (Psalm 8), emphasizing Jesus's authority over all other powers.

Philippi was a Roman colony. Augustus had settled his veterans there after the battles of Philippi (42 B.C.) and Actium (31 B.C.). Not all the residents of Philippi were Roman citizens, but all knew what citizenship meant. The point of creating colonies was twofold. First, it was aimed at extending Roman influence around the Mediterranean world, creating cells and networks of people loyal to Caesar in the wider culture. Second, it was one way of avoiding the problems of overcrowding in the capital itself. The emperor certainly did not want retired soldiers, with time (and blood) on their hands, hanging around Rome ready to cause trouble. Much better for them to be establishing farms and businesses elsewhere.

So when Paul says, "We are citizens of heaven," he doesn't at all mean that when we're done with this life we'll be going off to live in heaven. What he means is that the savior, the Lord, Jesus the King--all of those were of course imperial titles--will comes from heaven to earth, to change the present situation and state of his people. The key word here is transform: "He will transform our present humble bodies to be like his glorious body." Jesus will not declare that present physicallity is reduntant and can be scrapped. Nor will he simply improve it, perhaps by speeding up its evolutionary cycle. In a great act of power--the same power that accomplished Jesus's own resurrection, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:19-20--he will change the present body into the one that corresponds in kind to his own as part of his work of bringing all things into subjection to himself. Philippians 3, hough it is primarily speaking of human resurrection, indicates that this will take place within the context of God's victorious transformation of the whole cosmos.
Any thoughts?
  • Do you agree that it is a good idea to move from the cosmic to the personal when discussion future hope?
  • Is this movement of thought a logically necessary one? Or is this move a response to the contingent fact of modern individualism?
  • What do you think of Wright's exegesis of Philippians 3:20-21? Does it make grammatical and historical sense?
  • Is Wright's re-direction of the meaning of heavenly citizenship helpful for understanding Christian hope?
  • What is the benefit of displacing going to heaven with coming from heaven? What is the cost?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

N. T. Wright's Suprised By Hope (Part One)

Over the next few weeks I am going to share some thoughts on N. T. Wright's new book Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. The rationale for this series is rooted in three factors: (1) my current research focus is Christ's resurrection and this book has much to say on the matter, (2) I am using it as a textbook in a course I am teaching this semester at SCC, and (3) a friend recommended it saying it's "the best book of '08." Regarding the third factor, I'll let you be the judge regarding the truth of such a claim. As for me, I at least agree that it is among the best books to come out this year, not because of its originality but because in it Wright draws together a number of key arguments found throughout his work and presents them in a concise and clear manner. This week I will highlight the key moves he makes in Part One of Surprised By Hope, which briefly presents the main contours of the argument of his 800-page tome The Resurrection of the Son of God, then raise some questions for discussion.

Wright's argument goes something like this. At the time of Jesus, there was a clear spectrum of options concerning human fate after death. The spectrum ran from the Greco-Roman one-way street, in which post-mortem bodily existence was neither promised nor desired, to the Jewish hope of a general resurrection at the fulfillment of history. Early Christian hope fell decidedly on the Jewish end of the spectrum, yet with a number of major modifications centered around the belief that God raised Jesus ahead of the rest. After so locating early Christian hope, Wright asks after the best possible explanation of such a belief. He contends that the best possible explanation of the rise of early Christianity is that God did in fact raise Jesus from the dead.

The last step is the most important and the most complex, so let me lay it out it greater detail. Wright argues that the twin elements of the Easter narratives (the meetings and the empty tomb) are each necessary conditions for belief in Jesus' resurrection while neither alone is a sufficient condition for such a belief. The meetings without the empty tomb could be explained as mere apparitions; the empty tomb without the meetings could be explained by a stolen body. The two together provide a sufficient explanation for the rise of Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection and are themselves best explained by the fact of Jesus' resurrection. Wright rehearses a number of other explanations to show that they are all less coherent the belief that Jesus was in fact raised. Of course, believing that a dead man was raised from the dead is a claim of world-view shaking proportions, challenging even the presuppositions upon which historical arguments (like the one rehearsed above) are made. In light of this, Wright concedes that his argument functions negatively: clearing the ground of alternative explanations, exposing their skeptical bias, and thereby pointing readers toward a whole new way of thinking rooted in the surprising fact that God raised Jesus from the dead. Within these limits, however, Wright contends that he has made a strong historical argument for the probability of Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

So there it is, Wright's argument in a nutshell. Although he ends there in Resurrection of the Son of God, in the context of Surprised by Hope this argument is just setting the stage by introducing the central character of Christian hope: the risen Jesus. We'll move on to the implications of Easter for Christian hope in the following weeks. But for now, let's consider this argument on its own terms by raising a series of questions:
  1. Is Wright's spectrum of options concerning human fate after death accurate?
  2. Can early Christian belief be located on the spectrum as a "modification" of Jewish belief? Or is there a more significant break?
  3. Is asking after the best possible explanation of the rise of Christian belief in resurrection the best possible procedure? Does this put the cart (belief) before the horse (resurrection)?
  4. Do you agree that both the meetings and the empty tomb are necessary conditions for belief in Jesus' resurrection? What are the consequences of removing one or the other?
  5. Do you agree that neither the meetings nor the empty tomb are sufficient conditions for belief in Jesus' resurrection? Could a case be made for resurrection belief on the basis of one alone?
  6. Does conceding the purely negative function of his argument undermine the weight of his argument?
  7. Does conceding the purely negative function of his argument adequately address the problem of faith and history?
  8. Is the question of belief in Jesus' resurrection the same as the question of belief in the risen Jesus?
  9. What does Jesus' resurrection tell us about Jesus?
  10. What does Jesus' resurrection tell us about God?
Any thoughts?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Review of Stephen D. Wigley, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Critical Engagement

Here's an excerpt from a new book review, the full version of which can be found on the Center for Barth Studies website.
Stephen D. Wigley, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Critical Engagement (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2007), 178 + xiv. $144.00

Toward the end of his life, Hans Urs von Balthasar said of his multi-volume trilogy, “I wrote it all for Barth – to convert him.” Stephen Wigley’s new book can be read as an exposition of this revealing statement. Wigley’s central claim is that Balthasar’s critical engagement with Barth shaped the deep structure of his trilogy. Barth is not merely one interlocutor among others for Balthasar, but rather is the key to understanding the whole of his theology. Although this is not a particularly original or controversial thesis, the enduring significance of Barth for Balthasar’s theological project is all too often forgotten or suppressed. So Wigley’s book contributes to the ongoing appropriation of Balthasar’s legacy by keeping his conversation with Barth in the foreground.

Wigley advances his argument by first discussing Balthasar’s book on Barth, followed by an overview of Balthasar’s trilogy that highlights the presence of Barth as the key conversation partner. This method has the advantage of showcasing the breadth of Balthasar’s engagement with Barth, as opposed to many previous studies that compare the two figures on a selected topic. Unfortunately, given the vastness of Balthasar’s output, this method consistently lends itself to mere summary even when the arguments call for closer examination. Wigley repeatedly acknowledges the limitation of such summarizing, but does not take any significant steps to mitigate its effects. Nevertheless, Wigley makes some crucial claims worthy of attention. I will identify and discuss three such claims, and then offer some more general criticisms of the book.

Read more here.

Any thoughts?