Ben's Blog Items Credenda|agenda: things to be believed, things to be done Wed, 24 May 2017 02:20:00 +0000 Joomla! 1.5 - Open Source Content Management en-gb Do We Have a Christology Crisis? The contemporary world of theological and philosophical “Christology” can feel like undiscovered territory for Reformed Christians. Full of specialized vocabulary and historical figures who are underrepresented in Reformed theology, there is a feeling of excitement for some and, for others, insecurity. Clearly, it is of fundamental importance to be concise and orthodox on the doctrine of what Christ is. But is this an area that the older Reformed thinkers failed to adequately consider? Is there a deep and perhaps fatal defect in Reformed Christology? A few academic church historians, and a number of apologists for unreformed churches1, have claimed that there is. Usually, their claim is that Reformed Christology is “Nestorian,” and thus heterodox. So is there really a hidden “key” within Christology that will radically alter our estimation of our own Reformed tradition?

The mature answer is “No.” Keep calm and carry on.

The Reformers were masters of the Christian tradition, and took no step which their informed minds and hearts knew to be unorthodox. They unanimously rejected demonstrated heresies and affirmed the Biblical truths articulated by the faithful in ancient councils, as well as the genuine catholic consensus of their day. Familiar with the writings of the Nicene and post-Nicene Church, the Reformed felt no need, however, to use those writings as their regula fidei in place of the Holy Scriptures.2 Instead, they pushed forward towards a Biblical Christology, emphasizing the history and nature of revelation, and understanding the Lord in Biblical categories, as Word of God, God with us, and in terms of the munus triplex (the threefold office of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King). The Reformed prided themselves on being the most faithful to Chalcedon in all Christendom. In short, what is claimed to be a weakness by certain speculative academic theologians on the one hand, and by aggressive apologists of unreformed churches on the other,3 actually turns out to be one of the Reformed tradition's key virtues.

The Christ of the Councils

Today's scholarly world talks about patristic Christology under a number of terms, but the two main labels are this historical categories“Alexandrian” and “Antiochene.” Limiting the conversation to only these two categories in light of the broader history of the church would be wrong, but for patristic studies they have a sort of prominence. Cyril of Alexandria represents the best of the Alexandrian Christological tradition, emphasizing the unity of Christ's person, whereas the Antiochene school emphasizes Christ's two natures. Antioch's legacy, however, is too often unjustly besmirched through its association with Theodore of Mopsuestia, Nestorius of Constantinople, and (to some) Theodoret of Cyrus.

There is a legitimate academic and historical conversation to be had about all this, though it's a complicated one to be sure. Cyril of Alexandria has been portrayed as both a saint and a villain. The Council of Chalcedon, definitive for the Christian West on this point, has also been claimed as both an Alexandrian and an Antiochene victory. Famously, modern scholars (and a number of early Protestant writers4) are not at all sure that Nestorius was correctly understood. And the inner workings of the various theologies and rhetorical vocabulary can be bewildering at times.5

Cyril and the Alexandrian school were viewed with a good bit of suspicion by mainline Protestants in the twentieth century. Cyril's theological language, particularly in his early career, was not as precise as Chalcedon would require. He mistakenly identified certain theological expressions as coming from Athanasius, when in fact, they came from the heretical Apollinaris of Laodicea. Some of Cyril's followers, Eutyches of Constantinople chief among them, did in fact go on to advocate monophysitism. To top it all off, Cyril's character has been impugned by charges of abusiveness and violence. Thus, there are many reasons to seek to demote his role and influence on the development of Chalcedonian Christology.

On the other hand, there has been a sort of scholarly push back recently, partly rehabilitating Cyril's character and arguing that later Christological developments must be seen as developments from within a Cyrilline paradigm of thought. There is good historical work to support this,6 but there are often other motivations to retell the historical narrative which are less admirable.7

So it is reasonable to say that the legacy of Cyril is mixed.8 His theology certainly required cleaning up, and he even showed himself willing to cooperate in the refining project. Beyond this measured historical judgment, an important theological test case for Cyril's Christology and its compatibility with Reformed thought can be found in the question of divine suffering and impassibility. Jealous as they were to protect the divine nature from being mixed with creation, Reformed theologians always emphasized that God did not suffer on the cross according to His divine nature, but rather He did so through His Son and particularly through His son's humanity. That is, God suffered in the flesh, through the new nature assumed at the Incarnation. If Cyril advocated more than this, then there would be a discontinuity of thought between the so-called Alexandrian Christology and Reformed Theology (as Lutherans have historically claimed). However, even despite his use of “one nature” in Christ, Cyril always maintained the distinction between what is appropriate only to one nature or the other. He clearly says that the Word did not suffer in His divine nature, in terms, it should be said, which satisfy even the high bar of Reformed precision. Two statements will demonstrate this, both taken from On the Unity of Christ. Cyril writes, “Just as 'he made him who knew no sin into sin for our sake that we might become the righteousness of God in him' (for the nature of man has been justified in him), so in the same way he caused him who knew not death (since the Word is life and life-giver) to suffer in the flesh. But insofar as he is considered as God he remained outside suffering in order that we might live through him and in him.” He adds, “The Word was alive, even when his holy flesh was tasting death.”9  These are sufficient qualifications to satisfy any Reformed demands. However strict the emphasis on the unity of person may be, Cyril does not violate the basic distinction of natures, nor does he actually go farther than Reformed boundaries would allow. At this point some may bring up issues of emphasis, but emphasis arguments are always suspect.10 The Reformed allow for a variety of emphases, as long as key boundaries are preserved.

So Cyril isn't the great touchstone, and we certainly aren't “Nestorians” in any sense intended by the classic rejection. But just to show how cloud-castle some of these modern debates can be, it's worth pointing out that, just as Hume was a realist when he left his study, we are almost all Antiochenes now. Here's an example of what “Alexandrian Christology” looked like in the wild. Not as carefully, partially, correctively quoted in a council, but the thing on its own:

             The Gnostic is such, that he is subject only to the affections that exist for the maintenance of the             body, such as hunger, thirst, and the like. But in the case of the Saviour, it were ludicrous [to suppose] that the body, as a body, demanded the necessary aids in order to its duration. For He ate, not for the sake of the body, which was kept together by a holy energy, but in order that it might not enter into the minds of those who were with Him to entertain a different opinion of Him; in like manner as certainly some afterwards supposed that He appeared in a phantasmal shape. But He was entirely impassible; inaccessible to any movement of feeling -- either pleasure or pain. While the apostles, having most gnostically mastered, through the Lord's teaching, anger and fear, and lust, were not liable even to such of the movements of feeling, as seem good, courage, zeal, joy, desire, through a steady condition of mind, not changing a whit; but ever continuing unvarying in a state of training after the resurrection of the Lord.11

It's not very likely that the modern neo-Cyrillians really think like this; which makes all the complaining about Leo and Augustine and Calvin not very credible.

History matters, as the Reformed, of all people, know well; and certainly, getting the historical record right can be considered a good thing, but it is by no means always easy. Thankfully, it doesn't have to be. While pastors and theologians do need to master these topics in appropriate measure,12 the fact is that our justification does not depend on mastering the arcana of Christology in its philosophical-conciliar expression. What matters, of course, is living trust in the living Son of God, revealed in the Biblical history, not in the history of councils.13

What is for certain is this. First, the ancient writers are hardly one thing: there is no patristic consensus to which to appeal, only conciliar decrees whose language is primarily meant to exclude exegetical mistakes, not construct a doctrine apart from the Word. Second, the councils themselves, like the ancient writers, do not constitute an independent regula fidei; they were very mixed because they were very human affairs, and received only insofar as they express consensual exegesis. And last, where the do so, not only is Reformed doctrine in accord with them, it is in fact is the most rigorously faithful to them.

The Christ of Commitment

 But if the old Cyrillianism, monophysitism, and docetic tendency, isn't really among us, what is? What's “neo-” in “neo-Cyrillian”?

William Bartley, in his Retreat to Commitment, acutely analyzed the retreat from objective truth claims by mainstream Protestant theologians in the twentieth century, and their replacement by metaphorical “meaningfulness” and sincere “commitment.”14 This wasn't simply an openly “liberal” move; a number of well-intentioned neo-orthodox went down this road too. By accepting a Kantian division between the objective, the world said to be only really knowable by scientism, and the subjective, the world of unverifiable values, these theologians would come to speak by preference of the “narrative” of the “faith community,” rather than the objective history of the acts of God and His elect people, and objective order of creation. This move makes the data of revelation “meaningful” (as opposed to objectively true)15 symbols of the faith community's experience of the world. Modern academic theology mostly presumes this; hence, the constant attempts to make classical doctrine “relevant” or “meaningful” in every way other than the fundamental way in which it really is relevant. Notable examples are “social Trinitarianism” and certain modern neo-Patristic Christologies,16 which are used, in the place of reason, to symbolically solve social problems or epistemological anxieties, matters which properly belong to politics and philosophy, but which the new theologians think can only be resolved through new speculative syntheses.

Some Reformed theologians have even been a little swept up in this, dismissing the sacred rationality of their predecessors as “Enlightenment rationalism,” a move which is really Bulverism on the one hand, and old-fashioned (and postmodern!) irrationalism on the other, and using undefined terms from the new Christologies in equivocal or mystifying ways, which are privileged by an appeal to mystery or their supposed transcendence of logic and rhetoric when challenged, but then do in fact get used to mean and do some very unmysterious and specific things. And too often, we find in these supposed correctives no close engagement with the classic Reformed tradition, the tradition purportedly in need of being urgently“reformed” in the direction of neo-patristic systems.

It should be said that if the Reformed tradition does have a persistent problem, it certainly isn't in its Christology. It is rather perhaps in the custom of a certain kind of overbraininess, which at its worst leads to the grave error of thinking that faith means an exact, sophisticated grasp of what Christ is in philosophical terms, rather than trust in who Christ is in Biblical terms- the mistake of thinking that the means of justification is subtle intellection (notitia) rather than firm trust (fiducia). This has perhaps created a habit of mind which, when coupled with restlessness, inexperience, and exposure to wider historical and theological horizons, leads some to seek even more arcane and exotic formulations, and thus to leave the plain truths of the Reformed doctrine. A number of bookish and usually young Reformed people have been drawn to unreformed doctrines and communions in this way. Once in their new and supposedly superior position, as is typical of converts to anything, they sometimes launch into apologetical crusades to induce others down their road, armed with their esoteric vocabulary which they claim has the authority of the councils.

Using five dollar words to dazzle is an old trick. A reasonably clever apologist can pretty easily master the terms of antique Christology and manipulate them nimbly enough to make most untutored Christians' heads spin and leave them wondering whether they ever held the orthodox faith at all. But this is simply a problem of catechesis and confidence. This kind of thing mostly works only on bookish people; the Reformed truck driver who lives a life of trust in Christ, is a pillar of kindness, and cleaves to the Word and the fellowship in which he hears it, isn't likely to get dizzy if he comes across philosophizing claims that his Christology is “Nestorian.” For those who are more likely to be unsettled, we need greater pastoral attention which can ask basic question such as, “do you really think God would have made it this arcane?”, and which can reliably guide students through the riches of the texts of the old Reformed masters, presently obscured by a fixation with late-Puritan pietism on the one hand, and Copernican pretensions of some modern writers on the other, leaving Reformed pastors much the poorer.

Instead of the sophisticated retreat to commitment or the frenzy of conversion sickness, a measured and mature Reformed mind will identify canonical principles of truth and methods of understanding and hold fast to them. Our churches need to identify what is necessary to be confessed, using the Bible as rule, reason as method, and the tradition as a guide. We do not need to create a new alternative mental universe of existence and discourse ruled by secret and saving knowledge.

The Christ of Calvinism... and Christendom

 So if the scholarly view of Cyril's historical legacy is mixed, but his basic theology can be put in a consistent way with Reformed theology, what is all the fuss about? Why is it that Reformed theology is accused of not doing enough with Christology? Typically this always gets back to the Eucharist, or rather unreformed superstitions regarding it, but more basically it seems to be because the Reformed are not seeking to prioritize “Alexandrian ontology.” That is, the Reformed do not use Christology as a way to redefine philosophical categories, and they consistently resist all efforts to say that the Incarnation changed humanity from its original created nature. In no way is the Creator/creature distinction challenged, undone, or bridged by genuine catholic Christology. Modern neo-Christology is up to something different than Reformed theology. And this difference is the Reformed tradition's particular glory.

 You see, for many modern students of “Christology,” the christ they have in mind is not the revealed Son of God, Who is already present in the Word and in His body, those who believe on him- both of which things are there, at once prosaic and miraculous, in the Protestant congregation. It rather seems to be their own solution to an anxious metaphysical quest. At worst it is a way to answer and overcome the supposedly alienated condition of being created. At best, it is an attempt to sophisticate the Reformed tradition, mistakenly perceived as small-town and limiting. It is not sin they wish us to repent of and be forgiven for; rather, they seem to wish to transcend their ontological or cultural intellectual marginalization. Rather than being grasped through understanding of messiahship and salvation from sin, the philosophical christ is a way to avoid Biblical categories altogether. And insofar as the christ of neo-Christology is regarded primarily as a trope for a breaking down of the Creator-creature distinction, is removed from the original covenantal revelation, and the offices of prophet, priest, and king, as well as the sacrifice for sins and the propitiation of God's wrath, that christ is a false metaphysical substitute for the Word made flesh- in other words, it is an idol.

This is why Calvin seems so unhelpful to modern and postmodern Christologians. He's not in the least interested in what they are interested in. He was aware of Cyril and Chalcedon, to be sure, and Calvin never holds back from rejecting Nestorianism, but he's far more interested in Biblical theology and a Christ who is the Son of God, Mighty God, Angel of the Lord, the Messiah, the savior of Israel, and the one who ushers in the kingdom. As Stephen Edmondson has shown,17 Calvin was certainly working with Augustine, Peter Lombard, and Aquinas,18 but he was also, above everything, working with the Bible. Far more interesting than discussions about person, nature, and the way in which the words should be used, is the way in which Jesus fulfilled the munus triplex. Philosophy was brought in to discussions in order to guard against speculative overreadings asserting themselves as the Truth, and then the judgment was typically left alone so as to avoid further trouble. Later scholastics did go further when it comes to this point, and not all of them were necessarily in error for doing so,19 but Calvin still seems the wisest in recognizing that philosophy is mostly beside the point when it comes to Christology. Much more important is a humble faith that sees in Christ, not a solution to a mental puzzle, but the God among us, the living forgiveness of sins.    

The other obvious disjunction between Reformed theology and the Christologies of academics and apologists for the unreformed is the role of tradition. While Cyril, Gregory (each of them), and Maximos were important (some even great) men, they were still of the same nature as Calvin, Hodge, and Bavinck. The virtue of the ancients is in their accuracy, when they are accurate; not in their antiquity. And the Reformed have been the most ready to state this principle confidently. Insofar as the ancient writers are correctly exegeting the Bible and correctly using reason and logic to accurately frame the argument, then they are received. But insofar as they are removing us from the discussion of Scripture in pursuing the odium theologicum or pseudo-metaphysical constructions, they are set aside. In fact, there is often benefit in distance, as later thinkers can more carefully and patiently examine all angles of the question, determining which are truly the most helpful. This is why the Reformed, in owning tradition, are unafraid to own more of it, recognizing “fathers” and “doctors” in our own great men as well, right up to the present. Rather than retreating backwards to “Tradition,” we use tradition to go forwards and outwards.

Reformed theologians do not have to be totally dismissive of modern Christology. But they should be profoundly confident in their own tradition of doctrine and reflection. In fact, B.B. Warfield wrote some extremely insightful essays in his collection, The Person and Work of Christ, which anticipate and handle Christological controversies that would later become almost mainstream through the writings of Neo-Orthodox and process theologians. The Reformed masters interact with ancient and modern arguments without skipping a beat. Bavinck's third volume of Reformed Dogmatics is magisterial, confidently interacting with world religions and philosophical concepts from the broadest of traditions. He consistently connects the right dots without getting side-tracked.  

The Reformed tradition's classic distinctive is that God is always and ever God, and man is always and ever man. Even in the unity of Christ, the two natures remain unmixed. And it is God who does the saving. Far from being a weakness, any reluctance to go beyond this is our foremost achievement: a biblical theology of Christ. Jesus didn't go around teaching people how to energize their hypostases. He preached the kingdom, judgment, and how to gain rest in Him. This is the gospel, and this also happens to be both catholic Christology and Reformed theology.


1. These are almost exclusively the Eastern Churches and the Lutherans, together with the Eastern-leaning or Radical Orthodox Anglicans. The Roman Catholics have on the whole retained the traditional theology of the West in this matter, and our difference with them lies elsewhere.

2. Calvin famously declined to subscribe to the Athanasian Creed, though he agreed with the content of it, feeling instead that the request itself displayed harmful assumptions about tradition and authority. Lancelot Andrewes, often wrongly claimed as an Anglo-Catholic, went so far as to say, “They have the Fathers, Councils, the Church and the Pope. We have not so” (A Pattern of Catechetical Doctrine 5.3). This statement did not mean that such were of no value or no historical orientation, since Andrewes also claims the famous 5 centuries, 4 councils, 3 creeds formula. He means to deny any formal authority to tradition. Sola Scriptura is still the foundational rule. The most important thing to note is that councils are contingent affairs, though Spirit-guided in the right circumstances; not divine organs. Their decrees are received insofar as they express consensual exegesis of the Word on a controverted point. The primary function of the decrees is negative, that is, delineating what should not be said, rejecting false or oversimplified formulae. They used philosophical language, somewhat riskily, to that purpose, but were not using it in a sense other than generally understood, and were not using it to create a speculative system- we are speaking of the decrees, of course. The ancient writers themselves were often given to the wildest un-Biblical speculations. For an introductory consideration, see Carl FH Henry's God, Revelation, and Authority, (Word Books, Waco, 1982) vol 5, chapter 9, “The Doctrine of the Trinity”.

3. These groups are actually quite distinct, though they tend to feed off one another. Whereas there can be some genuine appreciation of the academics, much more skepticism should be placed upon the use of the academics by the apologists. One common move, used to introduce theopaschite process theology under cover of equivocation, is treating “person” as a category separable from nature, so that the Divine Person can leave behind, as it were, His divine nature so as to be able to be said to have died unequivocally, or so “Theotokos” can be said unequivocally. Of course this is nonsense, and a revenant of the long-refuted old kenotic theology.

4. Calvin himself is rightly suspicious of the odium theologicum of the ancients, and Hooker's friend Richard Field, in his great Five Books of the Church, shows a critical sense of the highest order in his discussions of the excommunication frenzies of Late Antiquity, which were by no means always edifying. See also Ramsay MacMullen, Voting About God in the Early Church Councils (Yale UP, 2006), whose account in many respects underscores Calvin's own.

5. Harry Wolfson examines a number of the sources of these terms as well as their peculiar and not always happy developments among the early church fathers, in his work, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers. Wolfson notes the role of Philo, Aristotle, and the Stoics in the definition of terms, as the ways in which these philosophical terms were sometimes put to uses that strained the earlier Biblical categories. The actual intellectual background of the terms used in the definitions of the hypostatic union are found in Late Antique physics and chemistry, which, while not representing a wholly corrupting influence, also does not represent any sort of patristic revolution in metaphysics.

6. Particularly John McGuckin, St. Cyril of AlexandriaThe Christological Controversy Its History, Theology, and Texts

7. This is mostly true among certain Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran theologians whose own proclivities owe much to fairly extreme forms of Cyrillianism, but as speculative Christology gains popularity as a pseudo-philosophical device, this is also being seen as an attractive move for postmodern theologians of all theological backgrounds. One should not miss the fact that much of modern German thought, including the always irksome kenotic Christology, is a driving force in this sort of move. A Christology that is more “Cyrilline” is thought to provide metaphysical options for harmonizing the relationship between divine and human nature, just as social Trinitarianism is supposed to suddenly conjure community gardens or magically quell road rage, or provide (how, exactly?) a model for marital relations. But this neo-Cyrilline concoction answers an illusory problem, for it builds upon the questionable, in fact Gnostic, supposition that the “problem” with the relationship of these natures is fundamentally primal and ontological, rather than historic, moral and covenantal. In other words, the real problem, as the Bible gives it, is that our persons are on the outs with the personal God, not that our nature is essentially on the outs with his nature. Absolute distinction of natures is not alienation. But sin is. Often the neo-patristic theologians are weak on historic protology, which leaves them working with very vague and confused ideas of original nature and the Fall, giving their picture partly the color of Existentialism, and partly the color of Roman Catholic donum superadditum theory, all in Byzantine costume.

8. On the whole, it seems that a mediate position between the complete “Alexandrian” reading of Christological history and the anti-Cyril reading is correct. This seems to be a fair treatment of the academic sources as well. Norman Russell notes that Cyril's use of mia physis (one nature) continued to be problematic for years after his death. Speaking of Cyril's theology at the Council of Chalcedon he writes, “The more extreme Cyrillian position, as expressed by the Twelve Chapters, was irreconcilable with the two natures teaching of Leo's Tome and was therefore excluded.” See Norman Russell, Cyril of Alexandria 60. Russell points out that many churches, believing themselves to be the true followers of Cyril, rejected Chalcedon as a Nestorian council. There eventually came about another compromise position, though many of the more extreme followers of both Alexandria and Antioch split from the imperial church, forming their own churches, Russell 61-62; Russell discusses the formations of the Syrian churches, as well as the Jacobites and Copts. Painting a more sympathetic portrait of Cyril's legacy, John McGuckin argues that rather than Leo's Tome serving as a standard of authority, it was itself only found acceptable insofar as it was shown to be consistent with Cyril. McGuckin thus reads Chalcedon as a Cyrilline victory, Cyril of Alexandria: The Christological Controversy 235-242. Even McGuckin notes, however, that Cyril had earlier made concessions to the Antiochene position and that several of Cyril's successors moved their way into heterodoxy, 227-229. It was only after a good bit of compromise that a settlement was achieved.

9. On the Unity of Christ, 115

10. For example, if one considers the classical notion of what constitutes an “hypostasis,” an individual subsistence of a nature, they will list spirit, mind, will, and energy. A singular set of all of these components would ordinarly constitute a person. Yet with Christology, the conciliar definition admits of two spirits, minds, wills, and energies, each according to the nature. Thus Jesus Christ has two minds, two wills, and two energies. How much “emphasis” can one give to his singular person without under-emphasizing his dual working (energetic) organs? How much can one prioritize his two seats of consciousness without jeopardizing the hypostatic unity? These were causes of the monothelite and monoenergist controversies, and if honestly considered, these questions show that our creedal statements are more apophatic than cataphatic. We say what is not permissible in order to allow for a certain breadth of freedom of speech. Beyond the mere words, the context and intent of the argument must be considered before a helpful judgment can be made.

11. Clement, Stromateis VI.9. Apparently Alexandria doesn't really look so “incarnational” after all.

12. And while it may come to a surprise to some (though it really shouldn't), Warfield, Bavinck, and Berkhof have excellent treatments of the Christological development within church history.

13. Though it should be said that the Reformed doctors were unusually careful, using their highly developed historical-grammatical method, philology in the best and broadest sense, and not only was their doctrine consistent with catholic consensus, in fact on the whole they sharpened and perfected it. To give just one example, a glance at Daniel Waterland's masterpiece A Review of the Doctrine of the Eucharist will reveal at once his mastery of patristic tradition; and yet he proves athe Reformed doctrine of the Eucharist with it. W J T Kirby has also demonstrated that Richard Hooker's Christology is profoundly Chalcedonian; see Richard Hooker's Doctrine of the Royal Supremacy 51-58, 74-79, 111-116. As archives such as the Post-Reformation Digital Library ( make the older texts more available, we can expect a renaissance of Reformed doctrine from new encounter with the older masters.

14. Bartley's own philosophy is not to be recommended, but his historical analysis of certain moves in modern Protestant theology, even among many “conservatives” however unwittingly, is extremely illuminating.

15. While they might be regarded as “transcendentally” true, beyond mere earthly “objectivity”, this is just a fancier way of saying the same thing

16. One wonders whether the liberal beginnings of some of the neo-patristic Lutheran theologians haven't played a role in inclining them toward a metaphysical rather than Biblical-historical Christology, and toward the allegorizing exegesis of the Alexandrians, as opposed to the more rigorous Antiochene tradition, which reaches full flower in the historical-grammatical method of the Reformers. Much of this theologizing is an antiquarian and theosophically inclined imaginary supplement to scientism, justifying itself over against scientism as legitimate subjectivity- irreducible meaning, faith-knowledge looking to trump science because, as is certainly true, natural science isn't enough. But the problem is in accepting the postmodernist retreat from objectivity, and from history, in the first place. The neo-patristic Christologies are not really historically patristic; the “neo” really makes a difference. What they do have in common with certain Alexandrian-minded ancients is the aversion to history; but they do not actually share the thought-world of those people, since the goal of the moderns is to get human life back. They are inevitably Antiochene, so to speak, in that way; the lost object they're after is creation. But since they have surrendered it to scientism, all they can get back is the “discarded image,” but without the ancient supposition that the image corresponds to an order of things, and thus, the “discarded image” is retrieved unnaturally detached from an order of things (which perhaps accounts for the appeal of “theological aesthetics,” a la von Balthasar). And metaphysical Christology, and its corollary versions of ecclesiology, are put to work in the service of that project, as the palette of tropes with which the picture will be painted. Nonfalsifiable, as data of “faith”, they thus make for a privileged imaginal supplement to the world of scientism and modernity, a supplement which does not challenge scientism nor redefines modernity. Nonfalfisiable and hypermeaningful- “infallible but not inerrant,” one might even say. In any case, the flight from history is the retreat to commitment, to subjectivism.

17. See Calvin's Christology, particularly 15, 186-219

18. Notice that this is a bigger tradition than merely Chalcedon. Though a broader discussion, it should not be assumed that anyone simply “stopped” with a certain traditional settlement. The East has a neo-Chalcedonian tradition, and the West has its own post-Chalcedonian tradition.

19. Zanchi is especially rigorous, giving careful treatment to Cyril of Alexandria and John of Damascus. See his Observations of the Same Zanchius Uppon His Owne Confession and Certaine Positions of the Same Zanchius Of Some Principall Articles Of Our Christian Faith Against Divers Heresies At Sundrie Times Disputed On, Partly At Heidelberg, Partly At Newstade, both of which can be found in his De Religione Christiana Fides ed. Baschera and Moser, particularly pgs. 535-551, 659-759.

]]> (Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante) Theology Thu, 23 Feb 2012 21:54:01 +0000
How Sabbath Builds Culture The Sabbath is the center of a certain way of doing culture. The weekly cycle of work followed by rest or rest followed by six days of work is a way of standing in time, a way of being in the world that seeks to stand up straight in the gale of seconds.

The Sabbath stands between the extremes of primitivism (aka hidebound conservatism) and revolution. All anti-sabbatarian cultures must necessarily careen between these two extremes, as the seed of the opposite excess resides expectantly in the bosom of the other. The anti-sabbatarian never rests, never ceases, and each day comes upon the next in tyrannical precision, time and action marching forward. And the only options are to try to keep up and run ahead of the marathon hoping to direct it (i.e. revolution) or try to slow it down, hold tight to last week or three months ago or early last millennium (i.e. primitivism).

These tendencies naturally collide and conflict and create the pendulum effect in cultures, in families, and in individuals, swinging from one extreme to the other. Cultures lean hard into primitivism, veering toward extinction, building tombs and museums celebrating the dead. And then in reaction, especially after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the same culture bursts the old wine skins, throwing off all the starchy clothes and superficial perfectionism, rebelling against everything that has come before with meticulous care. And this happens frequently between generations, between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. If my dad did this, I will be sure to do the opposite. If my mom loved this, I will take care to hate it.

The midlife crisis is nothing more than this phenomenon on a small scale in an individual person. One extreme of officious legalism begets the convertible and a mistress. And perhaps just as frequently, the bohemian flower child wakes up in a panic one day and dons the austere hijab. Cultures, families, and individuals run into the ground and attempt to resurrect themselves, coming back as their own enemies which turn out ironically to be their symbiotic best friends.     

But the Sabbath stands against this temporal schizophrenia, this cultural suicide. Sabbath denies the backward glance of Lot’s wife and all of her prudish conservative daughters, but it equally rejects Madame Guillotine and all her fornicating furies.   

The weekly Sabbath stands against all primitivism by virtue of its eschatology. Six days of labor and one day of rest insists on a judgment, an evaluation. With a seventh day of rest, even the six previous days become successive. Where there is no end in sight, there is no succession. There is only flow, only span. But a conclusion creates a beginning, a middle, and an end. A week of time thereby bears a teleology, an end, and therefore (God-willing) a purpose. Whatever the calling, whatever the vocation, whatever the labor under heaven: a goal is in view, a finish line is coming. Many conservatives resist the Sabbath by denying the completion of certain good work. If Adam had picked up his rake on the eighth day and suggested that they create the sun, moon, and stars again, he would have not understood the “very good” of God’s Sabbath rest. To go back to last week, to attempt to repeat last month’s puzzle, last century’s war is a failure of Sabbath. It fails to put a thankful period in time. Primitivists want to go back to the old ways. They clutch at yesterday and the day before that, even as grey and white spread across their heads and cheeks, and their eyes crease with years. Let us go back to Egypt, back to the tabernacle, back to the temple, back to the Torah, back to circumcision, back to ceremonial precision, back to Rome, back to the catacombs, back to the Constitution, back to the 1950s, back, always back. If we could only go back to Tuesday, yes, last Tuesday was just sublime (HT: Billy Collins).

But revolutionaries urge an equally troubling and disastrous plan. Revolutionaries deny the Sabbath by treating every day as a war against the one before. As with primitivism, there is no eschatology, no coherent goal, no succession. The Sabbath is a thankful evaluation of the previous week’s work. Sabbath living looks back with gratitude, but it does not look back with longing. Sabbath living does not covet the old days; it merely smiles at them. Sabbath living is to face firmly forward. And the Lord’s Day of the New Covenant pronounces this Sabbath at the beginning of the week, the first day of the week. This rhythm of a weekly day of rest is the thankful fire of an honest evaluation of work accomplished, but also the starting line where a plan may form that begins the next phase of a new week. And that’s the key. The Sabbath is not a weekly demolition project. We do not build with blocks for six days and then push them all over every Sabbath. Sabbath living, Sabbath culture is a way of life which gratefully builds upon what has come before (the best of conservatism), but it also doesn’t believe in going backwards. Just as each new day in the original creation week consisted of new things, new acts of creation, so too God’s image bearers must cultivate that same sort of holy discontent, looking creatively toward tomorrow, gearing up to rearrange the waters below into seas (weren’t they perfectly good before?), drawing up plans to fling stars into the heavens (wasn’t it good enough without them?). God could have stopped on Day One, but instead He charged ahead building new things, remodeling the universe a day at a time. While the revolutionary spirit always seems charged with ingratitude, the best of liberal thinking is surely inspired by a God-like hunger for new things.

It’s the weekly Sabbath that is meant to bring these two impulses together. In every culture, in every family, in every generation there will be those who whether by personality or experience lean toward thankfulness for the past or hunger for the future. Sabbath is the day in which those two tendencies must meet. In the Old Covenant, God required the Sabbaths to always be marked by “holy convocations,” “holy assemblies” of the nation of Israel. These are the origin of the first synagogues. God knew the hearts of men – He knew that between the conservative and liberal tendencies they would fight and destroy each other. So he required them to cease from their labors every seven days. The conservatives must cease from dusting the top shelves of their museum cases, and the liberals must halt their wrecking balls. God required that there be a weekly meeting, a weekly discussion, a weekly conference between the forward-lookers and the backward-lookers. In the New Covenant, the center of this Sabbath is a meal of bread and wine shared between these tendencies. This is especially important for generations, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. It has always been the temptation not to talk, not to seek to understand one another, not to listen, and God required His people to guard one day each week so that they might stop and listen, stop and discuss, stop and tie the two trains together. Only in cultures where Sabbath is a way of life, only where the old stop and meet with the young, only where the new must listen to the ancient, only then may cultures emerge that resist the pendulum effect. Only where the rhythm of the week is interrupted by rest and worship together can societies hope to build culture in a way that respects the past and yet hungers for the future. Revolution is the future breaking away from the past. Primitivism is the past fighting against the future. Sabbath is the creation of a present in the midst of the past and the future. Sabbath is dry ground between the waters. Sabbath is a holy place where the past may safely give birth to the future.

This is ultimately because Jesus Christ is the Sabbath of God. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and in Him all things cohere. In Him and in His cross all things are reconciled, past and future, old and young, bread and wine.

]]> (Toby Sumpter) Theology Mon, 21 Nov 2011 16:38:51 +0000
Heart of Mercy In Hosea 6, God rebukes Israel, saying, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” Jesus quotes this passage twice in Matthew.

First, in Matthew 9 when the Pharisees are upset about the fact that Jesus has sat down at the same table as tax collectors and sinners to eat with them, Jesus tells them “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” And then again in Matthew 12, the Pharisees became upset at Jesus’ disciples because they had plucked heads of grain and eaten them as they walked on the Sabbath, thus breaking the Pharisees’ understanding of Sabbath keeping. Jesus responded by quoting Hosea 6. “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”

There are a couple of things that we should notice here. First, food is mercy. If all of this world speaks to us about God and his nature, if all of creation declares the character of God, and it does, then the purpose of food is to testify to us of God’s free mercy. Here you go, he says to us, eat up. Let me nourish you. Let me fill that cavernous emptiness inside of you. Let me serve you something hot to warm you up and make you feel better. Food is mercy.

Second, mercy terrifies the pharisaical mind. When grace is served up, free of charge, the pharisaical mind gets nervous and rushes in to tidy things up, to make some basic rules to reign the thing in, lest that mercy get out of control. Since food is God’s mercy it should be no surprise to us that food and eating inspire a disproportionate amount of pharisaism in our flesh. It was at the dinner table that the Pharisees got uppity about the fact that Jesus was surrounding himself with tax collectors and sinners. And it was on the subject of how the disciples ate that the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples of having broken the Sabbath. But both times Jesus corrected them telling them that God delighted in mercy over sacrifice.
God prefers his people to be enjoying his nourishment with gratitude rather than heaping up manmade rules and pharisaical scruples. This is true with food in general and this is particularly true at this table, the Lord’s Supper. This table is at the center of all of our eating. It makes sense that of all the rituals God could have chosen for us to celebrate Jesus’ death, God chose a meal.

Here is the heart of mercy, the gift of the Son. And here we celebrate it by eating. However, if all the manmade scruples about what can and can’t be done at the Lord’s Supper, which Christians have imagined up over the past two millennia, were to be published, the world itself could not support the pile of books produced. Here, at the heart of mercy, we are prone to become the most pharisaical. But you need to know one thing to come to this table. God desires mercy and not sacrifice. God wants you to know him more than the burnt offering. So come to this table. God wants to fill you up.

]]> (Ben Merkle) Theology Fri, 11 Nov 2011 16:21:58 +0000
A Meditation for All Hallows Eve Perhaps we should consider the command to be holy "as I am Holy" as a manifestation of the haunting of God. What is holiness?

Holiness is usually defined as being “set apart” or “separated” to God. Of course, holiness is a big deal in the Old Testament. Mistaking holiness could mean instant death. That which is holy belongs to God. Holiness is fiercely guarded by God. Holiness is dangerous. Holiness is God’s presence, and as soon as sin and death enter the world, Adam and Eve are escorted out of the garden and menacing cherubim brandish a flaming sword behind them. They are outside of the presence which is now a fiercely guarded fortress. Later, the Levites wield swords and spears, new angelic guardians of the tabernacle and temple, ready to strike down any breach in security, constantly reminding Israel that they are outside of the presence of God, outside of the holiness, outside of the fortress. And in heaven, the fiery seraphim guard the heavenly presence crying out like air raid sirens, “Holy! Holy! Holy! is the Lord God of Armies.” Warning! Stand back!

It is true that in the Old Covenant God’s people were mercifully drawn near, and the power and glory of God’s holiness often delivered them from their enemies (e.g. Ex. 3:5, 15:11). But the swords were still pointed out towards them and just as often, His people could make a wrong move and be devoured by His holiness: consumed in fire (Num. 11:1), swallowed by the earth (Num. 16:32), bitten by flaming serpents (Num. 21:6). God would always relent from His anger, but it was a dangerous business being so close to the entrance of the presence, so close to the fortress of His holiness. Caked in sin and enslaved by guilt and the powers of death, it was dangerous to be near the Holy Presence. And the earthquakes and lightening and thunders and trumpets sounded their deafening, haunting drones constantly warning them, constantly reminding them that they were just outside the presence. And anyone who got too close was shot dead by archers or stoned (Ex. 19). God’s presence is a terrifying fortress.

The rituals of the Old Covenant tended to underline this terror. Animals were slaughtered by the thousands and blood was everywhere, covering furniture and altars, and the Levites and priests were constantly stained in blood from the butchery, like warriors in battle. The idea was always to “draw near” to the presence, to come near to the holiness, but the tabernacle could have easily seemed like the original haunted house, filled with thick, smoky darkness, lit by the wavering candles of the holy presence. Even at the door of the Holy Place where Israelites were commanded to appear, the panicked bleating of the lambs smelling the blood of their slaughtered cousins was constant. It was hardly comforting to know that the God of this holiness viewed the screaming beasts as pictures of you. Here, put your hands on the head of this lamb, listen to it scream and gurgle as the Levite slices open his throat. This is you, my son. This is my holiness. You are my holy people. Even with the reassurances of the priest, and the promise that the smoke was rising to God as a pleasing aroma, it would have been hard to shake the feeling that this God was a living, seething volcano.

When God thundered and spoke and told Israel to “be holy as I am holy,” what did that mean? How would the average Israelite have heard that? Sometimes the expectation was explicit. Sometimes it clearly meant that they could not participate in the acts of sexual deviance of the surrounding nations. Sometimes it had to do with what the Israelites ate or their calendar or how they treated their parents. But why all the smoke and fire? Why all the thunder and trumpets and blood? Why is holiness a place of slaughter, a place of fire and smoke and fear and trembling? If holiness is so dangerous, so awful, what would it mean to be holy?

Clearly, the story of holiness does not end there. As Matthew’s gospel begins, we hear that a young woman is pregnant with a child by an invisible Being called the Holy Spirit. Despite our engrained Christmas cheer, it should be pointed out that with the dark, haunted background of the Old Covenant, this could easily sound like a horror story. An angel in Luke explains: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Lk. 1:35). Who is this holy ghost? What kind of Halloween weirdness is this? And an Angel of the Lord has the audacity to appear to Joseph and try to calm him down by explaining: “do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 1:20). The smoking, thundering, seething, shrieking volcano has made a baby. I’m sure Joseph was relieved.

The demons actually seem a bit more rational. They scream and try to warn everyone: “Let us alone! What have we to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Did you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” (Mk. 1:24, Lk. 4:34) They know that the holiness of God is haunting, destructive, fierce, a terrifying fortress. John warned the people about Jesus as well: “I indeed baptize you with water, but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Lk. 3:16). Given the Old Covenant context this sounds more like a threat than a comforting promise. And John wasn’t your average, chirpy youth pastor type to begin with. He seems to have been a bit of a screamer himself. “Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (Jn. 1:33).

But then the Holy One comes. The demons shriek and fall down in fear, and there are some who are afraid of Him. He can be fierce and angry, but He brings healing and restoration with Him. He speaks of a Kingdom, a way of life, a people that will be safe even against the assaults of Hell. But Jesus is a destroyer. He promises the destruction of the old Holy Place. That fortress has become a haunt of demons and Pharisees. It will be surrounded by armies and burned with fire and there will be shrieks and blaring trumpets in the wind. But this is too much for the Jews, too threatening, too scary and so they kill Him. And as the Holy One dies it becomes dark in the middle of the afternoon, and there is a great earthquake and He cries out as He gives up His ghost.

But Jesus promised to give His people the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. He promised to make His people holy in a way they had never known. Would it hurt? Would it burn? Would it kill them? Jesus says that the Spirit will actually comfort them. The Spirit of Holiness will give them peace. The holiness that comes from this Spirit will teach them what to say when they stand before tribunals. And after Jesus is raised from the dead and ascended into the heaven, He sends the Spirit-storm down from heaven. But instead of destroying the disciples, instead of turning the upper room into a crematorium, they all shone like the burning bush, aflame but not consumed. They all become holy ground, places of God’s Most Holy Presence. And then they spoke: they thundered with their voices, like angels with trumpets announcing to the nations that the Holy God had become a Holy Man and dwelt among us. This Holy Man had destroyed the power of sin and death by the shedding of His own blood and is now enthroned forever.

Those who heard and believed were baptized with this fire as well, and they began to live this holiness together: continuing steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, breaking bread from house to house, in prayers, sharing their goods and possessions, having all things in common, giving to those in need (Acts 2:41-47). They became a sanctuary together, a fortress, the place of God’s holy presence. But where are the screams? Where are the shrieks? Where is the danger? Where are the gleaming swords, the smoke and fire and trumpets and blood? They are outside. They are outside of the presence – where they have always been (cf. Rev. 22:14-15). But this new holiness is still terrifying: it is the aroma of death to those who are perishing. They hate it, and they seek to destroy it. They burn the new holy ones, they cut off their heads, they pierce them with swords, they crucify them. But the saints overcome through the blood of the Lamb. The darkness is pierced by the light even as the darkness attacks it.

In the New Covenant, after sin and death have been dealt with, the Spirit of Holiness is poured out on all flesh, enveloping believers in the Presence of God. In other words, the holiness of God, the presence of God is what makes being human safe. There is no safe place outside of the presence of God. To be outside of the presence of God is to be at the mercy of chaos and violence and burning and smoke. But the holiness of God is His fortress. The holiness of God has always had flaming swords facing outwards. The holy presence of God is a sanctuary, a safe place, a fortress.

In the New Covenant, the Kingdom, the Christian Church is the new Eden, the new Holy Place, the dwelling of God Himself by His Spirit. God Himself defends and protects His people, and they are now inside. They are inside the holiness, inside the presence. Now they are haunted with the presence themselves. And to the darkness and to those still in their sins, the Church and all the saints are like angels, saints, holy ones burning with the fiery presence of their Holy God, wielding the flaming sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God.

To be holy is to be “set apart” and “separated” to God, but more specifically, it is to be safely inside the presence of God, safely within His body, safely within His family. Now we are part of that holy space fiercely defended by God. Now we are inside the fortress, and His angels defend us. And as His body, His house, His Holy Place we defend and protect one another. And we cry Holy! Holy! Holy! We claim and defend all those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, and we invite the world into the presence, into the sanctuary, into the mighty fortress of His holiness.



]]> (Toby Sumpter) Theology Mon, 31 Oct 2011 21:58:26 +0000
Kisses of the Mouth "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” (Song of Songs 1:2)

As the Kama Sutra makes clear, there have long been many different sorts of kisses. In Scripture, kissing is usually a greeting without erotic or romantic overtones. Men kiss men, brothers and sisters and cousins kiss, as gestures of welcome. Apart from the Song of Songs, the only biblical passage where kissing has erotic overtones is in Proverb 7:13, where Lady Folly offers an illicit kiss. And the few instances that kissing with the mouth is mentioned outside the Song, it has to do with idolatry. Job says that he has not secretly thrown a kiss at the sun (31:26-27), and during the time of Ahab, Yahweh preserves 7000 pairs of knees that have not “bowed to Baal” and 7000 mouths “that have not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18; cf. Hose 13:2).

The Bride who begins the Song longs for erotic kisses from the mouth of her Lover. What happens when two people exchange the kiss of the mouth? What does the kiss of the mouth mean?

Let’s begin with the mouth itself. We are porous beings. Our nose, eyes, ears, even our skin itself are involved in a constant exchange between inner and outer. But the mouth is the most obvious expression of the porosity of our existence. The mouth is the most intimate part of the face, the most intimate parts of the body normally exposed in public. Traditionally, the eyes are the window to the soul, but you can’t see into me in any real sense when I open my eyes. You might try to peer up my nostrils, or into my ear, but pretty quickly it gets too gloomy and dark to see much. When I open my mouth, though, there’s a yawning chasm in the middle of my head, and without too much trouble you can see well into my interior, if you should want to.

The mouth is of course the entry for food into our digestive tract, and thus the gateway for bringing nourishment to the whole body. We drink water through the mouth, and we can breathe through the mouth as well. The mouth is thus the main way we take the world into ourselves from outside, the main delivery system through which the world outside keeps us alive. The mouth is guarded by the lips, but the lips are backed up by teeth. The mouth is the most aggressive part of the face. Saliva, mucous, vomit, and other bodily fluids can escape through the mouth, but it is not only physical material that comes through our mouths. Ideas, aspirations, compliments, songs, prayers, laments, screams and shrieks, and many other expressions of our interior life move to the outside world through our mouth. Our words step through the doorway of the mouth and present themselves to the waiting public.

Without the mouth, our interior life would be much less precisely expressible. You can gesture and dance, but, for all their expressiveness, these modes of communication cannot express our desires or thoughts as articulately as the mouth. You can learn to write with the language you speak, and thus capture much of what can be spoken. Without voice, however, words lack the musical qualities of spoken language – timbre, pitch, volume – and many of the emotional qualities.

A kiss is a synaesthetic symphony. It is touch, lips against other lips, and it is touch on a highly sensitive part of the skin. Given the intimacy of the touch, it also involves taste and aroma. Not only is the kiss synaesthetic, but it is mutual synaesthesia. The taste and the smell of two breaths mingle into one. Each touches the other as intimately as he or she is touched. It is almost as if, in Derrida’s (typically) extreme phrase, touching myself touching another (se toucher toi).

All this means that a kiss, a touch of lip to lip or, more intimately, of tongue to tongue, is one of the most physically intimate actions we can conceive of. Holding hands, rubbing noses, hugging – all these are intimacies, but they don’t come close to the intimacy of the kisses of the mouth. A kiss is not sex; two people kissing are not one flesh. But they have drawn very close, and this is reason for being very, very cautious about bestowing or receiving the kisses of the mouth.

A kiss is also an exchange of breath. A man and woman cannot exchange the kiss of the mouth without breathing into one another. That hints at a wider theological dimension of kissing. Humanity comes alive by a kiss, when the Lord breathes into Adam’s nose the breath of life. Humanity comes to new life with the breath of Jesus, the Spirit, breathed out on Easter and poured out on Pentecost. Yahweh kisses the world when He breathes on the Red Sea and lays bare the foundations of the earth (Psalm 18:15). With the breath of His lips, the Messiah slays the wicked (Isaiah 11:4). Job speaks frequently about the breath of God: His breath kills (Job 4:9); it clears the heavens (26:13); it gives life to humans (27:3; 33:4); it gives understanding to humans (32:8); it freezes waters (37:10). A kiss recapitulates the Lord’s breath on Adam, the Lord’s breath on the sea, the breathing of the Spirit Breath that keeps everything animate. It’s no wonder that we can be refreshed and even revived from a kiss from our wife or husband. It’s no wonder a young woman’s world can turn upside down with one stolen kiss.

Though the Bride’s desire for the kiss of the mouth is erotic, Song of Songs 1:2 is set in a liturgical context. We might sum up the point with reference to the old Book of Common Prayer marriage vows: “with my body I thee worship.” The Song of Songs moves in the opposite direction – using erotic language to describe liturgy – but the overlap of the two zones of life is similar. If we take Song of Songs 1:2 in this liturgical sense, what desire does the Bride express?

The Bride wants to be face-to-face and mouth-to-mouth with her Lover. This has partly to do with speech. Yahweh gave dreams and visions to prophets, but in the Old Covenant, Yahweh spoke to Moses alone in this intimate way: “With him I speak mouth to mouth, even openly, and not in dark sayings, and he beholds the form of Yahweh” (Numbers 12:8). The Bride longs for the moment when her Lover will speak to her openly, as intimately as He did with Moses. She longs to speak to Him unveiled. She longs for the New Covenant.

A kiss is also a mutual consumption. We eat with our mouths, and when we kiss we are symbolically consuming one another. A long, erotic kiss closely resembles eating, complete with bites and nibbles and tastes. To kiss is to approach a one-flesh union, to become bone of bone, flesh of flesh, body of body. And this is the meaning of sacrifice. Sacrificial meat is the “bread of Yahweh,” and, since it represents the worshiper, sacrifice always involves the transfiguration and ascension of the worshiper into the glory-cloud of the Lord. Yahweh is a “consuming” fire, an “eating” fire, who consumes His Bride in the kiss of sacrifice. The Bride also wants to consume the Lover too, and this desire too is fulfilled in the New Covenant, when the Word becomes the flesh that He offers as food to His Bride.

In the light of other references to idolatrous kissing in Scripture, the fact that the Bride looks for the kiss from her Lover is important. In other passages, the worshiper kisses the god, but here the Bride, the beloved, longs for the Lover to kiss her. There is an arresting reciprocity here. Worship is the Bride kissing the Husband, but the worship that the Bride longs for includes the Husband’s homage to His Bride.

This also might deepen our grasp of what it means to exchange a kiss of peace. We are all Bride, but we are also all in Christ. Kissing one another in greeting is a way of offering homage to one another, but more profoundly it is to offer homage to the Christ who dwells in us and to the Bride whom Jesus Himself kisses. Reciprocity runs throughout the Song, reflecting the liturgical rites of Israel as fulfilled in the New Covenant: Yahweh “eats” the bridal food, but also shares food; in the Eucharist, we feed on Christ, but He also receives us in our praises, and feeds on the Bride.

]]> (Peter J. Leithart) Theology Fri, 28 Oct 2011 23:30:46 +0000
Moab Some of the most passionate passages of the Old Testament are lamentations over Moab (Isaiah 15-16; Jeremiah 48). Why so much space and energy for a relatively obscure nation? We can find the reason by glancing at the history of Moab. Philistia is better known, but Moab is actually more intimately linked to Israel.

Moab was a son of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, born to Lot in the cave above Zoar after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah his eldest daughter who seduced him after making him drunk with wine (Genesis 19:30-38). Not only is Moab related to Abraham by blood, but the story of Lot and his daughters anticipates the later story in Genesis about Judah and Tamar, a daughter-in-law who plays a harlot to get a child by her father-in-law (Genesis 38). Judah had twin sons with Tamar, Perez and Zerah, as Lot had two sons by his two daughters, his sons/grandsons Moab and Ammon. The history of Moab and Ammon is a mirror of the history of Judah, of the sons Perez and Zerah. Moab is the Gentile Judah, not a scepter, but at least a washpot in Yahweh’s house (Psalm 60:8; 108:9). Moab runs parallel to Judah; Moab also runs parallel to Sodom, her city of origin, the original inhospitable, sexually perverse city.

The Moabites settled on the east side of the Jordan, and they were there when Israel came up out of Egypt.  Moab refused to bring out food and water when Israel was passing through, and for that failure of hospitality Yahweh excluded Moabites and Ammonites from the assembly of Israel for ten generations, excluded them from His hospitality for a period of time (Deuteronomy 23:3-4). Here again Moab may run parallel to Judah. If Perez and Zerah were considered bastards, they were also excluded from the assembly of Israel for ten generations (Deuteronomy 23:2).

Moab didn’t merely refuse hospitality, but deliberately tried to stop Israel’s march through the wilderness toward Canaan. Balak was a Moabite king, and he hired Balaam to curse Israel (Numbers 22-24). When that failed, Balaam sent Moabite and Midianite women into the camp of Israel to seduce the men and to entice them to worship idols. Yahweh broke out in anger and sent a plague that was stopped only by Phinehas, who impaled a fornicating couple with a spear (Numbers 25).

For all her checkered past, Moab does not remain outside Israel. In Ruth, we get a taste of Moab’s redemption. Through her, Moab is partially reincorporated to the Abrahamic people. Ruth acts a lot like the mother of Moab. Like the daughter of Lot, she approaches a man who is old enough to be her father, who is sleeping, who is joyful with wine, and asks him for marriage and children (Ruth 3). Close as the resemblance between Ruth and Moab’s mother is, Ruth is reversing the incest that began the history of Moab. By approaching Boaz on the threshing floor, Ruth forces her way into the genealogy of Israel: Boaz’s God becomes her God, Boaz’s people are her people, Boaz’s descendants, including David and David’s great Son, become her descendants. It is not an accident that David conquers Moab and makes it part of “greater Israel” (2 Samuel 8). David has Moabite blood in his veins; and so does Jesus.

Moab’s early history anticipates Judah’s, but in Ruth, Moab’s history becomes Judah’s. Moab, the child of the seducer, the child of incest, the inhospitable child of the daughter of Sodom, is redeemed and quite literally incorporated into David, incorporated, blood and flesh, into the body of Christ.

This history helps us see why Isaiah and Jeremiah are so distressed over the pride and the destruction of Moab: Moab’s destruction is like lopping off a limb of David. Isaiah 15-16 depicts the wailing and mourning over Moab in appalling detail. The cities of Moab are ruined in a single night (15:1), and all across Moab the cities are filling with mourning (15:3-4). City after city is listed, and everywhere it is the same: Crying and mourning. Weeping and wailing fill the land, echoing from one end to the other. In every city, wailing comes from the streets, the rooftops, the squares (15:3). Heads are shaved and beards cut off as the Moabites are taken into slavery, off to the “brook of the willows,” the Euphrates (15:7; cf. Psalm 137:2). The green land withers, the vineyards are trampled, the fields destroyed (15:6; 16:8, 10). There is neither grain nor grapes, neither bread nor wine for Moab. Moab suffers Egyptian plagues, with her waters turning to blood (15:9).  But her wails and cries are useless. Moabites go up to their high places to weep, but there is no answer (15:2).  Moabites go into the sanctuary to pray, but they get no relief (16:12).

But Moab has reason for hope. The destruction and exile that Isaiah describes comes to pass in the Babylonian invasion that carries Judah off. Moab has participated in Judah’s history and glory; Moab will participate also in Judah’s removal from the land. And if Moab participates in Judah’s death, she will also share in his resurrection.

In the midst of desperation and lament, one voice stands above the rest (Isaiah 15:5; 16:9-12). Suddenly in the middle of chapter 15, someone begins speaking in the first person, an “I.” The identity of that figure is ambiguous in chapter 15, but in chapter 16, it becomes clear that the mourner is Yahweh Himself. The mourner is the same one who “made the shouting to cease” (16:11). The same God who causes all the wailing and weeping and mourning, the same God fills Moab with cries that echo from one end of the land to the others, who clothes Moab with sackcloth and silences her shouts and songs – that same God becomes the Chief Mourner in Moab.

Yahweh is sovereign, the ruler of the nations. Isaiah is one of the primary biblical witnesses to that truth. But He is not a distant tyrant, an absentee ruler, who watches indifferently or gleefully as nations are filled with terror, as their worlds come crashing down around them. He is the sovereign Ruler of the nations, but He is also among the nations, who wails and mourns over her destruction.

And if Yahweh laments for Moab, He will also lament over Israel. And if He laments for Moab and Israel in the old world, He mourns with His people even more intensely in the new. The new covenant immeasurably deepens the Lord’s share in our sorrow. For in the new covenant, the Lord of all becomes man, suffers everything that we suffer yet without sin, feels the full force and burden of death and loss, weeps at the grave of Lazarus. Jesus wept, but if we have seen Jesus we have seen the Father. Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, the city that would be thrown down at the coming of the Son of Man; and if we have seen Jesus, we have seen Yahweh.

And now Jesus has given us His Spirit of adoption by which we cry Abba, Father, who helps us in our weakness, who intercedes for us with groans too deep for speech. When we mourn for our sins, when we mourn over the mess that our sins produce, when we lament over the ruin of the world, when we mourn our loss, when we face a crisis for which there seems to be no resolution, when we in desperation we determine that we simply cannot go on, when we feel entirely alone and are sure that no one hears – no matter what, our voice is not alone. Another voice rises like a descant over our sorrow, the voice of the Son and the voice of the Spirit, who weeps bitterly, who drenches us with tears that water our dry ground, whose heart intones like a harp.

When our hearts melt, God’s heart melts too. And by His groans we are healed.

]]> (Peter J. Leithart) Theology Mon, 22 Aug 2011 14:38:00 +0000
Secularism and Time James Montgomery Boice writes in Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace that secularism “means disregarding the eternal and thinking only of the ‘now’.” He notes that the word comes from the Latin word saeculum with means “age.” Secular things have literally to do with the present. Secularism is a deification of the now, worshipping this time as opposed to all other times: the past or the future. Boice continues by quoting R.C. Sproul who says: “For secularism, all life, every human value, every human activity must be understood in light of this present time…” Sproul goes on to describe the fundamentalist and exclusivist demands of secularism. This god demands supreme and exclusive allegiance: “We must make our decisions, live our lives, make our plans, all within the closed arena of this time – the here and now.”

This is very helpful since it frequently feels like the categories of sacred and secular default into spatial ones. Sacred things are over there, while secular things are over here. Or perhaps we attempt to draw topical distinctions: those subjects are religious; these subjects are non-religious. But our demonstrative pronouns still betray our spatial grooves. Sunday is a holy day, but Monday is a… a… another sort of day, and our calendars still organize our thoughts spatially. On the other hand, an eschatological description of the world like the one Sproul and Boice describe lines up more faithfully with the way the Bible actually speaks. Christians are called to live by faith on what Rosenstock-Huessy called the “cross of reality,” stretched between the past, the present, and the future because we serve the One who was and is and is to come. We worship the Man who is the Lord of all time, who is the Alpha and the Omega. He is Lord of this age and the age to come.

The good news of the Kingdom is that the “age to come” has already begun to invade this age. N.T. Wright describes this phenomenon particularly well in one lecture on the sacraments and time, using the story of the spies returning from Canaan with the enormous cluster of grapes carried by two men on a pole. He says that the sacraments in particular are the life of the Kingdom, the fruit of the Promised Land brought back into our wilderness, they are the life of the future brought back into the present. This signifies what the life of the Church is all about, what we pray for and work for. Our prayer is that the Kingdom would come and the will of God would be done on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, we pray for and work for the sanctification of the whole world.

Are human politics “secular?” Well, certainly, in so far as they are not yet fully what they are to become. But the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. In this sense, our current human lives are also “secular”: our bodies groan under the weight of the curse of sin, awaiting their full redemption. Our marriages are “secular” in this sense: they are types of the marriage supper of the Lamb, types of the love that Christ has for His bride, the Church. They are not yet what they will become; they have not been glorified into resurrection love. But we are not secularists, and this means that we refuse to look at the present with tunnel vision. We will not look at today as though it has no relation to yesterday or tomorrow.

The classic critique of certain forms of postmillennialism and Kuyperianism is that it “immanentizes the eschaton,” we pretend the future has already arrived in full form before it actually has. We pretend to know the key to bringing our version of utopia to the present. We baptize a civil order and call it heaven. And I’m sure that has sometimes been a temptation. But I think the real failure is a lack of temporal sensibility. When we celebrate a child’s birthday, singing songs, giving gifts, blowing out candles, and eating cake and ice cream, no one is seriously tempted to believe that this child has arrived. The fact that the kid turned 8 years old is, what we might say, a good step in the right direction, but as Christians we won’t really be satisfied until the resurrection. Who among us has turned 30 and thought now I’m really grown up? We sometimes have childish impressions of certain ages, certain times: if I could only be 16, if I could only be 21, if I could only be 65.

We celebrate birthdays because God has been good, because life is good, because we are thankful. But as God’s people we celebrate birthdays because we pray that they mark progress in sanctification, they mark progress toward resurrection, and in Christ they already partake of that resurrection life in the Spirit. As it turns out, our glorious resurrection bodies will be a lot better than these current ones, but that doesn’t mean we won’t recognize them. These current shells are seeds that will go into the ground and disintegrate before they spring up into real trees of life, and so will our marriages, so will our nations, and so will our hobbies and games and stories. The present is being shaken by the voice of the One who speaks from heaven, by the voice of the One who speaks from the future, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. And therefore we do not baptize a civil order and called it heaven; we are called to baptize every civil order, every marriage, every hobby, every lawful pursuit and call it the beginning of heaven, trusting that God will keep all His promises and still surprise us beyond all reckoning.  

And this provides a helpful critique of secularism in culture as well: who knows what clothes we will be wearing in the resurrection? Who knows how many and what sorts of piercings and jewels will be worn by the women of the resurrection? Who knows the breadth of music God will have on the Celestial iPod? We don’t know, and we can’t begin to fathom what God has prepared for those who love Him. But if you’re getting ready for that party, if you’re on that train, bound for that glory, it sure eliminates a lot of the schlock on offer from the Priests of the Present. But we are not bound; we will not be slaves of the Now. We have parents, we have a past, we have a people, a family, and we have been given the Spirit of the future.        

]]> (Toby Sumpter) Theology Mon, 20 Jun 2011 22:32:09 +0000
Henri du Lubac and Catholic Renewal Part I: The Supernatural

The French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) was one of the most significant Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, a central figure in the ressourcement movement and the nouvelle theologie that inspired the change of atmosphere in the Catholic church leading up to Vatican II. In his recent book on de Lubac, John Milbank claims that de Lubac and the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov were the two great giants of twentieth-century theology.

De Lubac’s work covers a wide range of subjects. His earliest work was on the Thomist conception of the “supernatural,” and more narrowly on the question of whether man has a natural desire for the supernatural. (Though this seems to be a pretty fine point, it has wide ramifications for Catholic theology, and for all Christian theology.) He also wrote a classic medieval Eucharstic theology (Corpus Mysticum), a four-volume study of medieval methods of exegesis, a history of modern atheism, studies of the medieval figure Joachim of Fiore, the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola and the modern Catholic evolutionary philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

The debate over the supernatural in modern Roman Catholic theology is partly a debate about the interpretation of Aquinas, who has been the most important authority of modern Catholic theology. According to the influential interpretation offered by the Dominican Cardinal Cajetan (1469-1534), Thomas offered a kind of two-storey view of the world, with a self-sufficient “natural” world at the bottom and an added “supernatural” world at the top. (This is the interpretation of Thomas offered by Protestant critics like Francis Schaeffer.) Philosophy, politics, economics belong to the natural world and the natural nature of man, and can be conducted without much of any reference to God or grace. Thomas can offer proofs for the existence of God on the basis of natural reason, and then reason from that to revealed and supernatural truths. On this reading, Thomas operates within dualisms of reason/faith, philosophy/theology, nature/grace.

The specific question in debate had to do with the question of the natural desire for supernatural fulfillment. According to Thomas’ (Aristotelian-influenced) metaphysics, the nature of a thing was teleologically qualified – having a nature means seeking some kind of fulfillment of that nature, the full enjoyment of that nature. The telos of man, his highest aim and fulfillment, comes for Thomas in the enjoyment of the beatific vision of God. In several places in his writings, Thomas speaks of a desiderium naturale for the beatific vision. This would suggest that man as a natural being is not fulfilled by natural achievements – painting pictures, organizing businesses, establishing cities – but that he has a natural, built-in desire and longing for complete fulfillment. Simply as a creature, not merely as a redeemed creature, man aims to be united to God.

According to Cajetan’s reading of Thomas, this natural desire cannot be innate, because an innate, natural desire for the supernatural end trespasses the boundary between nature and supernature, between nature and grace. By the desiderium naturale, Thomas simply meant an “elicited” desire for God, which is aroused by the intellect’s curiosity about the world (“I wonder how the sun rises”) which produces in the will a desire to know the cause of the world (“I want to find out who made the sun”).

The actual desire for a supernatural end does not arise from man’s nature, but only when there is an offer of grace. That is what “elicits” the desire. Part of Cajetan’s point was to insist on the graciousness of grace: If there is a natural desire for the beatific vision that precedes the actual offer of grace in the gospel, then the offer of grace is something less than a pure offer of grace. After all, if God implanted a natural desire for the beatific vision in man, then, Cajetan argues, to be just God must fulfill that desire: What kind of God would He be if He aroused these longings only to frustrate them? But that turns the beatific vision into a matter of justice rather than mercy.

To fill out this reading of Thomas Cajetan posited a doctrine of “pure nature.” In Milbank’s summary, “Cajetan, unlike Aquinas, explicitly says that human nature in actuality is fully definable in merely natural terms. This means that there can be an entirely natural and adequate ethics, politics, and philosophy and so forth. Man might even offend the moral law, and yet not be directly guilty of sin.”

De Lubac challenged this reading of Thomas. He explored the history of Christian usage of the terms “nature” and “supernatural,” and concluded (Milbank’s summary again) that “the essential contrast, up until the High Middle Ages, remained one between natural and moral and not natural and supernatural.” De Lubac argued that the former distinction was authentically Christian: “on the one hand there was created nature; on the other hand there was created spirit, which was free, and intellectually reflexive (‘personal’). This ‘moral’ realm was in some sense not just created; it bore a more radical imprint of divinity: the imago dei.”

In this earlier paradigm, there is no “pure nature,” and de Lubac argued that there was no notion of “pure nature” in Aquinas either. He took Thomas’ statements about the natural desire for the supernatural end quite literally: Human beings exist only as creatures of God oriented toward their creator. As he said in a 1932 letter to Maurice Blondel, the problem with pure nature is “how can a conscious spirit be anything other than an absolute desire for God.” Instead of grace being an “extrinsic” addition to nature (as in Cajetan’s reading), grace brings natural abilities and natural inclinations and natural desires to their fulfillment.

De Lubac always insisted that the relation of nature and supernature was a paradox. On the one hand, human beings have a natural longing for fulfillment of their nature in the vision of God; on the other hand, this natural longing is fulfilled not as a necessity or a matter of justice, but in an act of sheer grace.

The point can be broadened: There is nothing that is “purely natural.” Since all is created, the “supernatural” (if we wish to retain the terminology) is always already present within ordinary creation. The ordinary is extraordinary. Another of the broader implications is captured in de Lubac’s claim that “Christianity is a humanism, else it is misunderstood. On the other hand, secular humanism is the absolute antithesis of the Gospel.”

The second part of this is pretty clear: Any effort to understand human reality as if it were closed to God and His revelation in Christ is antithetical to the gospel. The first part is trickier. Christianity is a humanism because its offer of grace does not destroy the genuinely human but brings the human to fulfillment. Grace does not come to reshape human life into something other than human life; grace comes to reshape fallen human life into genuine human life, which is human life in communion with God. There is a “fit” between what the gospel promises and the realities of human existence, because the God who redeems is the God who created.

De Lubac believed that the reinterpretation of Thomas, allowing for an autonomous natural realm, is the source of modern secular humanism. But from the other direction a Catholic “piety” that viewed supernatural grace as wholly extrinsic, something “superadded” to a self-sufficient natural sphere, was equally to blame, because viewing grace as extrinsic and added-on helped to reinforce the autonomy of the natural (secular).

De Lubac’s work on the supernatural influenced his entire corpus. His massive study of medieval exegesis shows that the allegorical is not something “added on” to the literal, but something that emerges from the literal as the fulfillment and telos of the literal. In his treatises on ecclesiology, he insists that the church is not a “supernatural” community wholly different from the natural communities of the world, but is the gracious fulfillment of natural community. He was deeply interested in scientific study and in the “integral humanist” philosophy of the French Catholic Jacques Maritain precisely because he believed that greater understanding of the natural world and of human existence would ensure that theology would not float off again into extrinsicism. The claim that everything is illuminated by the light of grace is only persuasive when we are exploring the darker corners of the everything that is being illuminated.

Part II: Gift and Gratitude

De Lubac insisted in his later book “The Mystery of the Supernatural” that the natural desire for the beatific vision was not grace itself. Grace meets the natural desire and fulfills it, but the natural desire is something in “human nature of itself” (Milbank). This must be so on de Lubac’s theory, since otherwise there is no nature to be fulfilled by supernatural grace, and that appears to lead back to thinking of supernatural grace in extrinsic terms. But this seems to me to put us back several steps. Why talk about “human nature of itself” at all? Doesn’t that itself pressure us toward a dualistic two-story model, in which human nature has qualities of “its own”?

De Lubac sometimes dealt with this question by emphasizing the gift-character of created existence, and Milbank presses this theme in de Lubac even further. One problem raised by Humani Generis was the threat that the denial of pure nature posed to the gratuity of grace: If, the encyclical argues, God cannot but create beings that are oriented to Him, then the graciousness of the fulfillment of that orientation is threatened. God is obligated to fulfill this desire, and that means it is no longer grace. But, Milbank argues, this assumes that the logic of the gift operates the same when we talk about God and man as it does when we talk about man and man. At the human level, “gift” and “obligation” are contrasted: Repaying a debt is not the same as giving a gift. But because God is God, self-sufficient and transcendent, this logic does not apply.

As Milbank says, “gratuity arises before necessity or obligation and does not even require the contrast in order to be comprehensible. The creature as creature is not the recipient of a gift, it is itself this gift. . . . since there is no preceding recipient, the spirit is a gift to a gift and the gifting of giving oneself to oneself, which is the only way consciously to live being as a gift and so to be spirit.” This is convoluted, but the point is that when God gives life and existence to creatures, there is no recipient on the other end, because the existence of the recipient is what is given. Oh my, that was convoluted too. Let me try to be simple: We are only as gifts from God. In the sphere of divine-human interaction, we find what Charles Bruaire, a follower of de Lubac, calls “unilateral exchange.” Thus, there is no “human nature in itself,” but only human nature as sheer gift of God.

And this, Milbank argues, means that human existence, insofar as it is human reception and response, is simply gratitude: “one knows that one is not all of possible knowing and willing and feeling and moreover that, since our share of these things is what we are, we do not really command them, after the mode of a recipient of possessions. Hence to will, know, and fell is to render gratitude, else we would refuse ourselves as constituted as gift. Such gratitude to an implied infinite source can only be, as gratitude, openness to an unlimited reception from this source which is tantamount to a desire to know the giver.” Later, Milbank emphasizes that the gift of created being is “so unilateral that it gives even the recipient and the possibility of her gratitude.”

This has fundamental soteriological implications: “if nature and grace are . . . spatially outside each other (on an extrinsicist model) then this situation will pertain not just at the moment of the reception of grace, but throughout the experience of salvation. Either we will independently contribute to the reception and meriting of grace (‘Pelagianism’) and in that case it will be something chosen or deserved and not a gift, or else it will be something that externally compels our will and, again, no more a gift than is a brick wall that we might inadvertently run into. Whereas the gift of grace involves a change in status of the spirit itself, ontic models of the contrast of gift with non-gift dissolve such radical gratuity altogether.”

On this model, then, there is no “human nature itself” that has a desire for God, no natural sphere that can run autonomously. We exist as gifts, everything we have is given, and the only possible way to live with ourselves is to live in gratitude.

There is more to critique in de Lubac. It is especially important to probe his doctrine of sin. But I don’t have time for that. Only one concluding observation: De Lubac’s work, though it is operating within Catholic and specifically Thomist problematics, has enormous implications for current soteriological debates in the Reformed world. Protestants as well as Catholics have operated with an “extrinsicist” understanding of grace, and in some versions of the covenant of works we seem to see a Protestant version of Cajetan’s “pure nature.” De Lubac’s work will surely look different in a Protestant context, but we do have much to learn from him.

]]> (Peter J. Leithart) Theology Wed, 08 Jun 2011 15:00:14 +0000
Sharing Christ's Sufferings (2 Cor. 1:1-14) Much of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s defense of his apostolic ministry, which is also a defense of the reliability of the gospel he preached at Corinth. One of the things that led some people to doubt Paul’s status as an apostle was his life of suffering. How can God be with Paul, so full of the Spirit, an apostle of the exalted Jesus, when he spends his life under duress? Shouldn’t an apostle be a success in ministry?

Instead of minimizing his sufferings, however, Paul exults in them. In chapter 4, he talks about the suffering of the apostles, which leads to life for those who are in the church, and in chapter 11 he provides a famous catalogue of affliction. Far from being a disqualification for apostolic ministry, Paul sees his sufferings as the central part of his apostolic resume, because they prove that He is ministering a crucified Messiah. By suffering in his ministry, Paul bears the brand-marks of Jesus.

But what does this have to do with our suffering? Paul is talking about his apostolic sufferings, big important afflictions, persecutions for his faith. Can we apply a passage that deals with these special, unique sufferings of the apostle Paul to our trivial disappointments, failures, and troubles?

The key to answering this question is to recognize that Paul and the other apostles are not alone in ministry in the church. The apostles, prophets, and pastors of the church have a unique ministry, and share in a particular way in the sufferings of Christ, but they are not the only ones who have a ministry in the church. According to Paul, we all have a ministry in the church and our sufferings are part of our ministry.

Of course, the good effects that Paul talks about in this passage are not automatic. It’s certainly possible for us to be afflicted, suffer hardships and disappointments, and respond wrongly. It is possible to respond to affliction with what Paul calls “fleshly wisdom” (v. 12). What kinds of responses to difficulties are “fleshly responses” and manifest “fleshly wisdom”?

A fleshly response to affliction is one characterized by the works of the flesh. You have a pressure-filled day at work, with a foreman bearing down on you and pressuring you to meet a project deadline. You come home and snap at your wife, shout at the kids, look for an opportunity to let off steam by finding some reason to hit somebody or something. You get in fights, shifting blame from yourself to someone else, finding a scapegoat on whom we can take out your frustrations. That’s the flesh.

You lose your job, perhaps justly, perhaps not, and you sit around getting depressed, and eventually find that there is some escape, some easing of the pain, if we drink a beer, or two, or eight everything night. Or you find that you can forget for a few minutes by looking at pornographic web sites. Or you discover that prescription drugs that help you cope. Escape is a fleshly response as much as anger is.

The fundamental problem with these responses is that they all are based in self-trust, self-reliance.  We’ve got pressure on us, and we rely on something we can do to relieve the pressure. And when we rely on ourselves, the heat that comes does not produce good fruit but thorns and thistles and all sorts of useless growth. Our sufferings work for our sanctification when we draw the conclusion that we are unreliable, but that we serve a reliable God, a God who not only brings affliction but who rescues from affliction (v. 9). Suffering is supposed to bring the most fundamental change of all, the change from self-idolatry to worship of the true God. And this is true of all afflictions, no matter how minor.

But that is not the end point of our sufferings, and if we stop there we don’t quite get the point of Paul’s teaching about affliction. God doesn’t bring afflictions only for our sake, but to make us more effective ministers to the body of Christ.

A young woman loses her husband, and feels that she died with him; a friend who has also known loss is able to give her hope in the God who raises the dead (v. 9). You have been through financial difficulty, and know that the Lord is faithful, and you can encourage someone in financial difficulties to trust the Lord. You have been through a life-threatening illness, or have suffered for years with an illness that is not life-threatening, and so you can encourage others. Sometimes, you don’t have to do anything except endure your affliction patiently. As other believers see that your faith endures in the midst of a severe trial, you are edifying people who are enduring similar trials.

But we can become effective ministers and mediators of God’s comfort without suffering the same affliction as someone else. Verse 4 moves from the affliction of the apostles (“our”) to the comfort of “those who are in any affliction.” Here is an apostle who has been flogged and imprisoned; here is a young woman bereaved of a newborn baby; does the apostle’s experience give him authority to speak comfort to her?  Paul says Yes: “any” affliction.

The reason this works is that the dynamic of affliction and comfort is a constant, despite the infinite variety of human pain. Affliction is always a kind of dying, comfort a kind of resurrection, and an apostle who has been raised from a sentence of death, or has been hopeful in the midst of death, can assure any other believer that God will raise him as well.

Verse 5 even suggests a proportion between suffering and comfort. This is evident from the “just as . . . so also” structure of the verse, and also from the similarities of language: sufferings/Christ/abundance – comfort/abundant/Christ. Paul’s point is: The greater the affliction, the greater the comfort he can bring to others. No wonder Paul boasts of his sufferings, since the more he suffers the more his life exalts the resurrection power of God.

And this is precisely the way that our sufferings and afflictions are participation in the sufferings of Christ. Did Paul die for the Corinthians? In 1 Corinthians, he vehemently denies it (1:13). Yet, in 2 Corinthians 1:6 he says something that seems almost the opposite: The affliction of the apostles brings comfort and “salvation” to the Corinthians.

Paul is not the final sacrifice for sin, but his ministry “saves” the Corinthians. How? Paul goes on to talk about the need for the Corinthians to endure patiently, and this might provide a clue. Paul is afflicted; Paul finds confidence and comfort in the Lord; because of his experience, he can give confidence and comfort to others. And because of the comfort they receive from Paul, they are encouraged to persevere through their own suffering, rather than turning from the Lord and falling by the wayside (as many did – cf. Hebrews). Paul’s sufferings contribute to the salvation of the Corinthians by providing a living example of patient endurance, since it is those who persevere to the end that shall be saved.

]]> (Peter J. Leithart) Theology Fri, 06 May 2011 17:38:41 +0000
Palm Leaves and the Branch All four gospels explicitly state that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem fulfills Old Testament prophecy. “This took place that what was spoken by the prophet might be fulfilled,” Matthew writes (21:4), just before citing Zechariah 9:9: “Say to Daughter Zion, behold your king is coming to you.” And John follows suit (12:15).  Zechariah 9 describes an advancing conquest tearing down from the north (Hamath, Tyre, Sidon), scattering the cities of Philistia (Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, Ashdod), before riding peaceably into Jerusalem not on a war horse but on a donkey. Jesus comes to Jerusalem as the Prince of Peace, but He is so only because He has already subdued His enemies.

The other explicit citation in the accounts of Palm Sunday is from Psalm 118:26: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” the crowds shout as Jesus approaches (cf. Mark 11:9; Luke 19:38; John 12:13). Like Zechariah 9, the Psalm celebrates the triumph of Yahweh and his king. Israel is exhorted to give thanks to the Lord because the nations that surrounded the king like bees have been burned like thorns (vv. 10-12).  It is like a new exodus, as Yahweh again proves Himself to be Israel’s strength and song and salvation (v. 14; cf. Exodus 15:2). Victory is followed by a triumphal procession into the city (vv. 19-20), where the joyful assembly of people rescued from danger bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord (v. 26). The marvel is all the greater since the deliverer who serves as the foundation stone of the Lord’s new house is a stone rejected by the builders (vv. 22-24; cf. Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10-11; Luke 20:17).

So much, so obvious. But the event of Palm Sunday also fulfills other multiple types and shadows from the Scriptures.

Think of the scene: Jesus rides into the city surrounded by people holding branches cut from the fields or trees (Matthew 21:8; Mark 11:8). The synoptics tell us that the people lay the branches before Jesus, but John’s account suggests the picture you find in all the Sunday School pamphlets: The people surround Jesus waving branches (John 12:13). The people have become trees with leafy branches, breaking out in joy at the coming of the Lord, and more specifically at the release from exile: “You will go out with you, and be led forth with peace. The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). Jerusalem waves palm branches to greet the coming of the Branch, the stem from Jesse’s stump (Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15).

We’ve seen this scene before, right at the beginning of the Bible. History begins in a grove of trees, which Adam is called to guard and cultivate, whose fruits Adam is invited to eat. Jesus comes as the new Adam among the living trees that constitute the new Eden. Jesus is the righteous tree beside streams of water, His people the leafy boughs (Psalm 1:3). But the scene also strikes a more ominous note, because Yahweh comes also in the Spirit of the day, walking among the trees of the garden, calling Adam to account (Genesis 3:8).  Jesus is coming to judge, and it’s no surprise that He, Yahweh incarnate, goes directly to the temple (still riding the donkey, it seems!) to toss around the tables of the money changers and cast Israel out of her garden. 

John alone tells us the branches are from palm trees (12:13), and that conjures up a different, though related, setting. Palms are mentioned explicitly in Leviticus 23’s description of the feast of booths; they are among the leafy trees from which Israel was to construct their temporary huts (v. 40; cf. Nehemiah 8:15). Though Jesus enters the city at the beginning of Passover, the celebration reaches ahead to the final, eschatological feast of ingathering. Palms also are carved into the temple walls (1 Kings 6:29, 32, 35; cf. Psalm 92:12), and Jesus passing through a gauntlet of palms is Yahweh re-entering His house.

The beloved of the Song of Songs grows to be tall as a palm tree (Song of Songs 7:8), which the lover longs to climb to gather fruit at her breasts. The beloved is also the wooden, palm-lined temple, and the lover desires to enter the inner court of the house of the Lord to drink the joyful fruit of the vine. As He passes through the palm branches, Jesus is the passionate lover climbing to unite with His beloved, climbing the tree to consummate the joy set before Him. Once harlot Israel sought lovers beneath the leafy trees (Ezekiel 6:13; 20:28), but now her true lover has come to her bower under the leaves.

Jesus not only rides through waving branches, but across the branches strewn upon the road. He rides like the glory-army of the Lord who moves in the tops of the trees and leads David to victory (2 Samuel 5:24).  He rides on a carpet of garments (Mark 11:8), a new Jehu coming to announce the destruction of an idolatrous temple (2 Kings 9:13).

All these Scriptures, and more, reinforce and enrich Palm Sunday’s explicit declaration that Jesus is the triumphant King, the rejected but chosen cornerstone.

]]> (Peter J. Leithart) Theology Fri, 15 Apr 2011 04:24:03 +0000