Sunday, December 25, 2011


While this isn't the first Christmas in which I've actually believed in the Incarnation, it is close.

It is too much. There is no way to understand it; no way to comprehend it; there is only a deep mystery that can be accessed through communion.

In the midst of the joy and thanksgiving of this day, I was reminded of the violence that continues to plague our world -- that continues to contradict the Incarnation by its very existence; that snubs its nose at its Lord's creatures; that can only seek more of itself, although the more it seeks the less it can have -- it, in the end, can have nothing for it produces nothings, loves nothing, honors nothing, venerates nothing. I think of those Catholics bombed in Nigeria today while attending Mass. I think of Christians around the Middle East who have been persecuted by others or displaced by occupying foreign armies.

To end violence in the world, we must first end violence in ourselves.

This will not, of course, guarantee our own freedom from violence -- the example of our Lord shows that such is the opposite of the case -- but it does guarantee that we will not increase violence and oppression, nor will we violate our neighbors.

The truly free man is the one who gives his neighbor freedom.

We cannot decree Muslim extremism unless we are willing to decry American imperialism or Christian colonialism.

"But they started it...!"

And as my dad would say, "So what? You finish it."

There can be no end of violence unless we are put to death in Christ.

Here is one of the mysteries of the Incarnation: he became what we are so that we might become what he is. The Incarnation, the taking on of Adamic flesh and redeeming it, necessarily ends in the Crucifixion. Not only was his coming an assault on the kingdom of darkness, but an assault on our willed complicity: here is a human will completely in subjection to the divine will -- we shall kill it. We have not, nor have we ever, wanted to be in subjection to God's will, even though it is freedom. We have wanted self-actualization, individual freedom, or whatever slogan we comfort ourselves with. And so we will kill the Son of God, or any son of God, to maintain it. To truly live we must join Christ on the cross. For then we have new birth -- a birth into a harder existence: but freedom is hard. It will take much work to become that which Christ is making us, but he continues to be the main actor; we are his workmanship. But we must walk. This is why the virgin birth, baptism, and the cross are so closely connected: they all say, "he became what we are so that we might become what he is". We must be born of the Virgin, the Church; we must descend into the Jordan, taking up the name and cause of sinners; we must be crucified and raised for the sake of the world.

If we are to live, to truly live, we must partake of Christ, which requires our death.

To end violence in the world, we must end violence in ourselves.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Other things...tasty things

I usually blog about theology here, however I do have other passions. One of these passions is baking -- I've only started this complex artform in the last 5 years, mostly out of necessity (our coffeeshop needed baked goods and I'm free labor). I've grown to appreciate and love this craft, even though I have precious little time to devote to it. Yeasted breads are by far my favorite things to produce. Here are some photos from this week, in which, uncharacteristically, I've been able to bake a lot more than usual (once again, somewhat out of necessity as our shop baker resigned to work at -- of all places -- a bakery).

First is some croissants and pain au chocolat (croissants with chocolate in them) that I made to celebrate Bethany's birthday: I can make cakes, but French pastries say "I love you" instead of "Oh yeah, I should make you a cake".

Second is cheese Danishes and pain aux raisin (literally, "bread with raisins," but it is tastier if you say it in French). I made these, well, because. Just because. I've wanted to make danishes for a long time (as they are my favorite sweet bread), but have always been too fearful of them. However, I found an excellent recipe courtesy of The Fresh Loaf and was able to make them and the raisin cakes from the same basic dough. Always a plus -- these sold out fairly fast.

This last one is the regular ol' cinnamon rolls that I make for the shop. These, though, came out better than any I've ever made. They are pillowy and huge and tasty. I might have one for lunch.

Apart from this I made 2 batches of scones, 3 trays of cookies, 2 batches of jumbo berry muffins, 3 pies, and 4 loaves of bread (with one more that I'll be making with my daughter tomorrow). It was a busy, yet wonderfully fulfilling, week of baking. While I won't do the French stuff very often (croissants aren't hard, but they do require a lot of you), much of what I do will be available at the shop every week.

Just to get a little bit of theology in here: the kingdom of God is like three grains of yeast hidden in three measures of flour.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Shattering Gospel

As a student of systematics (which still is somewhat surprising to me), I deal with neat and tidy categories. However, when we are dealing with a 1) living Being who 2) transcends our mental capacities and language categories, systems break down. God, who is infinitely free to be for His creation what He needs to be (the import, as I understand it, of the famous "ehyeh asher ehyeh" in Exodus 3) and who is Love (as I John makes clear what already had been established and confirmed through all the pages of Scripture -- even justice, judgment, and wrath are expressions of love when the beloved has been seduced, defiled, and abused), tends more often than not to break our neat and tidy categories.

As "recreational" reading, I picked up TF Torrance's Space, Time, and Incarnation (note: I added the Oxford Comma to the title, even though it isn't in the Oxford University Press original). Torrance, usually, is not an easy read: STI continues such difficulty. However, I've found that even when I vehemently disagree with him, that I will eventually see that his view is necessary to maintain a proper systematic outlook (ex. I read, for my initial Systematics class at Trinity School for Ministry, a selection from his Incarnation that dealt with Athanasius' argument concerning whether properly God is first to be called 'Lord' or 'Father': Athanasius and Torrance said Father, I said Lord. Now I see that the relational-communion that God is means it is more proper to say He is Father first in Himself, Lord in relation to us, and therefore secondarily.) In STI, Torrance relates why the early Church rejected the notion that "space" was a receptacle: this would lead to a "two-storey" universe in which we are here, in this receptacle, and God is "out there" in His own "space" (which somehow comprehends the incomprehensible God?). So the Church rightly rejected such a dualistic idea, even if it was (as Torrance maintains) added back into Western Christianity via the influence of Augustinian thought. God could not be contained in such a "space," nor could a real Incarnation happen, as God cannot be limited in creational categories (this seems to me to be part and parcel of what happened in the Transfiguration).

Instead, God's realm and our realm overlaps and intersect in many ways, some of which I have talked about recently on this blog. The Eternal enters the temporal in the Incarnation -- prepared for by the whole history of Israel -- so that the temporal might enter the Eternal in the corporate prayer and worship of the Church, who is the Body of the One who fills both heaven and earth. Instead of a primary dualism between two "spaces," heaven and earth physically conceived, there is a primary unity effected by Christ -- heaven and earth, the realm of the divine and the realm of the created, are forever joined by the actions of the Christ in the temporal realm (his life and ministry) so that we can evermore participate in the life of communion that God was, is, and always will be.

I'm still working through all this -- it is quite heady. But I see a lot of profit possible in Torrance's work.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Glory of Baptism

I heard a wonderful sermon on John 17:22-27 today, courtesy of Pastor Barry York of Kokomo, Indiana (the Beach Boys wrote a song about that place). The thrust of the message was that the Cross is where Christ's self-giving glory is fully revealed (it reminded me of G.B. Caird's work on doxa in the Gospel of John), so our glory -- which is given to us by Christ -- is fully actualized in our own suffering for the Kingdom and for each other. We find union with Christ by partaking of his sufferings and we find union with one another when we partake of each other's sufferings. In other words, the Eucharist continues -- even now -- to be a remembrance of his death, which we participate in (see The Reality of Worship for an attempted explanation of this) every time we take of it (I really do think that the most fitting end to today's Church would have been Eucharist -- hopefully someday we'll go to weekly celebration). To put all this in theology-speak, we undergo theosis as we share in Christ's kenosis.

How, though, do we partake of the sufferings of Christ, of his glory? The start of our glory is baptism, where we are put to death -- not physically, but in a more real way than that -- in Christ's historical and eternal act of self-giving. We participate in the Cross, fully and forever, at the moment of our baptism (this, thankfully, takes baptism out of the mode of the "magical" and places it firmly in the intersection between heaven and earth). This being "put to death" is the beginning of our glory, of our sharing in the Life of God Himself. When we are born again in baptism, we first die in Christ's death, so that we might no longer fear death, but live to God in all moments of our continuing biological existence. When Christ tells us that we have "passed from death to life" it means that our biological personhood has been transcended by our ecclesial personhood, our life in Christ and his Body, the Church. We now can go out into the world, sharers of Christ's glory, to do the work that Christ is already doing and has guaranteed success for us -- which is to bring glory to God in the realm of history and space, even as it already is in heaven.

Lord, glorify Your Son, and his Body, that Your glory -- Your self-giving nature of love -- might be seen in our lives and that the world might participate in that love which is Life. Amen.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Desire of God

Today in my Bible class (they are a patient lot), we were speaking of the changes in Old Testament spirituality between the time of the Tabernacle and the Temple. One of the themes that connects both of those "eras," as it were, is that of Divine intimacy (a phrase I owe to my professor and now colleague Dr. Byron Curtis). That is, God's goal, His desire, is to dwell with His people: "I will be their God and they shall be My people" being an oft repeated phrase. When this way of considering God's desire is fully imbibed, it can change the way we read the entire Bible.

Why does God call Israel? Because He wants to create the conditions necessary for His dwelling with men. What does that mean? The world has been infected by sin and death, from which it must be cleansed for God's holy Presence to abide there. Hence the sacrificial system: it is not there primarily as an means of God's wrath, but as a means of His great grace. The dwelling place, whether Tabernacle or Temple, must be coated in life ("the life of the flesh is in the blood" as Leviticus tells us), so that God's holiness, which is Life itself, may dwell there and so that the people may find life there as well (the Dwelling was the pre-incarnation icon of Christ's gift of the Holy Spirit). If OT Israel acts faithfully as God's priestly-kingdom, they will bring cleansing to the entire world, thereby restoring the Edenic conditions necessary for God to walk "in the cool of the day" with His image-bearers, man and woman. However, we see that this does not happen. Israel is too mired in sin and death, too mired in the corrupt state brought about by Adam in the Garden, to faithfully bring this task about. The Dwelling becomes more about privilege and magic (Is. 1:12-15 comes to mind here), where once sin and death are vaunted above God, all that is needed is a few hocus-pocus words, a substitute death, and -- voila! -- Israel is back on top. Israel, the new Adam, the ones who were to mediate God's Life to the nations, are no different than the goyim and must be cast out of the Sanctuary, lest they pollute it so much that God can no longer dwell there. And yet...

God travels with His exiles (this is the brunt of Ezekiel 1 and 8-10) into exile, continuing to show them that His goal is not judgment, but mercy (as James tells us, mercy triumphs over judgment -- Hallelujah!), not wrath, but intimacy.

This helps us to understand, if only partially (as it must always be with such a profound mystery), the Incarnation. God takes to Himself human nature, in the tightest intimacy possible, so that all human nature might be healed and set free from sin and death, from the corruption that effectively blocks full Divine intimacy. This makes the death of Christ not necessarily a "divine child-abuse," but rather the full healing of creation through sin and death doing their worst to the very Creator of the universe. Now Christ triumphs over them, for death cannot in the end snuff out Life (this can be seen in all Christ's miracles and seems to be their main import -- Life triumphs over uncleanness, sin, corruption, and death) and gives us of God's very Life, the Holy Spirit, so that we might live with the same quality of life that Jesus has (what we call "eternal" -- but the time referent is not the dominant idea here, rather the enduring quality of that life: this is also what makes Hell so heinous, it is "eternal" as well, an enduring quality of death).

This should change how we view the atonement that Christ has effected for God's creation: substitutionary atonement, in this view, sits comfortably side by side with more patristic views of Christus Victor, etc. God's love, not His wrath or justice, is the driving motivation and fully grounds wrath and justice: God implacably hates that which brings sin, corruption, and death and is willing to take them on in the Incarnation and Cross so that they eventually might be eliminated. This also affects our view of the Church: it is the place where the Life of God is to be most manifest -- what does the Life of God look like practically? Forgiveness of enemies, reconciliation, caring for the weak and vulnerable (here is where God's justice is fully expressed), and sharing in full communion with one another and with the Lord Christ who has given himself body and soul for our incorporation into the Life of God.

Hallelujah, for the Lord Christ reigns.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Theology of the Kaiser's Kitchen

"Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made." -- quote often misattributed to Kaiser Otto von Bismarck

I had always heard the quote above in the variant form: "If you enjoy sausages, stay out of the Kaiser's kitchen." An admittedly odd phrase, but the principal is apt. We like things until we see how the come to be. Church history, for example, is one of these things. We would like to belive that the Church has always, peacefully, believed what She does now -- however, the history is much different. It is a history, much like that of the Old or New Testaments, that reveal a fundamentally human element, yet one that is guided by God to a proper fulfillment: for example, Constantine was an Arian sympathesizer, yet allowed the Nicean Council to condemn it (this, by the way, is the exact opposite of the "popular" understanding that floats around on, say, the History Channel -- if you ask Gnostic scholars, you'll get Gnostic answers).

The study of the Bible is the same way. One of the corollaries of common, naive belief (and I don't mean naive perjoratively here) is that the Bible is the Bible is the Bible. Truth be told, textual issues make up some of the hardest to deal with part of scholarship: there is no one text of the Bible for the people of God. Just in the world of the Old Testament, there is the Masoretic Text (Hebrew), the Old Greek, the Septuagint (which has variant text bases), the Peshitta, the Targums, Symmachus, Lucian, Apollos, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Vulgate. (It is important to note that while all these are different -- and often in different languages -- they agree on the large majority of things: textual criticism is a very careful science that is easily overblown in the popular imagination). Which of these is the "inspired Word of God"? If we look to the New Testament for answers, the answer is: sometimes the MT, sometimes the LXX, sometimes something different that nobody has (usually due to gezera scheva interpretation -- something the Church could do well with reclaiming). This has led historical-critical scholars toward conjectural emendation to produce some sort of Ur-text to rule them all (if only the had read their Lord of the Rings! Is the eclectic, critical text the "inspired Word of God"? I still have my doubts.

Maybe it is best to say that God always inspires His Word, not in a passive way, but in the active way of His Spirit guides the Church through the reading of the Scriptures, even if we are unsure of the exact text basis for all things. Being in the Kaiser's kitchen, seeing how the sausage is made, can turn us off from the sausage itself. We must remember, though, that the Lord of the Kitchen can still delight and satisfy all comers with His delectable flesh. Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Implications of the Incarnation

The Incarnation, God's taking on of created matter in the body and soul of Jesus, means that Christianity is inherently an anti-dualistic faith (St. Irenaeus was right, in other words, to fight so ferociously against Gnosticism). That is, Christianity not only sees the created order (the kosmos) as essentially 'good' (Gen. 1), but as reestablished in its goodness due to Christ's coming "in the flesh" (I Jn.) and the eschatological work of the Spirit in the Church (Rom. 8).

This can be seen, firstly, in the interaction between Christ and the woman with an issue of blood (Mk. 5). In the Levitical standards, if a person comes into contact with someone who is 'unclean' (breaks the blood boundary, e.g., not necessarily a 'sinful' person), then they become unclean themselves. However, notice that Christ not only does not become unclean, but rather cleanses this poor woman. He, in the flesh, has brought healing and holiness to this woman. Her flesh is made clean by coming into contact with Christ (notice, as well, the role of allegiance or faith in the encounter -- her faith was an active faith).

More can be said, though. Some of the seemingly insignificant details of the Gospels become radiant when viewed through the Incarnation. When Christ goes down into the waters of the Jordan, his presence blesses all waters: the holiness of God has been brought down to the mundane level. Because of this reality, we can be thankful for all waters. When Christ eats with his disciples after the Resurrection, even though food was not technically necessary, he blesses food and eating forever, which we receive with thankfulness. When he is crucified on a tree, he blesses all trees, for which we can be thankful. Christ restores the world to its wholeness and fulness, even reversing the curse on the ground (Gen. 3) by wearing the thorns upon his blood-sweat brow and by being entombed in the earth.

The Incarnation, then, is the foundation for an ecological ethic: if Christ has made the whole world holy, then we must treat all things as such. All things have meaning in relation to God, especially as God has revealed Himself through the Incarnation. This is why the Apostle Paul might tell us that the whole creation eagerly awaits its release into the glorious liberty of the children of God. Christ, by his coming, has brought Jubilee -- the whole world has reverted to its rightful owner, the Lord Himself, and we are His tenants and stewards of this great, awesome, and mysterious place that has been cleansed for God's Presence by the body and blood of Christ himself.


Sunday, October 09, 2011

Christology and Soteriology

Another thing that should go without saying: whatever your Christology is (your beliefs about who Jesus Christ is, how he is related to God the Father, how he is related to mankind, what he has done, etc.) determines what your soteriology is (the teachings about what 'salvation' is).

I've been reading, in fits and starts, through R.P.C Hanson's "The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God" about the early 4th century Arian controversy. One of the problems he brings up, as he is detailing the history of interpretation, is that often scholars have assumed that Arius had no soteriology, that is, he was concerned only with the oddly impenetrable philosophical dogmas concerning the immutable, Platonic/Aristotelian High God (the Father) and the lesser, "second," mutable god (the Son). However, looking at the Patristic preoccupation with the "economy of salvation" (how God is working to save His creation in time -- often translated, interestingly enough, by the word Incarnation), it is hard to believe that Arius and the Arians could have made a sufficient splash into the turbulent theological waters of the time without a rival soteriology -- a rival economy to the pro-Nicenes.

I won't go into details of what that rival economy is, Hanson does a much better job than I could. The main point that I want to explore is: what soteriology does classical Christianity, that is, Christianity bounded by the creeds, produce? The Creeds, as is well known, are concerned either with the relation between Father and Son (Nicene, for example) or the relation between the Divine Person of the Word/Son and the assumed human nature in the history of Jesus the Messiah (Chalcedon, for example). That these are implicitly soteriology is not always obvious to those of us who aren't Eastern Orthodox, but they are. For the Trinitarian creeds (the first category), the assumption is that only God can save us, Jesus Christ saves us, therefore Jesus Christ must be God. The form this takes is the (seemingly still) controversial homoousias -- Jesus, the Word/Son, is of the same substance as the Father (the East would take this in a different -- and I think better -- direction than the West: God the Father is the Monarch from whom the Son and Spirit are respectively generated and spirated, instead of a (seemingly) autonomous and impersonal substance in which all three are implicated). The Christological creeds, then, take this soteriology further: certainly only God can save us, but mankind (humanity as such) must be brought by this action from death to life, so the Son must assume a full human nature (complete with body and soul: will included) that is brought through death to life, both in the fact that God has assumed it (the effects of the Divine Person of the Word on the body in the Incarnation) and the cross/resurrection event. If this does not happen, then we cannot be saved in the fullest sense: we cannot have a real union with Christ through the Spirit, who is the Life of God Himself (it is important here to remember that Patristic theologians never forgot that spirit can also mean "breath," that is, the very principle of life in an animate being: God's Spirit is His Life which He shares with us who are joined to Christ through faith and baptism.

This means that the concept of 'salvation' needs to be carefully explained. Certainly there is not an emphasis on salvation as a one-time event/experience of being "born again," as we find in modern evangelicalism broadly. Instead, the one event of salvation is that of the Incarnation (broadly conceived to include everything from the "incarnation proper" -- the miraculous conception of the Lord -- to his death, resurrection, ascension, and Session at the right hand of the Father) that, as both a historical, time-bounded reality and as the eternal reality of God as Trinity (see my post The Reality of Worship on this) is much broader and inclusive and objective than a subjective "born again" experience. 'Salvation,' as far as the human believer is concerned, entails being brought into the worshipping community of God (this is the real import of justification), and being conformed to the image of the Son progressively (sanctification or theosis). It is, then, a "once for all" event that reverberates throughout every moment of creational history: 'salvation' must be both entrance into the Church and growth into sainthood.

The creeds, by and large, assume the first aspect of salvation: Jesus Christ has come, he has died, he has risen, he will come again. The second aspect, the theotic aspect, is what they are concerned to safeguard. Our union with Christ, the progressive submission of our wills to the will of God (hence why monothelitism was such a threat!), must be maintained. If Christ is to not only be our Savior, but our model ("walk as he walked" as John says), then his humanity must be full and we must be conformed to that humanity. The 'how' of that I've attempted to explain in my Real Predestination series: the Spirit works in us and we work with the Spirit (asceticism and God's work are closely united). So man, by both the work and the hypostatic union of Christ, is brought to conformity with the Son in his glorified, resurrected humanity which must, if it is to overcome death and corruption, be united to God Himself through the indwelling of the Spirit.

The Reformed tradition, for the most part, does not make much of theosis. However, if we are to call ourselves orthodox, we must wrestle with the implications of the creeds we claim to profess. Part of the reason, it seems to me, that Calvin and his successors are often accused of Nestorianism is because we have not, by and large, connected our Christology to our soteriology.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Theology for the Unimpressed

Theology is a discipline of listening attentively before ever speaking.

One of the detriments of the Reformed tradition is that we often speak before we listen. I've been part of and privy to many conversations that, had we known all the facts, had we consulted the sources, had we a hint of sense to shut up now and again, could have saved much strife, much fear, and much hurt to various brothers and sisters in the Lord (and even folks not in the Lord, whom we are never commanded to hurt). I'm trying to parse out whether this is just an unfortunately pitfall that is totally unnecessary for those in the Reformed tradition, or if it is part-and-parcel of the experience (yet still totally indefensible and sinful -- but since when does following God lead to sin?).

In other words, as I draw towards the end of another part of my theological education, I find I have much more to learn. Much of it cannot be learned from books (theology is, in that way, like farming -- those who learn it from books quickly find that they are destroying themselves and the land and those people who depend on the land), but books and writings are always nearby. Much of it needs to be learned through listening and participating in the Word of God, Jesus Christ, in worship: the communal reading of the Scriptures and the breaking of bread.

Lex orandi, lex credendi.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Ascetic's Prayer

To be said upon rising in the morning, each morning:

Lord, this day I begin walking the path of Christ. Give me the strength of Your Holy Spirit, who is Life, to walk without stumbling. Give me the peace of Your Holy Spirit, who is Life, to be raised by You when I fall. Give me the wisdom of Your Holy Spirit, who is Life, to know that I am always a youth in this Spiritual life.

In the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who walked the path before me and is the Way Himself.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Reality of Worship

I've had the opportunity over the last two weeks to direct my sight to the Kingdom of God, in ways which either I hadn't for some time or never had at all. The more I learn, I find the less I know (in that infinity keeps getting bigger). We turn towards the Kingdom and find entrance through Jesus Christ, whom the Church witnesses to (even in our failure -- the essence of the Church is forgiveness and healing). This led to the following set of thoughts about what exactly it is that the Church does when it gathers for worship. (This will build off the Chalcedonian theology series that I have been steadily adding to, yet go in a significantly different direction).

God is the creator of all things, including time (Gen. 1:14). That means, regardless of how unfathomable it is, God dwells outside the constraints and bounds of time. He is truly eternal. Eternal, though, often is understood in terms of time: I recently heard a pastor speak of "eternity past," which -- while an interesting heuristic device -- does not a whole lot of sense; eternity cannot be past, present, or future. It just is. So God, dwelling in an eternal 'now' (getting deeper than this has taxed Christian theologians for centuries, for example Boethius in the early "medieval" period -- I have no desire to go beyond the bounds of Scripture, nor of received theology, so I will stay shy of such speculations), operates His Kingdom always in its fulness. Being that we are in time, and not yet in the fulness of His eschatological purposes, means that we cannot always perceive this reality (Jn. 3:3). However, when we speak of the Kingdom, we are speaking of this very present reality: a reality that is not "becoming" or "progressing," but simply is. Yet we are supposed to enter it, indeed enter it "born of water and the Spirit" (Jn. 3:5), that is by baptism and by faith. So this reality, this Kingdom, can only be entered via the mediation of the body of Christ -- which Christ acts through in time and space -- the Church. My contention is that in the regular worship of the Church we transcend earthly, time-bound reality and enter into God's Kingdom in the fullest way current possible -- indeed, Paul says that we are even "seated with Christ in the heavenly places" (a good question to ask that is often not asked: where is Christ seated?) (Eph. 2:6).

This really gets to the nature of the Church and its worship. God had said through Amos that "Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7). Moses hoped that "all the LORD's people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them" (Num. 11:29), which was prophesied by Joel (2:28ff.) and fulfilled at the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). All the Lord's people, who have been born of water and the Spirit, are prophets. But what is a prophet? We often think of prophets as those who receive messages from the Lord. While this is true (and we still do receive messages through the reading of the Scriptures which remain active, living, and powerful even today), the role of the prophet is greater than that: they are counsellors of God, like Abraham the prophet was (Gen. 20:7), who intercede for others (the ministries of Moses and Jeremiah are key in this regard). More on this anon.

Another aspect that must be considered is the role of the Church qua Church: an ekklesia, a called-out assembly, was a ruling council of the city-state in which it was found. Christ's ekklesia is part of his basileia (kingdom/kingship) and hence functions as his ruling-council, interceding for whatever Babylon the individual/metropolitan assembly happens to be in (this is the basis of local ecumenicity)--this is the kingly aspect of the Church. This dovetails nicely with the prophetic/intercessional role of the Church (the priestly, that is, the teaching role of the Church, will not considered here). We, the prophets/counsellors of the Lord, who intercede for the world, enter God's throne room (cf. the book of Revelation) to do the work God has called us to do, equipped us to do, in the world -- the work that He is already at work doing, but remember He does nothing without first consulting His prophets!

This means that whenever we enter into worship, we are entering the timeless, eternal state of the Kingdom for the very purpose of interceding for those in time. This makes much more sense of, say, the doctrine of predestination, as we in worship enter the realm of God's decree and intercede, saying (hopefully): "Lord, save all mankind (1 Tim. 2:1-4); may we be accursed from Your presence that some might be saved (Rom. 9:2-4)." Certainly, we do not make the decision for God (He remains sovereign -- notice that the word now has concrete meaning in the action of the deliberative royal council), but we cry out, knowing that "the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective" (James 5:16).

This also has implications for our Eucharistic theology. Christ the Lamb, "slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8 -- some translations refer this phrase to the writing in the book of life), is the one we partake of in his eternal enthronement. So when we partake of the Eucharist (or communion or the Lord's Supper or whatever), we are partaking of the very event -- which is both eternal and time-bound to ca. AD 30. Christ is slain, Christ was slain, in the Kingdom means the same thing. This would go a long way to resolving the ongoing debate between memorialists, consubstantionists, and transubstantists: we are speaking of the same eternal reality with different language (I'm still not convinced that Aristotelian categories, such as in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions are particularly helpful, but that is neither here nor there): liturgical extension takes ourselves, our bread, our wines, our "one loaf" that is the Church, to the very event where Christ is present both as Victim and Victor.

It is important to note that although I am speaking of worship as an entering into an eternal state, I am not suggesting a magical suspension of time happens: time still passes for us for we are created beings not yet attained to the resurrection of the dead (Come quickly, Lord Jesus). It is precisely this interaction of the eternal and the temporal (in an hypostatic union, maybe?) that is the theatre of God's work: we leave the public worship of the Church, where we hear God's Word, partake of the Word, and speak the Word back to God so that we might bring the Life of God (the Spirit) to a dying world. To direct that world to the Kingdom of God, to see and to enter through "water and Spirit," so that the kingdoms of this world might become the Kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ. And He shall reign forever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

A Children's Compline

This is, roughly, what we do each night for prayers. Being that we are RP, the Psalms listed are selections from either the red or blue psalter. This little liturgy is based off of the short, daily devotional compline in the Book of Common Prayer. Feel free, if you like, to use it in your family. We find it very beneficial to have a set pattern for night time prayers, especially since the various repetitions allow for good, extemporaneous conversation and catechesis. Also, we raise our hands at the appropriate time during the "call to worship" -- children understand liturgical action, sometimes better than adults do: they aren't natural dualists.

Children will quickly memorize much of this. Olivia has Psalm 134, the Shema, the Lord's Prayer, and the benediction down pat. This is good, especially since she is learning to pray and needs many models/grammars to work with.

Depending on the size of the reading (and remember, "faith comes by hearing, hearing comes by the Word of God") determines how long this takes. We average between 5-15 minutes.

Call to Worship: Psalm 134 (read or sung)
"Behold now, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, you that stand by night in the House of the Lord! Lift up your hands in the holy place and bless the Lord! The Lord bless you out of Zion."

Reading: A passage from Scripture; we are going through the Pentateuch and afterwards will go through the Gospels
At the close of the reading: (Leader) "The Word of the Lord" (Everyone) "Thanks be to God"

(Leader) "And what do we believe about God?"
(Children) "The Shema: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself."
(Leader) "And what does Jesus say about the Shema?"
(Children) "There is no commandment greater than these" or "On these hang all the Law and the Prophets"

At the point, we ask for prayer requests, concentrating on what we are thankful for and for which neighbors we can pray. We either take turns praying or the leader offers all the requests to God. We end with the Lord's Prayer.

"Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Your Name. Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory. Forever. Amen."

Psalm 4 (sung from the red psalter): "I will both lay me down in peace and quiet sleep will take, because Thou only me to dwell in safety, Lord, dost make. In safety, Lord, dost make."

Benedition: "The Almighty and Merciful Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless us and keep us. Amen."

Monday, August 01, 2011

Sermon Text: Matthew 14:13-21

This is the text from a sermon I deliverd to 1st Presbyterian (PCUSA) Beaver Falls on July 31, 2011. Unfortunately there was no audio recording. A very kind and generous congregation -- I hope to be back there soon.

Politics is always connected to food. Whether it is the question put to all politicians, meant to judge their closeness to the people, “How much do a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk cost?” or the reports that if some action (it doesn’t seem to matter what) is not taken about the debt ceiling, many will go hungry, politics is always connected to food. Our passage, and the one that immediately precedes it, show this to be true. There are two kingdoms being contrasted here: one whose politics are fear and violence; the other whose way are love, service, and abundance. These two kingdoms exist together, always in tension as tares and wheat, calling for our exclusive allegiance – our faith – and giving us a way of life to navigate this world.

The first kingdom presented to us is that of Herod the Tetrarch. It would be instructive to read these verses: (read 14:1-12). From the start, note that Herod is fearful. He wants to see Jesus because he is worried that this is John the Baptist, raised again from the dead. If this were so, it would indelibly stamp the execution as unjust, as tyrannical, and compromise Herod’s claims to power (we must notice, though, that no one – whether in the ancient world or today – did or does look at his actions as even remotely just, but the self-justifying heart of man is strengthened by power). All of Herod’s actions that led to the death of the Baptist were motivated by fear: fear of the multitude initially kept John alive, fear of his dinner guests killed John, and fear of John – a little late – causes him to seek out Jesus. Never, though, is there the fear of God which would have turned Herod away from his adulterous and incestuous sins.

Herod’s use of food here is in direct contrast to what we will see the Lord do. Herod does not feed the multitudes that he fears, but rather those who are already filled. While the Lord instructs us to go into the “highways and the hedges” to invite the blind, the poor, the sick, we can assume no such attendees at this swank gala – Herod is inviting those who share status, rank, and power with him. This is a birthday party to consolidate and legitimate his power over Judea – possibly even with an eye towards the title that his father held, “king of the Jews.” It is here that the request of a different kind of food is made: the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod’s fear and his lust have conspired together to devour the prophet of the Lord.

The second kingdom presented is different in almost every way. The Lord Christ has no fear of the multitudes, rather he has compassion, breaking his mourning over John to heal their sick. This healing, as always in Matthew’s Gospel, is connected to the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Recall the last time John and Jesus had correspondence. John asks him “Are you the one who is to come? Or do we look for another?” Jesus replies, “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of me” (11:3-6). Jesus’ work as an exorcist, as a healer, and as a herald all point to the Kingdom, of which he is the head. Christ has no need to invite those in power to his messianic banquet; instead he invites the outcast, the prostitute, the tax man, the drunk, the homosexual, the drug dealer to share his bread and to change their lives, so that they might participate in the Kingdom of God.

As the healing work comes to a close with the onset of night, the disciples seek relief for these masses and for their Lord: send them to the villages for dinner and rest. It is, after all, a wilderness they are in. Jesus, though, will not send them away, he will not scatter them as sheep without a shepherd, as Mark tells us in his rendition of this story. Rather, the disciples are to feed them. But with what? There are only 5 loaves and two fish. This is where the religious principle of remembering comes in. In the Psalms we are often instructed to “remember the mighty works of the Lord.” The reason is twofold: we must be reminded of what God has done and can still do, but also we remind the Lord of our state and pray that He would do these mighty works again for us. Here, in the wilderness, with a large group of hungry people, the disciples’ memories should have gone to the Exodus. Has not God fed His people with manna from heaven? Couldn’t He do it again?

Not only does God do it, but in His abundance He goes above and beyond. The manna would produce only enough for the day, here there are 12 baskets of fragments left over. The manna would provide only for what was needed, here “all ate and were filled.” The host of this party, as opposed to Herod, did not provide this lavish banquet to secure his power, but rather out of the excess of his love and compassion. This contrast goes back in Matthew’s Gospel to a previous conflict of two kingdoms. While Jesus was hungry in the wilderness (how can we not see the connection Matthew has placed for us between these two stories?), Satan tempted him with earthly rule and bread: “If you are the Son of God, make these stones become bread.” To which the Lord answered, “It is written: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Jesus’ love for his Father, his willing obedience to the divine plan, overflows at this point so that he might love his neighbor better than himself. He did not seek the power that Satan offered him, nor does he seek it here. Indeed, at the start of the next story, Jesus makes his cabinet ministers (the disciples) leave the scene while he dismisses the crowd – this will not be a day that makes him a civil king, the road to his throne has yet to go through the cross. His power, true power, comes through self-giving service. The Lord first takes his throne on the cross, and dispenses forgiveness and grace to even his enemies from there: “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they do.” For it is in the cross of Christ, foreshadowed by his gifts of healing and sustenance, that the wisdom of God – the ways by which He has ordained the world to its goal of shalom and the indwelling of His Presence – are powerful: “We speak of the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (I Cor. 2:7). God rules through the cross; the cross rules – and transforms our lives now and in the fullness of the age to come – through our self-giving love to one another and to those who hunger, both physically and spiritually, outside the community.

We have before us two kingdoms: the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of Christ. Both are calling for our allegiance. The added difficulty for us is that sometimes the kingdom of Herod masquerades as the kingdom of Christ. Just this last week in Norway a young man, fighting for what he called the “European Christian culture,” took up the weapons of Herod against those who did not fit his ideal society. He feared the end of his way of life due to Muslim influence and followed in the footsteps of those who desire power over life. Proverbs speaks of those like this, warning us: “Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evil. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn away from it and pass on. For they do not sleep unless they have done evil; and their sleep is taken away unless they make someone fall. For they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence” (4:14-17). This kingdom, often seeking to look like Christ’s kingdom, calls us to violence against that which is different from us. While we are not to let sin stand in our churches, Paul makes that abundantly clear in I Corinthians 5, we are to have compassion on those outside our community, showing them that the Gospel – the Kingdom of the Lord – gives a new, a different, a better way of life. Our war is not against flesh and blood enemies, after all, but against spiritual wickedness in high places – our weapons are the Word of God, prayer, and the self-giving acts of service such as the sharing of bread. This is the wisdom that those who think they rule the world, whether earthly tyrants or the demonic, cannot understand: “the light came into the world and the darkness did not comprehend it,” as John tells us.

This better way of life, this different politics of love and compassion, is not an easy road. Christ describes it later in Matthew this way: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (20:25-28). The thrust of this passage is clear: our way of living together, what we often call politics, is to be based on the example and the work of Christ. We are to follow him in all things. Rather than being served, we are to serve. For “he who seeks to find his life shall lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake shall find it,” says our Lord.
So, here is the mystery of Christ’s kingdom: it is not he himself who distributes the bread, but the disciples, both the Twelve and us today. In other words, to be allegiant to Christ’s kingdom is, as John puts it in his first epistle, to “walk as he walked.” Is not Christ’s primary call to “deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow him”? We speak of politics and leadership often in terms of Herod’s kingdom – which we mistaken call Real Politik, instead of the self-giving Kingdom of Christ. Are we willing to give our lives, to deny ourselves and take up the cross, to follow the Christ who gives himself as a ransom for many? Are we willing, as John the Baptist was, to stand up to power with the good news of the Messiah, that the real world is not this way, not the way of war, of violence, but the way of peace that will, yes, require our lives and our faith in a God who raises the dead? Consider the words of John Stott, an influential theologian who passed away very recently, “The authority by which the Christian leads is not power but love, not force but example, not coercion but reasoned persuasion. Leaders have power, but power is only safe in the hands of those who humble themselves to serve.” Christ is king because he first humbled himself; we must follow in his footsteps so that God might be pleased to entrust us with His life-giving power.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a martyr of the last century, famously said: “When God calls a man, He bids him come and die.” Both kingdoms, that of Herod and that of Jesus, call us to die – that much is inescapable. The question is the basis of the kingdom: is it fear, or is it love? Is it selfish taking, or selfless giving? But not only this, we must also ask where the kingdom ends up. Certainly, the kingdom of Herod might end in earthly power, whether over Judea or as the last great superpower, but as Proverbs says, “The way of the wicked is like darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble.” The Kingdom of Christ, even though it may entail our physical death, ends in the resurrection. Consider what the Apostle Paul says about this: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall certainly be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:18-21). Our giving up of the kingdom of Herod, as hard as it might be, is the entrance towards becoming like Christ – this suffering leads to glory, true glory, in which the shalom of God covers the earth, the lion lies down with the lamb, and “they shall neither hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, says the Lord.”

This self-giving is best expressed in our sharing of food. Who we eat with is who we love; who we love are those that Christ has given his grace to, our neighbors, our friends, and even our enemies. Christ shared his food with the multitude and shares the true food that is his body with us in his wonderful Supper. His body, broken on the cross, makes us the one loaf that feeds the waiting world. Then he says, in the words of this parable, “You give them something to eat.” While Herod was content to share only with those who were like himself and could expand his influence and domain, Christ and his disciples share with those who hunger after justice, after righteousness, who walk on foot to hear the Master and be healed by him. There is no better thing for us to do, today and into the future, than to follow this Christ and to do his works – to feed the hungry, to slake the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the prisoner, to offer even a cup of cold water to the one in need, so that the world might see and turn to the living God. Amen.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Basis of Theology

In the Psalms there is an emphasis on "recounting the deeds of the Lord." The Psalmist, whomever the individual writer happens to be (if that is even ascertainable or important), recounts or retells the mighty saving works of YHWH to remember them. However, this remembrance is not a mere wistful reminiscence, but rather a double call to action: we act certain ways because God has acted such-and-such in the past and we call on God to act in the ways that He has acted in the past; ways that are "just, true, and right always." This is the genius of the Psalms: they are not idyllic poetry, nor are they the syrupy language of modern praise songs, rather they are like Moses' intercession before God, they not only remind us and spur us to faithfulness, but call on God to act faithfully in a situation, especially where He seems not to care or to have 'forgotten' His covenant (the Psalms are replete with such language, what some might think of as "unbelief" but it rather serves this essential liturgical -- and psychological -- purpose). This is one of the reasons (and maybe the best) for a church to use the Psalms -- in some way, shape, or form -- in their worship: they are dialogical between the God who is there in Christ and us in Christ.

We see the same double act of remembrance (or 'memorial') elsewhere in the Scriptures: in Leviticus, one of the offerings -- the mincha or tribute (badly translated as "grain offering") -- is given "as a memorial." That is, it calls the worshipper to remember God's faithfulness, but also calls God to remember the offerer and act in his favor. The same language is used by both Jesus and Paul in regards to the Eucharist: "do this in remembrance of me." We both remember the sacrifice of the Lord Christ, but also call God to remember in also and bless us who are joined covenantally (by faith through baptism) to that same Lord who is now risen and rules over all as King.

These liturgical moments, repeated (hopefully at least) weekly in Christian assembly, are the basis of theology: the double memorial of the great works of God on behalf of His people for the sake of His whole creation. This is a decidely non-philosophical theology, in that philosophical speculation (whether about the one and the many or substance ontology or satisfaction and merit or whatever) is not the basis of Christian thought and praxis, but rather the historical (both Historie and Geschicte for those who have ears to hear) work of God in creation, redemption, and consummation. This realigns philosophy, however, to its proper place: the understanding of God's world and how properly to live in it. This also connects what has often been sundered: philosophy and the biblical Wisdom traditions.

An example, albeit brief, of how this might look comes from I John. Many people know the verse, "God is love" (4:8) from this book. Taken by itself, it can lead to a picture of God as abstract (and therefore irrelevant) as any scholastic theory. However, John thoroughly connects it to the economy of salvation a chapter earlier when he says: "This is how we know love: Christ laid down his life for us." In other words, if you want to know what it means for God to be love, you must look at the cross: all our understanding of God flows from His works in our history and are made present to us in worship.

Monday, July 04, 2011

My first sermon

The texts for the day this was delivered were Jeremiah 24:1-10 and Romans 9:19-33. Pardon the tinny noise -- I am, after all, a theological android.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Real Predestination: Part 2

What does the vision of predestination that I outlined earlier mean in everyday life? I think, first of all, that it drives the Christian to worship: this God is accomplishing His good plans of mercy and salvation, even in the midst of great evil. This is not the only thing, though.

A second practical corollary is that this God humbles us. Especially me. I often want to "bring in the Kingdom" on my own, at my own pace, in my own way. But this is not what is happening. God is doing the work. I am coming alongside -- what He calls us to is not to establish the work, but to fidelity. Our living in the Spirit, our Chalcedonian existence if you will, leads us to participate in the gradual recreation of the world by the Spirit. God is doing it, so we can come alongside. Note here that the brunt of the doctrine is not "God is doing it, so we don't have to." That is to fall headfirst into fatalism, which assumes that God is abstract and impersonal. If God does nothing without first revealing it to his prophets (Amos 3:7), why should we assume that God does anything without involving the body of His Son? (Here is another reason that I have turned back to orthodoxy -- incarnation is inescapble). Predestination, when viewed historically, produces humble action as the people of God exercise fidelity to God's plan, which He set out through the prophets and apostles, and supremely in Jesus the Messiah.

We reach, then, Ephesians 1, where Paul -- as prophet -- proclaims what the will of God is: to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ and His Church. He will do it -- it is now time to join Him.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

What Use are the Creeds?

Here is a draft of the second chapter of this short meditation. The chapters aren't meant to be long discourse, but are modelled after the brief remarks given by Bonhoeffer in his excellent little book on the Psalms.
What Use are the Creeds?

Following, then, the holy fathers, we unite in teaching all men to confess the one and only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. This selfsame one is perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man, with a rational soul and a body. He is of the same reality as God as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as we ourselves as far as his humanness is concerned; thus like us in all respects, sin only excepted. Before time began he was begotten of the Father, in respect of his deity, and now in these "last days," for us and behalf of our salvation, this selfsame one was born of Mary the virgin, who is God-bearer in respect of his humanness.

We also teach that we apprehend this one and only Christ-Son, Lord, only-begotten -- in two natures; and we do this without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without contrasting them according to area or function. The distinctiveness of each nature is not nullified by the union. Instead, the "properties" of each nature are conserved and both natures concur in one "person" and in one reality. They are not divided or cut into two persons, but are together the one and only and only-begotten Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus have the prophets of old testified; thus the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us; thus the Symbol of Fathers has handed down to us.

(The Definition of Chalcedon, AD 451)

The mistake that I made early on, an easy mistake to make, is that the Creeds act as a definite proclamation of theology. Rather, they are guide-rails, meant to keep us on the right path by showing what is not the road. Note in the Definition given above that the two natures are not positively defined, but negatively: united, yet not confused, not transmuted, not divided. The only positive statement, essentially, is “one and only Christ – Son, Lord, only-begotten.” The union is proclaimed, but the mechanics of such is not, nor can it be. This frustrated me early on, but now I see it as necessary – not all of God’s knowledge is for us, but “the things revealed belong to us and our children forever that we might be careful to do all the words of this torah” (Dt. 29:29).

The Creeds, then, are meant to be summary grammars of Scriptural teaching. Instead of being positive contributions – revelations of the character of God – they are signs of the paths we should avoid. Avoid, then, the Arian god Jesus, who is a lesser being that cannot save derived from a greater being that cannot love. And so on. That way dragons lay. Creeds, in the end, are not stand alone documents able to bring us to salvation, for “faith comes from hearing, hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). The Church Fathers, in general, can helpfully be read this way. The Creeds only make sense and are only used properly when they are reflections on what has been called from ancient times the “economy of salvation.” The economy is God’s act (comprised of His many acts in both Old and New Testaments) to bring salvation to the world through Word and Spirit. The Scriptures bear testimony to this event, whom we know as the Messiah Jesus.

In my own experience, maybe it would be proper to compare the Creeds to Balaam’s ass. The donkey faithfully tried to warn its rider of impending danger, yet Balaam (the true ass) refused until God knocked him down.

In the case of Chalcedon, which this meditation seeks to understand, how might this guiding work? The key is that the mysterious two natures of the Christ – the truly human and the truly divine – are in full union with one another; there is no conflict or discord. While they might still be distinguished (they are not confused or collapsed into one another), they work together so well as to be understood as one Person. In other words, Jesus is not schizophrenic, nor has multiple personalities. Remembering Paul’s assertion that we are being conformed to the image of the Son (more on this anon) and Irenaeus’ contention that “Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is,” we can posit that we – human beings in faith – are Chalcedonian by created nature. That is, we have our human natures, but God also gives us His nature, His Life, His Spirit and joins us in union to Himself. We don’t become God, of course, but we are united with Him (here, again, we are in the realm of mystery and can only define negatively – the practical applications of this mystery, though, are immense). The goal of Christian life is the ever-deepening union with the Spirit of God that makes us more and more like the Messiah here on earth.

When we view the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus, then, we can read it profitably not just as an historical record, but as giving us hope and direction for our lives. While our union with Christ is not perfect (our human nature often giving fits), we can start to see how that Chalcedonian union gives power to the Christian life. Consider the temptation narrative found in Matthew 4.

Here we see Christ being tested as to his resolve to follow the Father in all things. Christ responds, not with assertions of deity, but by doing what every believer united with the Spirit can do – he lives out the Scriptures, proclaiming them as his own. While we are not yet perfect in our union with Christ, certainly we can follow his example – Word and Spirit to overcome sin and evil and even death.

This reveals something important for us who are traveling down this road. While biological growth cannot be stopped, spiritual growth can. Our union with the Spirit – even though it is predestined to be accomplished (Rom. 8) – can stagnate and shrivel. Our human natures can, by reason of sin and disobedience, push the Spirit out. Remember how King Saul and Judas both lost their places of honor and responsibility. Our union progresses as we are constantly connected to both Word and Spirit, since they are the path to the Father. This gives us reason, not only to be learning the Scriptures, but to be memorizing them, to be living them. “Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2). How, though, can we be connected with the Spirit? In a word, worship.

When believers gather together under the one Head, Jesus the Messiah, especially when they celebrate Eucharist (or communion) with him, they act as the one Body of Christ. Our human natures are joined to, and changed by, his human nature. At the same time, through the Spirit, God joins Himself to the community that is praying. This is especially true when the Psalms are being recited/chanted/sung, for they are the prayers of Christ to the Father. This joins the divine (God in the Spirit) to the human (God in Christ), creating a moment of union in the daily life of the Christian community. This moment, especially when pursued in the morning-evening pattern, gives a redemptive framework to the day: all that occurs between the moments of special union with God is offered up to God. It is in the context of this communal celebration that we have the opportunity – the privilege! – to hear God’s Word to us as a community. Instead of the individualization that often happens in our readings of Scripture, here we can join in union with Word and Spirit so that our common life might look more like the life of Christ. Think of how the earliest Church functioned in Acts, sharing all things so that the Word might be proclaimed.

The Creeds bring us to a way of reading – a hermeneutic – for the economy of salvation. Notice that this guidepost, though, doesn’t offer us a dispassionate, “objective” reading of the text, but one that fully takes the divine nature of it (its inspiration) along with its human nature (our contemporary application) seriously: the Word is living and active, as Hebrews tells us. Here is a Christ that is not far off, but as close to us as the confession of our lips (returning to Romans 10).

“Open my lips, o Lord, that my mouth might proclaim Your praise” (Ps. 51:15).

The Faith of Chalcedon

Here is a first draft of an introduction to a proposed book on Chalcedonian faith. They say to "write what you know," so this is intensely personal. May God use it to give strength to those, who like me, have gone through the dark night of the soul and feel lost and forsaken.
There is no such thing as dispassionate theology. Theology, like all branches of human endeavor, is necessary connected to the whole person. Yet, this particular branch, much maligned and much abused, has an even stronger claim to be passionate. It is born out of and returns, always, to worship. We ask questions about the God we meet in worship; theology helps us to make sense of that experience. Good theology, passionate theology, grows out of that experience and leads us back to it. This is one of the reasons that theology is for everyone, not just trained professionals and clerics: we engage in what is called “primary theology” whenever we pray communally or individually, whenever we sing, whenever we are overcome by the strange ineffability of the divine who works in history. But theology is passionate in another sense: it is necessarily connected to the Passion of the Messiah Jesus. That is, all thinking about God is anchored in what God in Christ did on Golgotha – this is true whether we are speaking of the “Old” Testament, the “New” Testament, or the history of Christian life and thought. Theology is passionate because it reflects on Christ’s Passion, when he reconciled the world to the Father. That unspeakable grace is given words by theology, so that we might worship the God who enacted them.

This is a theological meditation. As such, it is passionate. I am not interested in a dry, academic treatment of my Subject – to do so would be to worship another God, not the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are other reasons as well. When I was much younger, I decided to do a project for my (public) school about the history of the Christian Creeds. While I quickly became disabused of the notion that a high schooler could adequately tackle the topic (I chose, instead, to do a preterist interpretation of the book of Matthew), it forever changed my course and my path. In my preliminary background reading, the theory (which I accepted as absolute truth) that the Church Fathers had gotten their idea of what it meant for Christ to be the “Logos” (Word) of God from classical, philosophical paganism was presented. This is a fairly common – and always disturbing to Protestants – claim about the development of doctrine (teaching) in the early Church. Being of a very conservative theological background, I had grown a distinct disliking for all things Greek (except the language): Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics were all evil men who had maliciously attacked the Bride of Christ and stolen her doctrinal purity. Once the linchpin of understanding John 1 was taking away, I did not know what to think. I was a follower of Jesus, but who was He? Or he? I wanted to tackle the question of the relationship between Jesus and the Father (as I often put it) with intellectual honesty and vigor. When I told my pastor this, he responded (in words I can never forget): “That’s fine, but if you come to a conclusion other than that he was fully God and fully man, we will know you have apostatized and left the faith.”

Left the faith. Damned. Accursed. But if the foundation is Greek philosophy and not Biblical religion, how could the Christological building stand? How could any of it stay? Left the faith. Damned. Accursed.

Here started the decade of Hell.

St. John of the Cross described – beautifully – my Dantean descent into the “dark night of the soul,” in which the Christian is stripped bare so that he might be fit for the Master’s use. During that time, I wandered spiritually, growing ever more confident in my emerging unitarian beliefs, yet growing ever more fearful of my own damnation. How could I see, in Scripture, what so many countless others had not seen? Was I to ascribe it to the episcopal “will to power”? Did the Catholic and Orthodox Church hold a conspiracy to trap men’s souls for their own gain and sovereignty? I certainly could look at the abhorrent behavior of many Church leaders, whether Roman, Eastern, or Protestant, for confirmation of some sort of this thesis. Invoking ‘God,’ as many atheists and unbelievers alike point out, is an easy way to gain your own earthly desires. There was a fear that grew in me at that point, since I could no longer trust any teacher in the Church – to question the Trinity would be to question their vested interests. Still the nagging question of how so many could be so wrong for so long dogged me.

The Creeds continued to be witnesses against me. I’d excuse myself from the assembly when we would say them (we didn’t say them very often which helped to cloak my growing separation) – I couldn’t say “of one substance with the Father.” I instead developed a liturgical bent that emphasized the grammar of the Scriptures over the grammar of theology. I dove deeply into Biblical Theology and despised Systematics. I was being stripped – no part of me was to be left untouched. A new foundation had to be laid before anything could be built. It is strange to be thankful for heresy, but it is necessary.

While Nicea perturbed me, Chalcedon absolutely infuriated me. Here, indeed!, was the acme of Plato’s takeover of the Church: one Person (I still have not received a good definition of this), two Natures undivided, yet distinct; different, yet united. Surely there was nothing – nothing – in Scripture to back this up. Surely it was the final straw that made Christianity pagan. I could not, would not, have anything to do with it. Instead, foreswearing theology, I would read the Scriptures and only them.

For me, the Creeds and theology acted as a strait-jacket. I have since learned to see them as kindly guideposts, apophatically leading me away from theology as rationality to theology as worship. But to get to the full sense of what is happening, it is important to see what I thought of the heritage of the Church. It was rubbish. I had separately myself from the community of the faithful and stood alone.

And yet, in that loneliness there was a fresh Wind, a Breath from God.

I saw, in Paul’s epistles, a recurring theme: what God has done in Jesus, He intends to do in the whole human creation. I had, without fully knowing it, stumbled across the foundation I had been looking for and avoiding. This confirmed, in my mind, the full humanity of Jesus – the necessary humanity of Jesus. Much of my frustration with Church teaching was its implicit Docetism – Jesus became the Christ, the Pantokrator, the far-off and aloof God. Since his presence was no longer close, no longer that of a brother or a friend, but rather a Dread Sovereign, something was needful to fill that emotional gap: enter Mary and the Saints. Jesus, for me, had been rescued – what God had done in Jesus, He intended to do in the whole human creation. Jesus was close. Jesus was close.

Paul also led me to another important point. Whenever God the Father (or, as I liked to refer to Him, the Father, God) is mentioned, in the same breath Jesus and the Spirit are mentioned. I did not know what to make of it precisely, but there was something inescapable about the identity of God: He is forever connected to Jesus and the Spirit. They exist – in some way I couldn’t understand and didn’t want to admit – always in union, even if just linguistically. God is never separate from Jesus or the Spirit. And, if John is to be believed, then Jesus is somehow equated with God’s Word (albeit not Platonically); this means that God has always been linked, somehow, to Jesus as the Word and the Spirit. For God speaks and breaths always.

I had done the impossible (or, at least at that time, I thought that I had done it): I had become a Biblical Trinitarian. I did not want to go to the ontological level – I would never bow to Platonic metaphysics. I still needed some confirmation that this is where the Spirit was leading, but I knew I was on the right track.

In the midst of this I had reluctantly started seminary. This was a dark time. One day, as my wife and I sat in our empty coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon I lost it. I screamed in a voice and in a way I did not know possible. The dark night had done me in: I was naked and I was afraid. The words of Psalm 22, of Christ’s Passion, were extended to me. I screamed, “Either God has abandoned His Church since the 2nd century or He has forsaken me!” Not even the moon or stars gave their brightness. All was lost. In the darkest part of the night, all that remains is the promise of the dawn.

Two days later, in my Church History class, I was saved. That is an intentional word. Looking back over my journals and blogging, I had slowly stopped calling myself a Christian and was now only a follower of Jesus. He had the words of life, and I could not seem to leave him, but I couldn’t quite trust him. We read that day these words from Irenaeus, a 2nd century bishop in France: “Christ became what we are, so that we might become what he is.” What God has done in Jesus, He intends to do in the whole human creation. I cried, as I cry now, with a heart that was both broken and healed. The naked and bare Adam was given, not a coat of skins, but the garment of the Messiah – that adornment for a wedding feast. And he gave me a greater gift, one I had never had before, the Spirit of God filled me head to toe, enlivening me, freeing me, causing the tormentors of persistent sin and degradation to flee at the sign of the Cross, as Antony of the Desert counseled.

It is my firm contention now, dear reader, to take you further on this journey with me. It is a short step, I assure you, from this place to Chalcedon – to find reconciliation of the Scriptures with the Creeds. And it pertains to this mystery of Father, Son, and Spirit – not in a detached way, but the way in which they work, even now, to bring you and me into conformity to the image of the Son; to bring us into union, the divine Spirit and our created selves, body and soul, that joins us truly and wholly to the body of Christ.

Come and see.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Necessity of Christian Communities

For a long time, the monastic impulse in much of Christianity was foreign to me. I brushed it off as gnostically ascetic neoplatonism. That was wrong (much I've thought in the past, it turns out, was wrong -- hence the whole "rethinking" series). While I do not uphold celibacy as the best lifestyle for many (certainly it is for some), nor think it is wise for the "clergy," the life together of the monatic communities is something to emulate. As we've been thinking about the buzzword of 'community' at the assembly, it has slowly -- inexoriably -- dawned on me that the only way to reestablish a real, long-lasting, and effective Christian witness in a post-Christian society is to live in semi-monastic community. That this can be done by groups of families, I am sure of. It can even be done with folks who live blocks away (although not too many to walk -- it is interesting that this is a dominant metaphor of the Christian experience, we "walk with Jesus" daily, but it is almost totally disconnected from our actual life, as we must drive upwards of 30 minutes or more to worship together).

The demands of the Christian life cannot be met without the structure and support of a community that shares a common life, common values, common schedules of worship/work/play, and a common aesthetic. This does not mean, of course, uniformity in all those things, but there must be some sort of commonality that links them together. The adoption of morning and evening prayer by a neighborhood, for example, would quickly destroy the demands of greed, avarice, and non-neighborly competition (there is such a thing -- a good thing -- as neighborly competition) that our impersonal, "late" capitalist society places upon us. We speak of these things -- the things that control our lives in the realm of habits -- as forces (the force of the economy or history or whatever); Paul speaks of them as "principalites and powers" that must be warred against and have wisdom spoken to by the Church, which cannot exist only on Sundays, but rather is the foundation of the cosmos since it is the body of the Messiah himself. There are, and never have been, lone gunners for Jesus.

A local assembly cannot just talk about community without radically reorienting their lives to the demands of the Gospel. As much as I enjoy middle-class existence (and I do), it must be subverted to the life-giving programme of the Lord Christ. Spiritual growth is not an automatic thing, such as biological maturity, but rather occurs when we live, work, play, and worship together in God's world -- as, in other words, we are continually connected to the Spirit -- God's own Life! -- and each other -- the Messiah's own body!

The American Church, especially, has spoken enough about the individual -- and we have seen our economy be taken over by usurers, robbers, and crooks; we have seen our cities be eroded by both a corporate culture and an urban culture (often inextricably linked) that fosters death in the inner city, the suburbs, and the countryside; we have seen the family destroyed because there are no ties that bind them more than the progress and freedom of the individual. It is time for the Church, not only to speak of life together, but to live it. To Christ be the glory of a renewed, reconstructed, rejuvenated world.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

To Hell with Hell? Symposium Presentation

Below is the text of my presentation to the "To Hell with Hell?" Symposium. Some diveregences from this text were made during the presentation, especially towards the end. I hope you enjoy it. (NB: It is long.)
My topic is the current understanding of hell. That is, as I’m sure you can imagine, an impossibly large topic. For every ten people, there are 11 views of hell. So, for this presentation I will concentrate on the biblical, historical, and cultural background to Mr. Bell’s understanding as a help into understanding our own. As will hopefully be seen, Mr. Bell is not arising out of a vacuum, but out of a long tradition of questioning and thinking that does go back centuries. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Without possibly knowing all the influences behind him, Bell digs deep and yet goes farther than those before him. Whether we follow him or not is another story. What we can learn from him (and there are many things that can be learned) is how our own cultural and historical setting influence our thinking: no one theology totally comprehends the afterlife, or God Himself – no one human or human system can aspire to such great heights without itself being truly in the depth of an idolatrous hell. We shall return to think about our own views towards the end.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, an odd scene unfolds when the young servant of the false god Tash, Emeth by name, is found to be in the New Narnia:
Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.

"Then he breathed upon me and took away the trembling from my limbs and caused me to stand upon my feet. And after that, he said not much, but that we should meet again, and I must go further up and further in. Then he turned him about in a storm and flurry of gold and was gone suddenly.

Each of the semesters that I have taught this text, students inevitably chafe at this scene. “Isn’t this teaching justification by works?” is a common rejoinder. I understand that reaction, but I think it may be beside the point (for some, however, that is always the point); instead, Lewis here is not focused on the fate of the moral infidel, but rather on the character of God. The question that I ask my students in return is: what is the nature of the God we serve? How do we understand Him in light of His name (ehyeh asher ehyeh – I will be what I am, underscoring the freedom and constancy of God) and His revealed nature (God is love)? Mr. Bell is asking this same question.

It is my task today, not to demean Mr. Bell’s position, nor to defend it. I have been asked to define it – not in the dictionary sense of the word, although I think there is a very particular word for his belief that I will investigate. Instead, I am to set the stage, much like the Chorus in Romeo and Juliet, to place before us not the whole of the play, but to situate us in Verona, to introduce us to the warring Montagues and Capulets, to warn us ahead of time that the lovers are, indeed, star-crossed.

The cover of Mr. Bell’s book gives the impression that the contents concern “heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” While this is true enough, it is somewhat misleading as well (I do not place this fault upon Mr. Bell; often writers have no control over either the title or subtitles of their books). It is similar to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (this is what happens when a Humanities professor is asked to speak at a symposium!): the title itself leads the reader to think that the book is about Dracula. However, and this is a spoiler – the book has been in print for at least a couple of years now, when Dracula is killed the battle takes up not much of a page. It simply isn’t important. The reader, when confronted with this, must ask themselves: what was this story really about? I’ll let you decide concerning Dracula. For Mr. Bell, “heaven and hell,” while being major issues (Dracula was, after all, a major character in that story) are only the precursory issues to the real event, the question: who is God?

But there is more to this question than initially meets the eye. Mr. Bell, as a consequence of his postmodern style and thought process, revives an ancient way of thinking about God and doing theology: the practice of apophaticism. Apophaticism is sometimes called the “way of negation:” it is a way of understanding God, not by saying what God “is,” but what God is not. The Creeds of ecumenical Christianity (the Apostles, the Nicene, the Athanasian, and I would add the Chalcedonian) are, in this way of reading them, not statements about what God is, but what He is not: He is not the Arian God, nor the Manichean, nor the Gnostic, nor the Mia- or Mono-physite. Instead, He remains beyond us and always out of our grasp. This last metaphor is important, since to have something (or someone) in our grasp means we have control of them, and when that is brought into the divine realm, that entails a belief in magic. Early Christianity, and I think Bell fits comfortably in this tradition, rejected the magical control over God by using theology as guidelines, not as propositions – God is too expansive, they would argue, to be controlled by our thought processes, but there is still truth that can lead us to Him – the economy of salvation. The apophatic way always must lead to an emphasis, not on what God is in Himself – not His essence, but rather on what He has done, especially in “Jesus Christ our Lord, who became man for us and for our salvation.” While we cannot fully comprehend God, we can know – have a covenanted relationship – with him because of what He has done and continues to do in Christ Jesus.

If we understand God by seeing, primarily, what God is not, we may get to the question at hand: what sort of god does Bell not believe in? Here is where the important bits of his thought about hell come into play:
“Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every other single person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?
Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” (Bell 2)
While just in the first pages of the book, these are the questions that reverberate all the way through. These questions give us an insight into the kind of god Bell is rejecting (the language of ‘rejection’ is not too harsh here, as Bell says on page 182, “Have nothing to do with that God”). The god that Bell rejects is one that creates “billions” of his creatures with no other intention than to plunge them into everlasting agony, despair, and torture. He rejects a god who gives a fiction of free choice, while deciding before to cast into hell for sins that they could not help but commit (for who has resisted his will?). Bell ably describes it thus:
Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony (Bell 174).

And so, as all good apophatic theologians must do, Bell returns to the economy of salvation to understand what God should be believed in, should be followed, should be worshipped, should be “glorified and enjoyed forever.” It is here that he sees Jesus, not as angry judge, not as helpless victim, not as good moral example, but as God incarnate, doing what God incarnate does – love. Returning to the previous quote, what sort of God “goes great lengths to have a relationship with them,” that is, is incarnate of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, and rose again on the third day, and then promptly turns around and says: “Too late!”? The very economy of salvation, of Christ becoming what we are, so that we might become what he is, as Irenaeus said, militates against that.

It is here that the Biblical background comes into view. Much of Bell’s critique swells around an old Calvinist question: is God able to save? I put it that way because I’ve heard many amateur theologians confront their ostensibly Arminian friends about this: if the atonement is not limited to God’s elect, why doesn’t He save everyone? Is He not powerful enough to do so? Bell affirms that God is all-powerful and His will shall be done: the question becomes “what is God’s will?” For this, Bell relies on I Timothy 2:1-7:
Therefore, I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men: for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle – I am speaking the truth in Christ and not lying – a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
The will of God, which shall be done on earth as it already is in heaven, is for “all men to come to the knowledge of the truth” for Christ “gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” This God is “good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (Ps. 145, Bell 101), His anger “lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime” (Ps. 30), so that already God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34 (“The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation”), this revelation is qualified by the shortness of God’s anger. Three to four generations is hardly “everlasting.”

There are other passages, both explicit and implicit, that Bell draws on. These are often the head-scratching passages, such as I John 2:2, “he himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole word” or Matthew 12:31, “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men.” Matthew 25, which seems to be in the background to the Lewis piece read earlier, also comes into play. Here we see the Son of Man judging between the sheep and the goats, the sheep going into eternal joy, the goats into eternal destruction. Note that the “nations” – the Gentiles! – who did not know they were serving Christ are ushered into the Kingdom, not Christians who are looking for Jesus’ face in the widow, orphan, stranger, and prisoner.

While there can (and should) be many objections to Bell’s reading of the economy, I must leave that to the able hands of Dr. Shidemantle: I am just setting the scene. But this introduction to the real question is vital. The uproar over this book should not concern the specifics of Bell’s doctrine of hell, nor do I think it really does. Frankly, we do not have enough information to make adequate judgments about the details of the damned afterlife. Maybe Meatloaf does, but he returns us to Mr. Bell, since he “would do anything for love.” Instead, the uproar over this book concerns our conceptions of who God is, what He has done in the economy of salvation, and how that applies to all of world history, especially the parts of Christendom.

Bell’s views on the afterlife, both heaven and hell, flow out of his belief concerning God. It is important to mention, as he does throughout the book, that his views are not of his own invention: they are, in fact, ancient. He says, “In the third century the church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen affirmed God’s reconciliation with all people. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa and Eusebius believed this as well” (107). The view, though he does not use the word, is known as apokatastasis. Instead of hell being a punitive place of torture, it has a pedagogic and purifying function, as least in the case of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and, possibly, Gregory of Nazianzus. For each of these writers – all of whom are well respected among the Fathers – the main issues are the image of God, the telos (purpose) of the incarnation, and the nature of God. While they all have difference, they share these common foundations.

We tend to think of the image of God as what we were created in, but have lost. For the early writers, the image of God is what has been restored in Christ and what will be totally restored as people are incorporated into the body of Christ, who is the image of God. Man, as mankind without remainder, has been made in that image, so man, as mankind without remainder, must be remade in that image. For this reason did God become man. “Coming in human nature to restore humanity, he spread out his holy bodily form to the ends of the earth and gathered mortals and formed them into one. He placed this one into the arms of the great Godhead after he had washed away all stain with the blood of the Lamb and, as leader of mortal humanity, lifted them up on the path to heaven” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Carmina). The very telos of the incarnation was not merely to deal with sin, for that would leave man basically as he was ontologically; rather, the purpose was to raise man to a new height, higher than Adam himself, through the resurrection of the body in union with Christ. That is must happen to all stems from their reading of I Corinthians 15:22 “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” The nature of the God who is doing this, then, could not want to torment His image eternally, but rather would want to purify it. For those who come by faith to the Christ, this purification happens in this life. For those who do not, it seems that hell is their lot, until they are purified – here we should see the beginnings of the doctrine of purgatory. In fact, the doctrine of apokatastasis is often called the “purgatorial” view of hell. All the writers, including Bell, shy away from saying that hell shall one day be emptied: a view that was condemned by the Council of Constantinople in 543AD: “If anyone says or holds that the punishment of the demons and of impious men is temporary, and that is will have an end at some time, or that there will be a complete restoration (apokatastasis) of demons and impious men, anathema sit.” The hope that is held out, though, is that maybe the mercy of God will win out over His judgment, as James (2:13) tells us, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Hell is meant, not to punish, but to educate and finally restore the soul that was recalcitrant during life. Whether or not it is successful depends on what one thinks of the relation between God’s will and man’s will. It is obvious that if the god is a puppet-master, then none of this matters: human freedom is an illusion. This is a god that Bell does not believe in. Yet, he retains an interesting strain of predestinarian thought: Love Wins. In the end, God gets His way, His “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Even the most hardened of sinful wills came be wooed, swayed, and persuaded by this mighty and loving God.

In the midst of all this comes the problem of time and eternity. As noted before, Bell is particularly reluctant to have anyone sent to “billions and billions of years” of torture and torment. Instead, he presents hell (and, it could be argued, heaven) as a state of mind. At this point, it is helpful to see that he recommends C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. This delightful story concerns a man who has dreamed (much in the tradition of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) of being in Hell and in Heaven, watching the interactions between the various inhabitants thereof. Much of the story is conversations between the Bright (or Solid) People – those in bliss – and the Ghosts – those either in Purgatory or Hell itself. The poet George Macdonald acts as Lewis’ Beatrice (for those of you who know Dante’s Divine Comedy), explaining the strange sights and experiences the narrator encounters. At a certain point, Macdonald begins to unravel, ever so slightly, the mystery of hell, heaven, time, eternity, and the fate of every person who has ever lived. I quote at length:
“Not only this valley but all this earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say ‘Let me but have this and I’ll take the consequences’: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say, ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”
He goes on to speak of the conditions of pride, hubris, and navel gazing that characterize the damned and will continue to do so eternally. The narrator asks about the saved, then, and elicits this response:
“Ah, the Saved…what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage. What seemed , when they entered it, to be the vale of misery turns out, when they look back, to have been a well; and where present experience saw only salt deserts memory truthfully records that the pools were full of water.”
To this the narrator responds, “Then those people are right who say Heaven and Hell are only states of mind?”
“Hush,” said he sternly. “Do not blaspheme. Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakable remains.”
In other words, Heaven is the true reality. For God’s will “to be done on earth as it is in heaven” means that God’s reality is the true reality, our reality either conforms to Him through union with His Son and so can be heaven, or maybe better, eternal life even now, or it deforms from God into a shadowy existence hardly worth calling existence at all. This being away from man’s telos, his ultimate goal of union with God in Christ, is the worst torment of all. It involves becoming more and more fully what one had started to become during physical life; all the inhabitants of “hell town” hate each other and themselves, moving further and further away from one another and the celestial bus that could ferry them over to the other side, until night falls and darkness covers all.

Both Bell and Lewis work within similar understandings of the afterlife at this point, especially the idea that we become what we were in life (although Bell is less clear about this than Lewis). Part of this revolves around the idea that in death humans cease to be in time, even though we cannot properly imagine such a state (we are, in this life, necessarily time-bound creatures and can only think in such terms). Eternity, then, is less a quantity of moments as it is a quality of life. The thinking stretches back to Boethius in the sixth century. For him, as well as many other Christian philosophers and theologians, God exists and acts in the Now, the moment that contains all moments of what we call past, present, and future. This is why asking what God did before the creation of the world makes no sense: there is no before “in the beginning” – for there is no time. Instead, the quality of being fully oneself, which is what God is, is what is given to us through Christ (note here that Boethius, although he uses heavily philosophical language, is not far off from the Eastern Gregories): we have “eternal life” both now and after death. For those who do not place their trust in the Son, though, who insist on the primordial Augustinian sin of selfish pride, they are already dead, under judgment, under the wrath of God. Whether that it an everlasting – in the temporal sense – state of being is unclear, but quality-wise it is eternal, total, unrelenting. It reminds one of the parable of the wheat amongst the tares: while they look similar for a time, eventually they show their true colors, and then are divided according to what they, by nature, are and have always been.

This brings us to Bell’s most extended exposition of Scripture: the tale of the prodigal son. The party that is thrown when the prodigal returns is like Heaven, with both the damned and the saved there. The saved, knowing they have nothing to offer, are invited in; the damned, even though they have been in possession of the party all along, refuse to come in and so lose all. The attention is not focused on the choice of the saved – the choice there was to base service, but instead glory was given – but on the choice of the damned. Here, then, Bell is not presenting a stereotyped Arminian theology: the saved are not saved by their “choice” to accept Jesus, but by the love of the Father. The damned, however, are damned by their own choice because they cannot humble themselves enough to be in the Father’s love – even being in His presence is a hateful thing.
“[The elder brother’s] problem is his ‘goodness.’ His rule-keeping and law-abiding confidence in his own works has actually served to distance him from his father…Our badness can separate us from God’s love, that’s clear. But our goodness can separate us from God’s love as well” (186-7).
Here Bell engages in a trenchant critique very similar to that of Karl Barth. Barth claimed that Jesus was the Aufhebung of religion. In the larger Church Dogmatics this is mistranslated as “abolition” or “destruction.” Instead, it means that religion – our response to God – must undergo death, so that it might be purified through resurrection. In other words, our religion must be transfigured if it is to be true:

Our relation to God is ungodly. We suppose that we know what we are saying when we say ‘God.’ We assign to Him the highest place in our world: and in so doing we place Him fundamentally on one line with ourselves and with things. We assume that He needs something: and so we assume that we are able to arrange our relation to Him as we arrange our other relationships. We press ourselves into proximity with Him: and so, all unthinking, we make Him nigh unto ourselves. We allow ourselves an ordinary communication with Him, we permit ourselves to reckon with Him as though this were not extraordinary behavior on our part. We dare to deck ourselves out as His companions, patrons, advisers, and commissioners. We confound time and eternity. This is the ungodliness of our relation to God. And our relation to God is unrighteous. Secretly we are ourselves the masters in this relationship. We are not concerned with God, but with our own requirements, to which God must adjust Himself. Our arrogance demands that, in addition to everything else, some super-world should also be known and accessible to us….And so, when we set God upon the throne of the world, we mean by God ourselves. In ‘believing’ on Him, we justify, enjoy, and adore ourselves. Our devotion consists in a solemn affirmation of ourselves and of the world and in a pious setting aside of the contradiction. Under the banners of humility and emotion we rise in rebellion against God.

Bell’s critique of our understanding of who God is is an act of Aufhebung, an attempt to show that many times those of us engaged in theology and ministry worship our mental constructs, our ways of semi-magically controlling God, so that we might have the control. All those who have any experience in ministry know the temptation to take control, know the need for certitude instead of mystery, know that sometimes God does not act in ways we prefer nor in time frames that are suitable. For Bell and for Barth, this is a fatal toxicity: the real rationale behind it is not a true understanding of God – who apophatically is always beyond our grasp – but a desire to be god ourselves. It is the primordial sin. “Our goodness can separate us from God’s love as well.”

It is at this point that Bell’s rhetoric combines all three historical and cultural strains we have been investigating. “As obvious as it is, then, Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity’” (150). The human tendency is to create idols, idols in our own image and idols that suit our agendas, to which we ascribe the names of Yahweh, Jesus, the Trinity, and other “cages and labels.” Instead, Jesus takes our sin-limited view, and transfigures it continually: it is always under judgment, being purified by God’s fire, so that it might be a true response to the mystery that is the event of Jesus Christ. Here his exegesis takes on an original stance concerning John 14. The much beloved passage, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” is often used to say, in effect: if you don’t follow our way (you don’t belong to the right church, you don’t believe the right theology, you don’t pray this prayer, etc.), you cannot come to the Father – because we are Jesus’ representatives. Instead, Bell turns the traditional understanding on its head: it is a passage, not of hubris, but of humility:
“What [Jesus] doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him” (154).
That is, we don’t hold the key to Jesus, Jesus holds the key to the Father. Our response to God, even our response of faith and obedience, must go through Jesus – through death and out the other side through resurrection – is they are to be pleasing and acceptable to God.

This does present us with a difficulty: Bell intentionally is placing us in the position of the elder brother looking on as the party is starting. If we don’t have our theologies to give us certitude, or our liturgies, or our experience, what do we have? We have Christ, who has “become man for us and our salvation.” We have access, because of Christ and Christ alone, to God the Father who gives us His very Spirit – His life! – so that we might have communion with Him. The ever-present and ever-true testimony of this is the Scriptures, but we must always – with the Spirit’s help – resist the urge to turn the Bible, or our worship, or our experience into an idol with which to close off Christ to the rest of the world: to do so would be to repeat the error of the Judaizers, an error that we are too often prone to repeat.

Regardless of what we think of Bell’s position, the question posed by him is this: have we rightly understood God? Are we worshipping the Creator of the universe, who in His self-revelation shows us that He is love, His mercy is everlasting, His anger lasts but a moment, and is willing to die for us to live? And not us only, but also for the whole world? Or are we worshipping and following an idol? Here is where the story of the painting from chapter two comes into play. The culture we make is a reflection of what we truly believe, but it also shapes what we can believe. Here are some paintings of hell from throughout the years: how have they shaped not only what we think of the afterlife, but who God is? The task in front of us today in this symposium and outside in our lives and ministries is: what God are we presenting in our catechesis and our evangelism? Are we getting our doctrine of the afterlife from the Bible or from somewhere else? Much hinges on this question. Time does not allow us to look deeply into some of the “classic” hell sermons, such as Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” or John Wesley’s “On Hell.” But it is clear that, at least as far as Bell is concerned, the traditional understanding of hell – whatever that turns out to be – has not fully integrated all the Biblical data and stands in need of, at least, readjustment. Bell would argue, it is clear, that readjustment may not be enough, but rather a complete overhaul is needed. I leave it to the other presenters to tackle that claim. We need an Aufhebung of our religion, of our ministries, to fully take on the issues that confront us today. There are two phrases that I’d like to leave you with, one theological and one from the humanities. The first is the oft quoted motto of the Reformation: “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei,” which means “the Church reformed, always reforming according to the Word of God” – the “secundum verbum Dei” is often left off, but it is the most important piece. Since Christ is the Word of God, he is the one reforming us according to his Scriptural word. We must return to the Scriptures for wisdom and guidance. This will require us to take up the old standards of Scripture memorization and chanting, so that the people of God at any age may be equipped to serve. The second phrase is from the Renaissance: “ad fontes,” which means “to the sources.” Evangelical and Reformed Christianity has long shied away from the sources of our faith, the Church Fathers and the early Councils (not to mention the wealth of medieval sources). It is time, as we rethink these issues, to come to terms with what our faith is really about, what has “been believed everywhere, always, and by all,” as Vicent of Lerins advises us. We may start in the seedbed of our own traditions, whether that is Bonar, or Wesley, or Cranmer, or Calvin, or Luther, or Ratzinger. From there, we can progress back to the great masters of faith such as Bernard of Clairvoux (Calvin’s favorite monastic) or Francis of Assisi. Irenaeus and Ignatius, early bishops, will help draw us closer to the Scriptures as well. Bell’s challenge, in the end, is not for us to give up our doctrines and theologies, but to reexamine them – to be Bereans who search the Scriptures and the Tradition: to bring our own faiths through the death of Christ into his glorious resurrection light.

Much more, of course, could be said about the scene in fair Verona. Bell’s combination of apophaticism, apokatastasis, and aufhebung gives us much to think on. Many will not follow his conclusions as far as he does, but even one of my very Reformed friends said the other day, “I hope Bell is right.” As much as we talk about God, and claim to have His very mind, we are human: beset by sin and limited (thank God!) by our own finite existence. In the end, we rely on God’s character and nature, set forth in the Scriptures, in the person of Jesus Christ whom the Scriptures testify, and in the Spirit that is promised to “guide into all truth.” This is what we have: this is all that we need.