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.