A Book Review of Forensic Apocalyptic Theology: Karl Barth and the Doctrine of Justification. By Shannon Nicole Smythe. Emerging Scholars. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2016. Viii + 253pp.

411z9RE-GlL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_In this monograph by Smythe, we are offered a fascinating tour of Barth’s theological exegesis of Paul, with a special focus on the letter to the Romans. The author laments over the denial or minimization of what she calls ‘forensicism’ in Paul coming from such quarters as (1) recent interpreters of Paul (i.e., the so-called New Perspective); (2) the ecumenical movement; (3) recent Reformation scholarship; and (4) the lack of “theological identity” among Protestant lay and scholars. In contrast to this, forensicism or justification “is the hallmark doctrine of” Protestant churches, according to Smythe.

Enter: Karl Barth. Smythe argues that, citing John Webster, there is a lacuna of study of Barth as an exegete of Scripture, and, as such, she seeks to remedy this, at least in part, with her monograph. By turning to Barth, she is also keen to enlist the aid of those interpreters who can be described as following the apocalyptic turn in Pauline studies; that is, those interpreters who read “Paul with an eye to his apocalyptic eschatology.” Thus, throughout the volume, she puts Barth in conversation with Ernst Käsemann, J. Christian Beker, J. Louis Martyn, and Martinus de Boer, to name a few.

Moreover, in her explication of Barth, she is concerned to note his genetic-historic development, expressed in his development from the second edition of Barth’s commentary on Romans to his more mature A Shorter Commentary on Romans and his Church Dogmatics (CD) (esp. vols. II/2, IV/1 and IV/3.1). Furthermore, she incorporates Barth’s Christ and Adam at points. This development, for Smythe, demonstrates Barth’s maturation as an interpreter of Scripture (in this case, Pauline themes in Scripture).

Having set forth her emphases and concerns, Smythe writes that her aim “is to undertake a more sustained, accurate, and theologically complex reading of Barth’s contribution to the question of a Pauline doctrine of justification.” Though more will be said below, at this point it can and should be noted that, in the opinion of this reviewer, Smythe succeeds without question to meet her aim for the book.

By applying the term “forensic apocalyptic” to Barth’s doctrine of justification, Smythe is following de Boer, who distinguishes two patterns in Jewish apocalyptic eschatology, namely, the “cosmic-apocalyptic” pattern and a second pattern, the “forensic apocalyptic.” The latter pattern is distinguished from the first in that the emphasis in not on “evil cosmic powers” but on “human free will and individual human decisions,” which naturally leads to sin being answered by God’s judgment, hence introducing a forensic element into apocalyptic eschatology. Smythe argues in turn that “Paul is adapting these two patterns of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology in light of his Christology and that Barth’s own forensic apocalyptic eschatology is fully consonant” with Paul’s adaptations.

Yet, in contrast to de Boer, who sees the “cosmic-apocalyptic” as having greater priority over the “forensic apocalyptic” in Paul, Barth, according to Smythe, reads Paul in a way which holds these two patterns together without causing one to trump the other. In other words, Barth as theological interpreter does not fit easily into the interpretive mold set forth by de Boer. Rather, Barth is seen by Smythe as a corrective of the apocalyptic interpreters of Paul throughout her study. Moreover, Barth is seen to offer a corrective to the Reformation doctrine of justification by “his intensifying of forensicism,” which is a result of “his historicized theological ontology,” which, in turn, “expresses both the reality that God has elected to take humanity into the event of God’s being and the reality that the human Jesus participates in the being and existence of God.” This interpretation of Barth follows McCormack vis-à-vis such interpreters as Hunsinger and Molnar.

These key elements of Smythe’s treatment of Barth are applied throughout the subsequent chapters as she looks at the intersection of Barth’s forensic apocalyptic approach to justification with such theological loci as revelation, atonement, justification, theological anthropology, and eschatology. Of these, this reviewer found her discussion of theological anthropology to be most helpful for personal edification.

There are a number of strengths of this volume. First, she displays with clarity and depth Barth’s strengths as an interpreter of Scripture, especially in light of the apocalyptic turn in NT studies. Second, much of this volume serves not only to offer a reading of Barth but also a reading of those NT scholars who have been participants in this interpretation of Paul. Third, this book rehearses from a different perspective both the continuity and discontinuity that exists between Barth and the Reformers. Fourth, the genetic-historical feature of her explication of Barth lends further credibility to McCormack as an interpreter of Barth over against Hunsinger, et al. Yet, this last strength may also be to the chagrin of those sympathetic to Barth who may which to see Barth as more of a corrective to rather than a (radical) departure from classical Reformation theology.

Two potential weaknesses are related to these strengths. Though Barth’s interpretation of Paul throughout his corpus, but especially in his mature work, seems to bolster the claims of McCormack and others, this reading of Barth would have been strengthened if Smythe had, even in an appendix, engaged more directly with the Barth interpreters who do not agree with the “historicized theological ontology” proposed by herself and McCormack. Also, at points she does not integrate the readings of other apocalyptic readings of Paul into her discussion of Barth in a manner that convincingly demonstrates both his continuity and discontinuity with these readings, often being content with a passing mention of a particular interpreter in place of this.

Yet, despite these criticisms, this is a significant work for those interested in the doctrine of justification, in the apocalyptic turn in NT studies, in Barth or even in Reformation theology (as it pertains to justification) and thus it will offer plenty of food for thought for almost any reader of the volume who works through it. In sum, this is a monograph that should read by any serious student of theology.

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Abortion In Light of Christ

picIn recent times, morality is a question spinning around in everyone’s heads. Not that this is a question that hasn’t been spinning around in prior times, but it has reached fever pitch. Why? Because morality shapes culture which in turn informs legislation. Morality gives rise to, in many cases, laws. In this case, a law that has caused grave consternation among many is the recent NY law regarding the legal parameters of abortion which, per Pub. Health Section 2599-AA, states that:

Within the first 24 weeks or after 24 weeks if necessary to preserve the mother’s health of if the fetus isn’t viable [an abortion is legal].

The key phrase here of great concern and controversy is the second clause which states, “… after 24 weeks if necessary to preserve the mother’s health of if the fetus isn’t viable.” Many argue that the phrase “to preserve the mother’s health” is ambiguous from a legal standpoint, and, as such, this revision of the existing NY law on abortion signals a declension of the moral parameters surrounding the issue. Put plainly, what was already an unjust law from the standpoint of the Christian tradition pre-Jan. 2019 is now even more egregiously unjust. But, our purpose here isn’t merely legal or political, but theological, although theological questions, when done rightly, penetrate legal, political and other concerns. Our starting point is theological because, as Alistair McFayden argues in his sophisticated monograph,[1] sin cannot be fully understood unless understood theologically.

As we’ve stated, laws reflect morality. Morality in turn reflects values. We believe something is right or wrong because we believe that it is the preferred course of action over and against another course of action. That is to say, we value one course over another. The placement of value (importance, worth) reflects then an assumption about reality, at least if value leading to morality is not merely arbitrary and subjective but actually in some sense ontological and thus constitutive of reality. This becomes clear when we reflect on the value that underlies the argument for the moral permissibility of abortion.

The value that drives the argument for abortion’s moral legitimacy is freedom. Freedom in our highly individualized Western society is virtually the ethic. Freedom from constriction, freedom from contrary opinions, freedom to do, think, and feel as one pleases. Freedom, in this case, to do what one will with one’s body. But, does this kind of freedom hold up? Is it consistent with how we apply freedom in other arenas of our society?

Teasing this out somewhat we find that the answer is resoundingly no. Freedom is not a carte blanche concept; freedom is necessarily contextual. Freedom, we must ask, from what? Surely, no intelligible concept of freedom can be one divorced from consequences, from effects whether positive or negative for the freedom to do what one pleases will inevitably have consequences for others. If I yell in my drive way, it will wake up my neighbors. If I run ten red lights in one day, I’ll, at the very least, be pulled over, but, more likely, I’ll seriously injure someone, even fatally. One could argue that these are just an exercise of freedom, and, while that may be true, it is not a freedom from consequence. The freedom to do what I want may actually curtail the freedom or even end the life of another. So, maybe we could grant that this ‘freedom’ is real, but nonetheless free acts are not freed from the impact they have on the environment around them.[2]

Turning now to freedom in re one’s body, we must ask: is bodily freedom void of consequence for not only the possessor of the body but also those persons belonging to the environment in which the embodied person resides? Put differently, can what I do with my body be divorced from my environment, with the likelihood that this environment is populated, at least at times, with other people? If I fill myself with food, resulting in morbid obesity, will this not in some way touch the lives of those with whom I come into contact?  If I drink incessantly from the moment I wake up, won’t this be to the detriment of not only my body but of those around me? If this is the case with these examples, then it follows that it is the case with the question of abortion. The burden of proof is on the pro-choice advocate to prove otherwise.

But, moving away from that ethical-philosophical foray, we turn to more theological considerations. God has created us for a purpose. He has created us for life, and, ultimately, to reflect the love has existed in the life of the Trinity from eternity. God has created us to be in filial relationship with him by way of the Son, Jesus Christ. God’s role as creator is bound up with who he is as the God who loves in freedom. God creates out of the abundance of the life and the love that he has in himself, and, as such, God’s act of creation is a loving act. In all that God does, the truth that God is love is upheld.

Human beings in a special manner were made to participate in the love and life of God as bearers of God’s image. As we participate in God’s life-producing love, we in turn show that love to his creation, indeed, to each other. This love is a self-giving loving. It is a love that cares for and considers the other. By caring for the other, we give of ourselves. True love is not self-consumed, it delights in the other. God the Father delights in his Son; the Son delights in the Father; the Spirit delights in the Son and the Father. The Johannine corpus uses the term glory, yet, we would suggest that glory is intimately connected with delight. We glorify what we love; to glorify, to greatly esteem something or someone without love is an absurdity. Love, in turn, gives way to delight, to joy, to finding pleasure in the other. Hence, it truly was not good for man to be alone. Rather, as the Song of Songs and Ephesians 5 suggest, a husband is to delight in his bride and vice versa. Again, love leads to delight and to joy.

When we apply this to the modern concept of freedom, we see the horror of this concept, especially as it is expressed in the recent NY abortion allowance. Freedom to do what I want rings hollow and empty in the face of the awe-inspiring love of God. God loves us in freedom. He gives us life—he loves us in life—freely. His love is not one of co-dependence or ontological necessity. Rather, his freely offered life and love is out of the abundance of who he is.

This love-in-freedom is expressed in the person and work of Christ. Christ took on a human body, entered into a sin-tarred world, filled with sin-driven people possessing hate-and-fear blinded hearts, to serve and be concerned with his own freedom? May it never be so! Christ, the Son of God, who enjoys perfect love with the Father and the Spirit, came and offered himself freely; he gave of himself in love. He didn’t come for himself, he came for us. He was concerned to give up everything, even humbling himself to the point of death, in order to restore us back to true freedom. For “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” But free for what? To do as we please? No. Free to participate in the love, the life, the truth of God in the face of Christ.

The ethic of love, grounded in the love of God, seen perfectly in the face of Christ, is at complete odds with the modern account of freedom. We are set free by Christ to enjoy a life of loving relationship with God. We are free to give ourselves to him and to others in love, because in giving, we experience, we know, the life that is God’s life. Apart from this, there is no freedom. Thus, Jesus can say that it is “more blessed to give than receive.”

In conclusion, the horror of abortion, and the grim concept of freedom that undergirds it, doesn’t hold a candle to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Modern freedom is a pale, ugly mutation of the freedom-in-love seen in the life of God through Christ. The freedom God offers displays in full the heinousness, the evil of secular, god-abandoning accounts of freedom. When society begins to value God’s love with all that that entails, it will be able to properly assess the worth of modern ‘freedom’ rightly. Until then, we pray.

[1] Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine; 2000).

[2] Cf. a critique of abortion by Robert Jenson along complementary lines (Systematic Theology, vol 2, 86-88).

Does the Spirit proceed from the Father and the Son? Some thoughts on the filioque in conversation with Greg Liston

filiListon, in his exposition of a Third Article ecclesiology (The Anointed Church), rejects the filioque, arguing instead for a ‘reconceived’ Trinitarianism. Liston’s overriding concern, if we are reading him correctly, is that the filioque, by asserting the procession of the Spirit from both the Father and the Son, subtly subordinates the Spirit to the Son ad intra and subverts the Spirit-informed Christology that we see expressed in the economy. But is this necessarily the case? A few factors suggest it is not.

First, if we grant that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, this does not mean that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son in the same way. If the Father is not identical to the Son, then it follows that this procession would not be identical, though intimately related; i.e., it is conceivable that the Spirit proceeds from the Father to the Son and then proceeds back to the Father from the Son.[1]

Second, this account of the Triune life fits well with the Augustinian model of the Spirit as the bond of love between the Father and the Son.[2] This account is not as clearly distinguished from Liston’s account as he might believe. Liston states his “reconceived” Trinitarianism in another way: the Father is the “originating person,” the Son is the “personed person,” and the Spirit is the “personing person.”[3] We can imagine the parallel between this and the Augustinian account going something like this:

Augustinian “Reconceived”
Father loves and Spirit proceeds Father “originating person” from which Spirit proceeds
Spirit proceeds to Son as Father’s love Spirit proceeds to Son as “personing person”
Spirit proceeds from the Son back to the Father as Son’s love Spirit “returns” to Father from Son as “personing person,” with “the Father . . . personed as Father”

These two accounts appear to be nearly identical, minus some differences in vocabulary. Moreover, the protest against the Augustinian model that it reduces the Spirit to a thing by making it the bond of love fails to adequately define what love is.[4] We must ask: can we really understand love without the persons of the Trinity and their relations? Arguing from greater to lesser, can we truly understand love if abstracted from persons in general? We would suggest that love is unintelligible and lacking substance of it is reduced to a thing and abstracted from the deeply personal origins of the Triune God. Rather than being a competing viewpoint, it could be suggest that Liston actually gives more substance to the Augustinian account by closely connecting love to the three persons of the Trinity.

This brings us to a possible objection. Does the reconciliation of these two accounts undermine the divine taxis of the Triune life? There is not an easy answer to this objection, but some points are worthy of consideration. The taxis, while positing a divine order, is something of a soft line between the three persons; making it to be something more than this results in ontological subordination. Also, given perichoresis, it is not inconceivable that the Spirit is simultaneously proceeding from the Father as the Father is begetting the Son while still being third in the divine taxis. The biblical witness presents something of a tension, especially when considering such passages as John 15:26 and 1 Cor 15:45, with the latter supporting the “economic equivalence” of the Son and Spirt and the former supporting the filioque.[5]

Yet, despite the “economic equivalence” between the Son and Spirit, there is a strong reason for refusing to reject the filioque as well as the traditional taxis—we see the Father in the face of the Son (John 14). If the Spirit proceeded from the Father only and was second in the taxis, this would imply that we could know the Father apart from the Son, approaching, in turn, something like a Spirit-Ebionism. A hard rejection of the filioque and traditional taxis would undermine the very things which Liston argues a Spirit Christology supports: our Christ-ward orientation and Christotelic momentum. Let us hasten to add that the traditional understanding of the Spirit as perfecting the activity of God ad extra militates against subordinating the Spirit to the Son. The Spirit perfects the love of God in the Augustinian schema, is the “personing person” in Liston’s view, and, as such, possesses full deity and has the same economic importance alongside the Father and Son.

To conclude, a doctrine of the Holy Spirit which does justice to the Christological orientation of the Holy Spirit in the redemptive history is one which does justice to the biblical teaching on the matter. Though the filioque can be overstated, the mutual love model is able to fund a pneumatology that lifts up rather than minimized the Spirit.

[1] Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Contours of Christian Theology; Downers Grover, IL: IVP, 1996), 77.

[2] With this argument, we are identifying the Spirit to be the bond of love. Some articulations of this model understand the Spirit as the proceeding from the prior bond of love existing between the Father and Son (e.g., Scott R. Swain, The God of the Gospel: Robert Jenson’s Trinitarian Theology [Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013], 197). This latter construal would be in more direct conflict with Liston’s “reconceived” Trinitarianism.

[3] Liston, The Anointed Church, 7.3.

[4] Cf. Liston (The Anointed Church, 7.3) for a rehearsal of this common complaint.

[5] Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 54-55.  Robert Sherman, contra Liston, holds the Irenaean ‘two-hands’ model and the filioque together (Covenant, Community, and the Spirit: A Trinitarian Theology of the Church [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015], 42-43]). Though a more staunch adherent to the filioque than Sherman, Swain also lapses into language reminiscent of the ‘two-hands’ model, which suggests that perhaps there is not as much dissonance between the two as Liston would like to suppose (The God of the Gospel, 226).

A Trinitarian and Christologically-Determined Ecclesiology: Sanctification

crossThis is my third installment of a blog series on the notion of a Trinitarian and Christologically determined doctrine of the church (or, ecclesiology). The topic which I will be discussing here is sanctification. The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides a good, brief definition of sanctification. It reads, “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (WSC Q/A 35).

I will not unpack this definition because our purposes are not narrowly concerned with sanctification but rather with sanctification as understood in relation to the church—more specifically, a Trinitarian and Christologically-determined church. So, I will ask the reader to refer back to the definition supplied if it is unclear what I mean by sanctification in what I write below.

Jesus, throughout the gospels, calls his disciples, and by proxy us, to follow him; to follow him no matter the cost—whether the loss of life, limb or family. Furthermore, by following him he meant dying to this world. In Luke 17:33, Jesus says, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” This is a paradigmatic statement; a revolutionary statement. Everything and around us is calling us to preserve ourselves, to protect ourselves. Everything in us is calling us to attempt to “keep” our own lives; to preserve our lives. Notice the emphasis on effort. We are summoned by the Devil, the World and, yes, even Ourselves, to, by our own self-sufficiency, strength, understanding, et al, make every effort to keep our own lives. Yes, Jesus says that whoever follows this path—of self-protection, self-aggrandizement, self-worship—will lose the very thing that they are seeking to preserve.

If you strive for such a thing, we are told, you do not understand anything. We have lost sight of reality; we have lost sight of that in which life consists. We must ask ourselves: is life some arbitrary thing determined by my own efforts or understanding? Or, to go at it a different way: is life something that can even be preserved, kept, by sheer effort? Or is life something else?

John Webster, a recently deceased English theologian, reminds us that God’s role as creator is essential to Christianity.[1] The locus of creation permeates many if not all different areas of theology, so he argues, and as such, we cannot have a truly rich theological outlook apart from creation. Why? The reason is that creation is a sheer gift from God. The Triune Lord ad intra created everything ad extra. Thus, creation signals something about God. God did not create out of necessity, nor did he create out of obligation; rather, he created as a free act of his creative (fecund) love. The prospect of us somehow meriting or earning our existence is impossible, never mind meriting anything else. So, we are faced then, if we accept this, something of weighty import. If we cannot earn or deserve our very existence, our very lives, than any efforts to “keep” such a thing are the height of absurdity, or, dare I say, insanity. One barely has to step outside one’s house to recognize how frail and unpredictable life is; that is, how precarious any such notion of protecting something that is already given as a gift and so easily slips out of our want of a grasp. To fall into this extreme error of protecting and striving to keep what was never yours to keep in the first place is the height of delusion. Moreover, this kind of mindset (or, perhaps better, psychosomatic, spiritual bent) collapses into the very earthly and godless mindset that Christ is implicitly condemning. To climb to the heights of such folly is to move into a functional if not real atheism; it is, in a word, to reject the living God. Let’s put it more positively: if we only take stock of what it even means to be alive, i.e., that this is a gift given by the Triune Creator, then it follows that it is only to him that we ought to (must!) entrust our lives.

This brings us to the second clause of Jesus’ statement: “…whoever loses their life will preserve it.”  Jesus is neither promoting suicide nor utter self-abnegation on the lines of merit-based asceticism. Jesus is not offering a natural law of the universe. He is not saying, “despise yourself and you will live.” Rather, he is saying something more radical. If we give up our striving to “keep” ourselves, we will, as paradoxical as it may seem, gain life. If we lose ourselves and willing relinquish our self-protectionism, if we embrace the death of our self-constructed kingdoms, lives, what-have-you, we will gain something far more precious, we will gain the author of life found in the face of Jesus Christ.

You see, Jesus is not saying this as some proverb, maxim, or law, he is speaking to the matter of discipleship, of being conformed to his image, of walking with him who is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14). He is telling his audience that if you want to have the kind of life that lasts, you have to embrace the death of yourself and trust Jesus, knowing that you will live with him eternally.

Numerous biblical passages tell us that we who believe in Christ are no longer our own but our hidden in and owned by Christ. Can you imagine being such a one and yet holding on to the idea that you have to “keep” yourself? In lieu of a detailed summary of the Bible’s teaching on this matter, for my purposes I am going to wax poetic for a minute.

When we belong to a community of believers, a church, we belong to something more than a voluntary society, than a social club, than even a family in the most normal sense of the term. We belong to a heavenly people, a Spirit-shaped, Spirit-transformed and Spirit-indwelt people. The heavenly, eschatological Spirit of God lives in our midst, giving spiritual gifts and producing spiritual fruit. Yet, there is an end, a goal to this. The Spirit is in and among us for the purpose of conforming us to the image of the Son, to the image of the once-humbled-now-risen-and-ascended-Christ (Phil 2). Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s statement is helpful. He writes:

… the world, both inside and outside the Church is always resisting being transformed into the Body of Christ … this means that crucifixion and the piercing of the heart are always going on, and God is ceaselessly wooing man in the Person of the Crucified who, for his part, can do nothing but take ‘all who receive him’ with him unto his Cross (Theo-Drama, vol. 5).

There is something painful about belonging to the body of Christ; it is not somewhere you rest content with yourself, at least not in this life. We resist being transformed to the Son for to be transformed, to be shaped by, to image Jesus is to be taken with him “unto his Cross.” The Spirit of God cuts us; he pierces our hearts. But, he does so not maliciously but rather for our good. The Spirit does so to point us to Christ, driving us to cling to him, and, if we accept that call, as we accept it, we begin to take our place on the dreaded, blood-stained execution instrument: the Cross. We must ask at this point what we are dying to. We are dying to a sin-riddled world; to the just judgment of God’s wrath against us; we are dying to the many crimes that stand against us, indicting us. This is true because the Crucified one did not decay in the grave but defeated death and is risen! And we who are united will rise as well.

Paul writes in 2 Cor 3:3:

And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

Earlier in v. 2, he says, “[y]ou yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts.” There is a mutual exchange here. The ministry of Paul among the Corinthians is a letter of recommendation of his ministry, “written … with the Spirit of the living God,” and this letter is “written on” Paul’s heart as well (and that of his fellow co-laborers). That is to say, Paul was used by the Spirit to transform the Corinthians, and, at the same time, Paul was shaped by them.

This is important for how we understanding the necessity of the church of our sanctification. The Spirit of God calls us to give up ourselves and trustingly cling to Christ by piercing our hearts with those in the church. Every time we are faced with those who part of the visible people of God gathered together, we are called to die to ourselves and live to Christ. There are two basic reasons for this. When we are confronted by someone other than ourselves, we are either encountering someone who is a “letter from Christ,” that is, who speaks of Christ, or, we are encountering someone who is “of the world.” So, in the former, we should see Christ; in the latter, we are called to love in a self-giving manner.

If we are honest with ourselves, we fail to do this. We fail to really receive a brother or sister in Christ as if we are receiving Christ; we fail to love those outside of Christ as Christ loves them. We fail to see beyond our own fears, anxieties, sorrow, or even joy. We are self-absorbed, and, it is only by the Spirit of God that we are able to ascend to the brutality that is the Cross since our thoughts, emotions, and bodies are so far beneath the sublime dignity of this rugged instrument of shame-filled death. We fail to give up our lives and walk with him, trusting that he will truly give us a life that is imperishable. The Spirit, gently yet persistently, convicts us of our lack, of our ever-persistent failure to truly heed the words of Christ, but, as he does so, he is also wooing us to embrace, to cling to Christ. It is as we see, by the Spirit, our lack of faith and love toward God and, as a direct consequence, our lack of love toward those other than ourselves, that the beauty, the glory of the Cross and, for some, the horror of it, is displayed and Christ Crucified is commended to us, and we, in turn, are invited to draw near to him. It is beauty to those who smell the sweet savor of the gospel of God’s unmerited love displayed on the Cross; it is a horror to those who discern that the Crucified Christ is calling them to die, yes, even to themselves.

Yet, let not the horror that we sometimes feel when we hear Christ’s call by his Spirit deter us from coming, from responding. Remember, despite everything that is screaming at you to turn inward, to turn against the Other, if you walk with Jesus, take up your cross, and trust him with your life, loving others as he loved you, though it may feel like death, it can only bring life for the one who you are entrusting yourself to holds “the keys of Death and Hades” and is “alive forevermore” (Rev 1:18).

 

[1] God without Measure (Bloomsbury T&T Clark), vol. 1.

The Beatific Vision and the Totus Christus

visionRecently, I have been reading a fascinating book by Hans Boersma entitled Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in the Christian Tradition. In this book, he surveys how a variety of theologians have viewed the idea of seeing God. While at this point it is not my purpose to side with one theologian’s articulation of the beatific vision over another, I would like to offer some of my own thoughts on the subject, and especially how this vision of God relates to the concept of the totus Christus (the whole Christ).

The reality is that, at the end of the day, all the suffering along under duress, under temptation, under the cares and burdens of this life, and under the distance that we feel between God and ourselves — something even the most pious of us — is a suffering that will end, that will give way to beholding God not by a trust in him who is as of now hidden from our view, but a trusting response to him who we actually see.

Yes, we will see God, I believe. But, something more must be said to make sense of this; or, better, to bring it into fuller perspective.

It is considered to be a naïve assertion both by theologians I respect and some I don’t that there was truly no death before the fall. Some argue that it is crude idealism which would posit such a scenario. It is argued: “Of course there was death before the fall. To suggest otherwise is to press the language of Scripture too literally. The type of death that was not present pre-lapse was a spiritual one.” Yet, the very naïve, idealistic understanding that death did not arrive ‘on the scene’ is what we will assume at this juncture. We would argue that both physical and spiritual death is what occurred when the first humans turned away from the living and life-giving Lord.

Romans 8:18:25 is a pivotal passage for understanding the beatific vision and its relationship to the totus Christus. It reads:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing 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 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Paul awaits the glory that will be revealed to us, the glory of God. Later, he contrasts the hope of our “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” with sight. We wait for this eschatological completion or consummation of our salvation, “the redemption of our bodies,” which is indeed the completion of our “adoption as sons.” We wait patiently and we wait with inward groaning. Yet, it is clear this waiting in hope for the completion of our salvation is not done by sight by in hope. What are we waiting to see, according to Paul? First, as we’ve said, the redemption of our bodies, or, being clothed with immortality where the sting of death is no longer felt or feared (1 Cor 15). Second, we await the revelation of the glory of God; the unveiling of God for “we shall see him as he is.”

Notice though the connection this revealing of God’s glory has with our own redemption. Just as we await the revealing of God’s glory, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (v. 19). We look forward to seeing God; creation looks forward to “the revealing of the sons of God.” Why? Because creation has been subject to the bondage of corruption (v. 20), and, it will be released from this bondage, it is implied, when the sons of God are glorified. Or, as Paul puts it, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v. 21). The creation will be set free when the sons of God are glorified, i.e., receive the “redemption of [their] bodies.” For the adopted sons “have the firstfruits of the Spirit,” the eschatological, life-giving and regenerating Holy Spirit. The new creative work begun in the sons of God is the foretaste and promise of the complete release of the entirety of creation from corruption, from death.

Death, you see, is not some benign thing; it is not something that we can just affirm as a brute fact of rather impartial significance. Rather, death is described as an enemy of God. This becomes more understandable when we take stock of who God is. Death, destruction, corruption, bondage, and the like, these are not descriptors of who God is or what he does. God is instead life-giver, regenerating agent, death-defeater, and restorer.

Imagine a life without death. Imagine a world where there is not even an ounce of corruption or decay. Imagine a world, a reality, in which life is unfettered and unhindered. God has life in himself, and, we would argue, upon defeating death finally and completely, life abounds continually. I don’t think we can really imagine such a thing. Death is always in the background if not foreground of our imagination, of our consciousness, from the first day we are conscious of anything. Without death, there would be no limits to the expansion of life.

So, I believe we await the beatific vision, but, because of what we are, beings bearing God’s image, we also participate in his glory. Christ will present his bride, the church, in splendor (Eph 5:27). Now, there is something of the deep unity that exists between Christ and his church which must inform this picture. The Whole Christ – Christ and his church – is to be glorified. We are hidden in Christ, we are Christ’s. Something of Christ will be revealed in his body, in his bride, that has never been revealed previously. Christ’s glory will shine in a peculiar manner which all of creation, all of the armies of angels, will experience for the first time. In sum, as creation, as the angelic host, looks upon the bride of Christ arrayed in splendor, being the firstfruits of a new creation, it, they, will see something more of Christ than had been formerly seen or revealed.

Christ will be shining in and through his body, his bride. So, as we look upon God, seeing him in the face of Christ, we will see something of ourselves, for we are to be glorified with, by and in him. By seeing his glory, by seeing God, we truly see ourselves. Thus, rather than pitting the beatific vision of God against our identity as image-bearers of God, we should see the two informing and expanding on each other. The beatific vision intersects with, informs and is informed by anthropology, cosmology, and soteriology. We will one day behold the Whole Christ in glory, with life and love abounding unhindered and unrestrained.

War is for the Warring: a Plea for an Ecumenical and Evangelical Theology

ecumen

The language of the Bible is a strange one mixed with metaphors and analogies drawn from many different parts of life: agriculture, athleticism, war, shepherding, and many more. There are wolves, there are sheep. There is battle and yet there is peace. There is running; there is an aim and a goal. Planting, watering, and the like are illustrative of spiritual growth. There is a unique domestication in or of these figures of speech. Most wouldn’t imagine a farmer and a soldier existing in one person, at least in equal manner. It seems clear enough that to farm is not to war, and vice versa. Nor is shepherding equivalent with farming or soldiering. There is a built-in tension to these figures of speech as they relate to other equally prolific figures of speech.

The life of the Christian, the life of one who is held up by and has placed their faith in the risen one, namely, Christ, is the life of a farmer, warrior, shepherd, athlete, and, perhaps most offensively, a weak, dependent child. The tension that exists speaks to the theological (or ideological, political, social, ethical) discourse with which we find ourselves engaging. If we are both a child and a warrior, a child and an athlete, subduing our body by training, then what does this say about ourselves as theologians?

By using the word ‘theologian’ I am using the broad sense, that is, every Christian is a theologian. Yes, this has been reduced to something of a truism, but the depth of this cannot be missed. If one is a thinking being, which all human beings are (and one cannot be a Christian without existing as a human being), then one naturally formulates thoughts, i.e., theologizes about God, the world, oneself, and many and various other objects of reflection. This theologizing can be for better or for worse, and it would be wrong to abstract theology from worship. What we think reflects what we love, and what we love reflects what we worship, though obviously it is the greatest love which we most readily and obviously worship.

So, if we are all in at least the broad sense (yet, by broad sense, this denotes the least escapable sense) theologians, then what does it mean to be a warrior-child theologian or a farmer-athlete theologian or a shepherd-child theologian. To put it colloquially, shoot what should be shot and tend and help grow what needs growing and tending. Be patient with things deserving patience yet be militant against that which needs to be warred against.

This brings me to my plea, as suggested in the title, a plea toward an ecumenical, evangelical theology. It is not common for me to use labels to describe my own stance, and I have done this for a reason. Labels often admit of caricature more readily than they do of nuance. I am much more inclined to describe my position than to say, “I am a so and so.” Unfortunately, it is our human tendency to war against that which needs tending and care, and shepherd, in turn, our own pride and sectarianism(s). When we reverse God’s priorities and love and worship, indeed adulate over, ourselves in our theological musings, we pervert the great and wonderful beauty that ought to characterize theology.

So, to put it on the table, which labels would I most easily attach to myself? First (non-belligerently), Christian, if by Christian one means one who believes in the risen and exalted Son of God, sent by the Father, and empowered and carried along by the Holy Spirit. Second, I would describe myself as catholic. Catholic in this context denotes universal; that is, I see myself in broad agreement with and part of the universal church. Third, I would describe myself as Reformed. Now, of the labels I have used, this is the most controversial. I can almost hear it in my ears, “You mean, you believe that we are robots? You believe that God only loves the elect and died for them and no one else?” It’s easy to see now why I would be reticent to use any label other than ‘a mere Christian.’

Having moved through that unpleasantness, I would like to elaborate a bit further. I am a ecumenically and evangelically-oriented Reformed person. By ecumenical, I am emphasizing the universal (‘catholic’) orientation of my faith; by evangelical, I am emphasizing a living, real faith in the real, living God who has revealed himself in Scripture, and, comprehensively, in his Son (Heb 1).

There is a question that looms in my mind with all this. Why stay Reformed? Why inhabit a theological space that in many circles is known to be belligerent, full of hubris, cantankerous and dreadfully comfortable with such hauntingly wrong (or, grossly aberrant) views about God (seen esp. in the majority Reformed adherence to so-called limited atonement).

To start with, I am (at present) fully convinced of my Reformed stance, and, as such, I believe that the best of every competing perspective can be incorporated into this stance without modification to the point of departing from the essence of the stance. Now, some reader may present the counter-argument that I can only assert this because I am shouting in an echo chamber and all I hear is my own voice and that of my compatriots. Perhaps.

I want to be clear on one thing. Notice the phrasing I just used: … without modification to the point of departing from the essence …. . I would be hopeless theologically if I thought that Reformed theology was in no need of modification, correction or challenge. Rather, I believe quite the opposite. All theology, this side of glory (as some say), is anticipatory and as such incomplete. Put simply, all theology must admit of imperfection, no matter how dutiful, precise, thorough and the like a thinker or theologian may be. I read and will continue to read thinkers both within the Reformed tradition and without who challenge and seek to correct perceived errors or incomplete formulations, and, by God’s grace and the leading of his Spirit, I will continue to incorporate these corrections, when they prove sound, into my own theology.

So, I offer my plea most forcibly at this point. I believe that in my own person and thinking I am striving to live out a theology that is both evangelical and ecumenical in orientation. I believe that this is a necessary aspect of being an honest theologian (whether broadly or narrowly construed) for the Christian life consists of a balance between a warrior and a child, an athlete and a farmer. Furthermore, I cannot, in good conscience, suggest that one’s understanding of the universal (catholic) Christian faith is not a living faith if it does not fit the mold of my own lived out faith. This does not give way to relativism in theology; truth is real and it does matter. Rather, it suggest that because theology is necessarily an incomplete and as such imperfect endeavor we must exercise great caution, humility and, most of all, love when evaluating the theological claims of others, while at the same time recognizing that there are claims to truth which must be warred against for they clearly depart from or destroy the Christian faith. On the other hand, some claims are much less malevolent in intent and rather need to be dealt with as the farmer tills the soil, that is, patiently, for behind claims of this type lay a person the tending and care of whom is a worthy, noble and beautiful thing indeed.

A Trinitarian & Christologically Determined Ecclesiology: the Essential Role of the Holy Spirit

churchDespite delays, we continue in our series on the Trinitarian and Chistologically determined doctrine of the church (short hand: ecclesiology). Because the Holy Spirit is a vital part of this theological endeavor, we will spend this post fleshing out the Holy Spirit’s person and work in some detail.

To begin with, Jesus, in the gospel of John, speaks of “another helper” (14:16 ESV), who, it becomes clear, is “the Spirit of truth” (v. 17; 15:26), that is, the Holy Spirit (14:25). Before we go into depth as to the meaning of “helper,” a few other things must be noted.

The Spirit comes from the Father and he will be with God’s people “forever” (14:16). Moreover, there is fellowship between the Spirit and the people of God and antagonism between the Spirit and “the world,” which can be understood in this context as that which is opposed to the things of God. We read in John 14:17:

… the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

The Spirit is not only sent by the Father, but also comes in the name of Christ, the Son of God (14:26). The Spirit, Jesus tells us, has irrevocable importance in the economy, the plan of salvation for “he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Moreover, the Spirit, whom Jesus himself “will send from the Father” (15:26), will “bear witness about [Jesus].” Jesus further elaborates on the role of the Holy Spirit:

… he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

There is much that could be said about this, but, for brevity’s sake, we’ll note a few things. First, the Spirit will speak to unbelief toward Jesus. Second, the Spirit will speak of Christ’s true identity as the risen, ascended and exalted one. Third, the Spirit will speak of the eschatological judgement of God against the “ruler of this world” and therefore implicitly of those who still belong to this world.

Further, we hear in typical Johannine fashion that the Spirit does not speak of his own authority, but only what he hears (this same language is used of Jesus’ relationship to the Father throughout the gospel of John). The Spirit glorifies the Son just as the Son glorifies the Father. Put differently, to behold the Spirit is to behold the Triune God; indeed, to behold any of the persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) is to be drawn toward the others for without the others, we do not understand the one—without the Holy Spirit we do not know the Son, without the Son we do not know the Father, and without the Father we do not know the Son or the Spirit.

Throughout Jesus’ statements on the Holy Spirit, it is clear that they are couched in the broader context of Jesus’ coming ascension (cf. e.g., 14:1-3, 18, 28; 16:7). Most strikingly, he tells his disciples that it is to their (and our) “advantage” that Jesus ascends, leaving his disciples behind. Why? Because by going, he will in turn send the Holy Spirit. Christ does not leave room for a Christology without a Pneumatology or a Christomonism where the Spirit is treated as some obscure, less-than-important person. Rather, the sending of the Spirit for the sake of God’s people and for the world is of utmost importance; indeed, were Jesus to remain on the earth, not ascending, it would be to our complete detriment!

To summarize, the Spirit teachings, guides, instructs God’s people; he convicts regarding unbelief, vindicates Christ, the ascended one, and impresses on our heats the coming judgment, already begun. The Spirit, moreover, witnesses to Christ, is sent by and is in union with the Father and the Son in his ad extra work, and, he glorifies the Son. This brings us then to the Spirit’s identity as the “helper.”

This is a difficult word for translators, which in the Greek is παράκλητος. Louw-Nida (L&N) summarizes the problem well:

The principal difficulty encountered in rendering παράκλητος is the fact that this term covers potentially such a wide area of meaning. The traditional rendering of ‘Comforter’ is especially misleading because it suggests only one very limited aspect of what the Holy Spirit does. A term such as ‘Helper’ is highly generic and can be particularly useful in some languages. In certain instances, for example, the concept of ‘Helper’ is expressed idiomatically, for example, ‘the one who mothers us’ or, as in one language in Central Africa, ‘the one who falls down beside us,’ that is to say, an individual who upon finding a person collapsed along the road, kneels down beside the victim, cares for his needs, and carries him to safety. A rendering based upon the concept of legal advocate seems in most instances to be too restrictive … (1:141).

Johannes Behm (TDNT 5:813-814) and G. Braumann (NIDNTT 1:89-91) agree to the difficulty of conveying the sense of παράκλητος in John 14-16, yet they do see “helper” as the most adequate of the translation choices available. This is mainly due to the fact that helper is general enough to capture the other nuances that could be being conveyed by the word. With that said, the gloss provides by L&N should be kept in mind when one reads Jesus’ teaching on the Spirit in John 14-16: ‘Helper, Encourager, Mediator’ (1:141).

The Spirit brings to bear on the hearts and minds of people the reality of God; in particular the reality of God the Father seen in the face of Jesus Christ.[1] The Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son. The Spirit comforts, assists, guides, and convicts the believer; but, this must be stressed again, the Spirit does not do so in abstraction but rather the Spirit does so by declaring the things of Christ, which are, in turn, the things of the Father. Here, the vital and necessary connection between the ascended Christ and the given Holy Spirit cannot be missed or minimized. The Spirit is the Spirit of the ascended Christ and Christ is in and with us by his Holy Spirit; truly, both the Father and the Son are in us by the Holy Spirit. We are able to know and enjoy rich fellowship with the Triune God because of the Holy Spirit. Put differently, it is because of the essential ministry of the Holy Spirit that we are able to apprehend the face of the ascended Christ by faith and, through Christ, the Father (John 14:6, 10-11).

We will briefly look at Eph 4 to close this portion of our discussion. Paul tells us that the unity between believers is one established by the Spirit (v. 3). Moreover, Paul writes, “one body and one Spirit.” The connection between the body of Christ and the Holy Spirit is not an accidental one. Rather, it is purposeful and in fact another way of stating his connection between the unity of the body and the Spirit in the preceding verse.

Put negatively, there would not be the body of Christ without the Spirit, who holds together the body; for if, following Paul’s metaphor, the Spirit holds together the body in unity and the body is said to be “joined and held together,” then it follows that the Spirit is the one who is responsible for this, otherwise a disjointed and dysfunctional body would be the result (or perhaps some sort of vegetative state). Now, to be clear, the Spirit is not working independently of Christ, the head of the body, but neither is the Spirit somehow subpar or unimportant. Rather, the Spirit is that very grace given by Christ to equip the saints (vv. 7, 12; cf. Matt 7:11 // Lk 11:13) and bring forth the unity and maturity that Paul envisions.

As we mentioned in the introduction to our series, the Holy Spirit is undivided in purpose with the Father and the Son in the redemption of human beings, whether this redemption is construed in forensic or transformational terms (or, preferably, both). With the picture that the John 14-16, Eph 4 and numerous other texts give us (e.g., Rom 8), it should be without a doubt that the Holy Spirit is not a “third wheel” with regard to how we are to understand the doctrine of the church. In sharp contrast to such thinking, the Spirit, as God himself in and with us, glorifies and witnesses to the Son, with the latter bringing us to a vision of the Father. Already, we have seen to some degree and will see further as we progress that to neglect the Spirit is to distort grace, the spiritual gifts given for the church, the relationship between God  and the world, and even our very salvation. By placing this emphasis on the Spirit, we are placing our emphasis on the Trinitarian determination of our ecclesiology for to move toward the Spirit is to, if understood correctly, be propelled toward the Son and the Father.

[1] We are unable to give reference to the biblical data supporting some of what will follow due to time constraints.