Monday, July 8, 2013

Moving to a New URL & Hopefully Becoming More Active

I have decided to move my blogging habit elsewhere (and hopefully revitalize it in the process). From now on, my personal blog page will have its own domain: If you still wish to follow, scroll to the bottom on that page and you'll find a subscribe box where you can enter your email address.

It is my intention in the coming weeks and months to be writing a bit more frequently, generally about topics I am reading and researching—most recently about the sixteenth and seventeenth century debates over the extent of the atonement, for a class. But in keeping with the intention of this site all along, I hope to write at least as much on broader theological issues than just what I am researching. See you there!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Biblical Inerrancy & The Acting God

A reply I wrote to a blog post on Red Letter Christians about biblical inerrancy:
The question for me is: how much of God *himself* is actually bound up in what Zack is calling imperfect—such that denying the bible's inerrancy on the matter constitutes a denial of something about the identity of God himself?
Another way of putting my concern is: if as Christians we believe God's very identity to be bound up with his act, with what he has done in the history of his creation, then how can we allow for the denial of the bible's accuracy at least on certain points of history without actually denying something about God himself? It's all very well, perhaps, to say with reference to the story of Noah that the narrative reveals the "truth" that God "watches over and cares for his creation even in the midst of a storm"—but this is basically an allegorization; it treats the Noah story as a fable with a kernel of abstract and general theological truth, and not as an actual account of God's acts of judgment and merciful redemption (which is precisely what that narrative describes the flood to be, however unpalatable it might seem as history to the modern reader).
We might feel like we can get away with that to an extent when we're dealing with Noah—call it a theologically astute re-reading of ancient near eastern flood myths or something of that sort. But what about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? What about Moses and David? For the Israelite, the very identity of God was bound up with the fact that he, YHWH, had in historical fact delivered them from slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. This historical action on God's part, coupled with his historic covenantal promises at Sinai, formed the basis of Israelite faith—that God would be true to his covenant and that he would rescue his people from further disobedience. He was and is, forever, "YHWH who brought us out of Egypt." Nothing less than this is at stake for Christians too, since the central confession of our faith is precisely that within our own history, our own time and space, God himself took up our broken humanity, in order to renew and restore it through the historical events of his life and ministry, his death, his resurrection, ascension, and future coming.
In other words, biblical faith is rooted in time and in space, in the concrete action of God in time and in space to carry forward his saving purposes in the world. We confess faith by confessing what God has done. The denial that chips away gradually at his concrete and historical action amounts to nothing less than a diminution of the very identity of the living and acting God himself—for inasmuch as God's identity is bound up with his act, with his judgments and mercies in time and in space, his identity is subject to the historical veracity of those events. The God who did not really and actually bring Israel out of Egypt; the God who did not really and actually bring forth from the dead his Son, Jesus our Lord—is not the true and living God of the bible, and if we cannot trust in the actuality of these events, we cannot claim to be placing our faith in this God. We may be putting our faith in *a* god, but it could hardly be him. God has put his very identity at stake in the question of whether certain historical events have or have not happened.
The point I am making, I think, is simply that our faith does indeed have its grounding in the bible itself—in its basic historical accuracy, granted the difference between ancient and modern conventions of historiography—and that it is not for this reason anything less than faith in God himself. For God has pledged his very identity, has staked his very identity, on what he has done—on the becoming flesh of his own identity in time and in space. Perhaps what I am pleading for, at any rate, is that our discussion of inerrancy not fail to recognize that something *is* at stake when we talk about the bible's accuracy, even if that something is not what the evangelicalism of the past century or so has made it out to be. We would do well to consider the question: how much "error" can the bible admit while still giving us the same God, as anything more than a fantasy? I cannot back down from affirming the bible's truthfulness about certain things, at least, because the God I worship is none other than the God whose identity comes to expression and fulfillment in historical flesh and blood.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Defining the Cross

I've been reading a lot about the atonement over the past few months, and keeping a research journal in which I write my thoughts and reactions to what I read. (It just hit 50 pages yesterday!) At times the tone of it becomes more devotional than scholarly, and that felt particularly true this morning. I tried to distill my thoughts down to a compact definition, on which I would then expand. It's incomplete and at times the paragraphs are disjointed from each other (such is often the case in these research journals), but I felt like sharing what was for me a source of profound wonder and awe at the love and goodness of God:

This is why Jesus was put to death in the economy of God’s salvation: so that our old humanity—the flesh, subject to the power of Sin and Death—would be destroyed,  so that sins could therefore be justly forgiven among those who share in that death,* and so that the new humanity of Jesus’ risen life would be manifested in its place by the Spirit, and the new creation begin.
All that Jesus has accomplished may be placed within this definition without stretching it; on the contrary, the complexity and diversity of our descriptions ought to adorn this basic understanding. 
In accomplishing this death upon the cross, Jesus is at once the substitute, representative, expiation, propitiation, ransom, victor, satisfaction, high priest, mercy seat, son of man & king of creation, image of God, savior, redeemer, mediator, servant, friend, son of David, passover lamb of God, glory of God, Word of God, wisdom and foolishness of God—Son of God.
This achievement constitutes the fulfillment of human destiny in the son of man—the long awaited kingdom of God, the reign of the Most High over all creation, has been inaugurated through the self-sacrificial love of the son of David, the king of the Jews, who rules the world as Word of God in his willingness to suffer and to forgive, entrusting himself to the power and faithfulness of God his Father over and against all of the evil, suffering, and darkness of the world and its powers. He is our true humanity, the humanity to which we are called, but which in our sin we have forsaken. Jesus is the death of our sins that commands our death to sin; he is the life that brings to light our life in him; he is our Prince and our pattern and our path; he is God’s word of forgiveness to us and the thwarting of every power over us that made forgiveness impossible. He is the very heart of God, the truth of who God is, hanging in weakness upon the torturous contrivances of our knowledge of good and evil and responding to our rebellion and rejection and self-assertion with nothing but “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”
I deem the plethora of titles and images with which we may adorn his precious name to be fitting—not because of the inexplicability of his accomplishment on the cross (as many a theologian of postmodern sympathies would argue) but because of the magnitude of what he has achieved. How can the profundity of this act, even if simply grasped and explicable to a child, ever be fathomed or ever be exhausted?
*[fn: Justly, because forgiving them no longer entails a capitulation to and a perpetuation of the power of Sin.]

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Luther's Insults

A friend shared a really funny website with me today: Luther's Insults. Imagine if theologians today still wrote these kinds of things...

Monday, September 24, 2012

So-Called "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" A Forgery?

According to Francis Watson, biblical scholar at Durham University, the recently disclosed Coptic fragment, now called "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife," is in all likelihood a modern forgery, based on its correspondences with The Gospel of Thomas. See Watson's essay here.

This is, of course, not making quite so many headlines.

On Mark Goodacre's blog some comments from Richard Bauckham (formerly of St. Andrews) are of note. He finds Watson's argument "very convincing":

It is of course quite possible that an ancient writer could have produced the text by this process of compilation from the Gospel of Thomas.... But what Watson's argument shows is how easy it would have been for a modern forger to produce this text. In my mind that combines with the other reasons for thinking this papyrus text is very suspicious, viz., the "Zeitgeist" and "too good to be true".... It is just too good to be true that this tiny fragment happens to preserve the words in which Jesus says "my wife" and thereby feeds into all the popular feeling about Jesus and Mary Magdalene that has been swirling around since at least the Da Vinci Code. The massive coverage of this new fragment in the press and on the internet is itself evidence for the "Zeitgeist" and "too good to be true" criteria for inauthenticity. Of course, we're only dealing in improbabilities. History being what it is, extraordinarily improbable coincidences do happen.
Bauckham also makes an observation of note about the dating of the text:

It occurs to me we've missed something that Watson's argument really does demonstrate: that the text of this fragment (whether ancient or modern) was composed in Coptic, not translated from Greek. The Nag Hammadi Gospels and related texts were translated from Greek. So this is at best a late, not an early 'Gnostic" text, dependent on the Coptic version of Thomas. Not, therefore late 2nd century, as Karen King suggests. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Problems With Piper

In the past week I've been reading two books - one for a class, one for my own edification - and have found the interplay of the two in my thoughts both surprising and compelling. Or, more accurately, I've found it interesting to watch the ideas of one writer (as far as I understand them) bring unforeseen critique upon the other (as far as I understand him), in a way that I had never before considered.

The first book is John Piper's The Supremacy of God in Preaching. As far as Piper's books go, this one is more or less par for the course, in ways that are both good and bad. You have the deeply good and true conviction that the end of all things is God's glory; that humanity plays a part in this glory, a part that encompasses the totality of their being (but especially their affections and desires); that the task of sharing the word of God not only involves but is singularly devoted to impressing upon hearers the true greatness of majesty of God in such a way as evokes their reverence and awe and humble adoration.

On the other hand, you have the usual difficulties with Piper that stem from his attempt to situate any and every biblical idea within his own scheme of "Christian hedonism" - for example, a totally non-biblical definition of the concept, "the righteousness of God"; the reduction of authentic spirituality to certain feelings about God in apparent opposition to actions taken in obedience to God; also the myopic focus on individual spirituality which follows from this reduction. (One is left wondering, at times, what really distinguishes some of Piper's views from the German liberal Adolf von Harnack's diminishment of Christianity's "essence" to the solitary interplay of "God and the soul, the soul and its God.")

My interest is not so much in this particular book by Piper as it is with Piper's scheme of thought more broadly. I used to be quite enamored of our Baptist brother from Minnesota, embracing his scheme of "Christian hedonism" more or less wholesale, believing that it offered a wonderful freedom to Christians who were perhaps inclined to see their deepest desires and God's glory as being at odds with one another. This, he shows, is manifestly untrue. "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him" is the continual refrain of Piper's book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and at least at the time, I fully agreed with him.

But this pairing of superlatives (God is most glorified when we are most satisfied) is markedly incomplete. As I said, this is a myopic outlook on God's glory - it centers in on one thing and one thing only, the individual interiority in its apprehension of God, and situates the glory of God there, in radically exclusive terms. No wonder Piper speaks very little in Desiring God (or in The Supremacy of God in Preaching, or in most of his other books for that matter) about the Christian community, about the corporate context to which Paul is speaking when he talks about "Christ in you [plural] the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27). His vision of what is the core of the Christian life can never make the (I would say irreducibly) collective dimensions of that life anything other than incidental. Worse still, the exclusivity of this pairing of God's glory with my emotions has the ultimate effect of generating an all-consuming concern, not with God himself, nor with the neighbor whom I am to love in God's name, but with how I myself "feel" about God. If the be-all and end-all of Christian life is God's glory through my satisfaction in him, it seems that my sense of satisfaction cannot but become the center of my attention, because all else depends on it.

And this is where the other book I've been reading this past week becomes relevant. The second book is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics. Though the book remains incomplete in its final form (Bonhoeffer died before he could finish it), I am certain that it is nonetheless to be counted among the most significant theological works of the twentieth century. Particularly the first chapter, with its opening punch to the ethical gut of the modern man ("The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge."), issues a challenge to all human thinking and acting in the world, but not least to presumptuous Christians with a penchant for fabricating their own legalistic structures of piety. At the heart of Bonhoeffer's understanding of the ethical life lies the conviction that "the good" is not something the human mind is capable of apprehending apart from the revealed knowledge of God, because any form of knowledge, however noble and admirable, which does not recognize everything that "is" to be what it is within the unity of knowledge that is God the creator, is (a) fundamentally out of touch with reality, and (b) a reflection of my mastery over existence by my own intuition and understanding, rather than an acknowledgment of the dependency of all things on God for definition and direction.

In connection with this, Bonhoeffer warns away the attempt of Christians to "know their goodness," particularly by constructing a conscious scheme within which they might perceive how fully and successfully they honor their God. There is, for Bonhoeffer, one thing and one thing only when it comes to being in a right relationship with God: accepting the love of God in Jesus Christ, and choosing to "know thyself" only and ever only as one who is, at base, "chosen and loved by God" (we could say, 'justified by faith'). Within this secure self-knowledge which is really just one aspect of our broader knowledge of God, we become hearers and doers of God's word, and we become shameless in our doing of it - that is to say, our repeated question is not "what is the principle for which I must strive, that forms the basis of God's glory in my life, and of which I must continually fear falling short?" Rather, knowing ourselves to be totally accepted in Christ already, we then ask, "What is the will of God?" and we do it as it becomes clear to us, not giving thought to standards, schemes, and measures that might try to evaluate the purity of our action or intention. Within this picture Bonhoeffer includes the love of God - his love for us in Jesus Christ, the very same love that becomes our own as we receive it and respond to it in faith. To love God and others, for Bonhoeffer, is to think, feel, and act out of our acceptance of God's love for man in Jesus Christ, not simply to "reply" to God with some separate and independent love of our own, whose quality we are wont to measure and tweak and tend and keep.

Bonhoeffer's picture, even of the Christian's affections, centers in on God's lordship over us through Jesus Christ, and our apprehension of that lordship as the ground of all our affections. In contrast with this, Piper confuses God's lordship over us with our affections. In his scheme of "Christian hedonism," what occupies center stage is not the Lord of lords himself, but my emotions about this lord; accordingly, this scheme in practice has more to do with my lordship (my mastery over my emotions about God, who will not be glorified unless I feel really, really, really, really good about him all the time, and who is being horrendously dishonored if I feel anything less) than it does with God's. For all his knocking of Immanuel Kant (whose view of the matter he misunderstands, incidentally), Piper's "ethic" of the Christian life is every bit as duty-based and liable to enslave, even if Piper is able to make convenient additions about how God forgives our failure and how the Holy Spirit empowers our affections by grace.

To illustrate, let's consider how this plays out within the act of worship. In the days of my enthusiasm for Christian hedonism, I became increasingly concerned with the degree to which I found God desirable during church services. That, after all, seemed to be the "objective," in light of what Piper was saying. Now of course, one finds that the quickest way to obliterate an emotion is by focusing all attention on the emotion itself. (C.S. Lewis said something like this about anger, I think?) Many a worship service, therefore, became a wrestling match, an all-out war for my attention in which I was held in suspension between the awareness of two realities, both of which drew my attention, ironically, away from the God I was worshiping: (1) that I could only feel emotional about God if all my attention was fixed on him, and (2) that deficiency in such emotions amounted to dishonoring God. The nagging sense of these twin realities would turn many a worship service into a frantic, affective triage. What seemed at first glance like freedom became, instead, slavery.

Bonhoeffer invites us to something different. His proposal does not have fundamentally to do with our affective capacities, but delves deeper into that on which all our affections should be situated: the knowledge of God, and the knowing of all things only "in him." God is not most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him - he is most glorified in us when we forsake the knowing of good and evil that is involved in scrutinizing whether our love for him is satisfying, and take hold of his love for us in Jesus Christ, knowing ourselves and all our feeble affections only within that love that embraces us no matter how we are feeling at present. Our self-awareness in worship then becomes a way of being aware of God and his goodness and his grace. And, wonderfully enough, the issue of this awareness is thankfulness and gratitude to God (something, incidentally, that Piper lambastes as a driving force for religious affection in Brothers, We Are Not Professionals), and this in turn issues in joy - the joy of knowing this God's unfathomable love, and of knowing myself and all my affections within that love, needing to do nothing to earn or obtain it, capable of doing nothing to magnify or diminish it. This kind of self-awareness, the self-awareness of the justified man, readily widens itself out to include others - not only I, but we, the justified, adopted and loved children of God, worship the one who loved us and freed us by his blood, contrary to the muddle of affections (to say nothing of our other sins and flaws) in which we daily live out our lives. How true and how freeing is this love, and how much more evocative of my delight than a distracting preoccupation with my emotions about God, needlessly endured because of my ignorance of the antecedent reality of God's incorruptible glory in the acceptance of sinners (such as myself, however I feel) in Jesus Christ! 

Maybe Piper would agree with everything I just said. But the point is, whatever his intentions, I fear that people will (as I did) put down Desiring God with the impression that their own emotions and experience of God rather than God himself occupy pride of place in the Christian life. Surely this is not what Piper intends, but it is nevertheless where I feel his emphases (at least in his book) incline us. For Bonhoeffer, a maxim like "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him" would be inherently dangerous if it were meant in any way to constitute a directive for our spiritual lives - such maxims pose the danger of demanding of us an ongoing self-reliance whereby we differentiate ourselves tirelessly from ourselves again and again, scrutinizing our emotions and actions to determine by our judgment whether they are pleasing to God. We quite simply do not need schemes and principles such as this, because the business of our lives as Christians is not to take the temperature of our emotions and flagellate ourselves according to their deficiency (as Piper revels in doing, it seems, in a number of his books), but to know that we are loved by God in such a way as delves far beneath our temporary abilities and inabilities to feel a certain way about him. His acceptance, his love, and his glory are equally often magnified, it seems, in that he embraces us and draws us near to himself in spite of what we feel, and does not allow the transience of our emotions to impede him.