Everybody Wants to be Christocentric, But What Does that Even Mean?

christ pantokrator“Our theology ought to be truly Christocentric.”

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that phrase used, nodded along, and then had to stop and ask myself, “Okay, but what does that even mean?”

Apparently I’m not the only one.

In a short article entitled “A Note on ‘Christocentrism’ and the Imprudent Use of Such Terminology” [WTJ 68 (2006): 253-60], Richard A. Muller registers a number of prudent protests about the contemporary discussions about whether certain kinds of Reformed theology are “truly christocentric” enough. Mostly this has to do with in-house conversations that started in the 20th century about whether there was a major difference between Calvin’s “Christocentric” theology and that of later theologians like Beza and the Post-Reformation Orthodox who followed. Calvin was supposed to be a good, pre-Barthian Christocentric theologian, while the rest of the tradition unfortunately took a wrong turn and based all their theology around God’s predestinarian decree, making things lopsided and decidedly un-Christocentric.

Without getting into all the details of Muller’s article and the Reformational historiography (which has largely put the aforementioned myth to bed), one the main benefits of Muller’s discussion is calling attention to the rhetorical gamesmanship that gets played when people throw the term around as a trump card: “Well, I’m just being Christocentric in my theology.” As if anyone doesn’t want to be “Christocentric”? Indeed, if you cruised through history and asked any major theological figure, especially in the Reformed tradition, “Are you trying to be Christocentric or centered on something else?”, I’ll give you to ten to one that all of them will answer, “Of course, I’m Christocentric. Jesus is everything to me.”

What’s even more helpful, though, is the attention he calls to the equivocation and confusion around the term that muddles things. “Given that such diverse figures as Irenaeus, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, Jerome Zanchi, Jacob Arminius, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Ι. Α. Dorner, Gottfried Thomasius, E. V Gerhart, Henry B. Smith, William Adams Brown, and Karl Barth have been described as christocentric thinkers, some distinction is most surely necessary” (254).

And so, in order to clear the ground for a more helpful use of the term, Muller gives a taxonomy or typology of at least three kinds of christocentrism that scholars could be using to describe a theologian.

First, there’s what he calls “soteriological” christocentrism. Basically, on this view, a theologian or theology is Christocentric if it confesses that Jesus Christ is central to the process and work of salvation. At this point, unless you’re essentially a Pelagian, a radical liberal, or something on that order, most traditional, Christian theology qualifies as Christocentric at this foundational level.

Second, he says there is a kind of which places a “systematizing emphasis on the Adam-Christ typology and the priority of Christ over Adam.” He calls this “prototypical” christocentrism in that there is importance given beyond Christ as savior, to Christ as a logically and theologically prior to Adam in the plan of God for history. You can find this in the “incarnation-anyways” line of theology, or in the theology of Irenaeus or Scotus and Fransiscan order.

Third, he dubs “principial” christocentrism in that it makes Christ the “principle” of theology, building on the last two “still more speculatively, that the Christ-idea must be used as the interpretive key to understanding and elucidating all doctrinal topics.” Forms of this can be spotted in the liberal tradition from Schleiermacher onwards, which makes the Christ event a central, often corrective, interpretive grid over Scripture, and the rest of theology. In some cases, Christ is the only revelation. Barth, in a different way, is a chief representative of this type, though he has been (fairly or not) accused of more than christocentrism, but rather, christomonism (on which, I have little bit here).

Given these varieties of “christocentrisms”, it does seem wise to have some handy terms like this and be clear about what we mean when we use them. Especially since Muller notes that it is largely this last, historically-novel form that has been assumed in various discussions, and then used as the standard by which previous theologies have been judged, instead of taken on their own terms.

One more point that ought to be brought out is the way the issue of Scriptural interpretation plays a role in all of this. Muller brings out the various “christocentrisms” with respect to the structure of theological systems. And that’s good, but this also bleeds out into the issue of have a christocentric or “Christ-centered” hermeneutic. In other words, what do we mean when we say we read all of Scripture in light of Christ? How do these three types of christocentrism match up (if at all) with different approaches to typology and so forth? Can you only be christocentric in the first sense and still affirm a “Christ-centered” reading of Scripture, or do you have to buy into the second and third kinds as well?

Are we talking about seeing Christ as the fulfillment of all the prior history of revelation in a way that still acknowledges it as true revelation? Or about all prior revelation as somehow pointing to Christ and therefore legitimately read as testimony to Christ? Do we see all of Scripture pointing to Christ, then, because the eternal Son, through the Spirit, by the will of the Father is actually the active agent of revelation throughout all of redemptive history?

Or are we talking about Christ as a corrective revelation that sort of overlays prior revelation in a way that is disjunctive and discounts earlier portions as lesser, false, and in many ways misguided? Is the event of Christ, then, the only truly true revelation? In other words, we’re back the issue of the Jesus-Lens or the Jesus-Tea-Strainer and the theological presuppositions that go along with them.

Not that we’ve solved anything here, but I don’t think there’s enough clear thinking around this in popular writing on the issue.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Cross Between the World and Me

betweenAfter a number of months of having it on my to-do list, I finally got around to reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Written as an extended letter to his teenage son, Samori, it is part memoir, part manifesto, and part social history, giving voice to Coates’ experience growing up Black in America—with all the ironies, tragedies, dangers, and, yes, joys that affords.

I guess I read it for some familiar reasons. Like many, I’ve read Coates’ thoughtful and provocative pieces on race, justice, and public policy at The Atlantic. My curiosity was provoked by the wide variety of conflicting reviews of it, ranging from fawning praise to cynical rejection.

I’d like to say the biggest reason I read it was to try to and better understand my friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ, my fellow Image-bearers, who live, day to day, in a different set of skin than I have. At least, as much as reading a book can help with that. If I’m honest, I think it’s important to kids like me (having grown up in schools reading about the Civil Rights era) to stay “woke” about the reality of race in America. And I say this as someone not typically prone to liberal, white guilt, since I’m not liberal (being raised conservative), nor white (being Arab/Palestinian and Hispanic, a first-generation, somewhat Brown man born in the States).

The experience—because it’s something of an experience reading Coates—was challenging, nonetheless, both emotionally and intellectually. As a theology student, it’s become impossible to avoid reading texts like this in theological perspective and processing them in that fashion. But I don’t think I have to stretch things too much to see the work as a deeply theological one. Indeed, despite his avowed atheism, I found much of Coates’ analysis down-right Pauline.

In what follows, I’d simply like to note some the broadly theological points of contact with and criticism of Coates work and the Christian gospel. None of what I say will be ground-breaking or likely that eye-opening. All the same, I do feel the need to process this as best I know how, so here goes.

The Body

My first impression was related to the feature of the work that almost every commentator I’ve read has touched on: the viscerality and physicality of its anthropology. Coates’ writes constantly of the experience, the value, the suffering, the reality of living in the black body. Philosophically this flows in part from Coates’ materialism, but there’s more to it than that.

With story, with carefully chosen metaphor, and torrentially applied adjectives and verbs, Coates aims to communicate the experience, the consciousness of living as a black body who can be taken, dominated, used, threatened, destroyed, and plundered at all times with seeming impunity. The hardness, the constant fear, then, of growing up on the streets of Baltimore, is not merely psychological, but physiological, welling up in your bones, your muscles, tendons, and instincts too close, too raw, too ingrained by force of history, experience, and even birth to be a strictly philosophical reality.

In attempting to understand, we instinctively reach for analogous situations, even if they don’t quite fit. The closest I’ve come is thinking about life in post-9/11 as an Arab in the States with the last name Rishmawy. I remember getting called sand-nigger, dune-coon, and Taliban on the football field where I got speared in the back for being a “Palestinian.” I remember the chilly sweat that broke out on my skin at the airport, when the guard at the metal detector told me I’d “be in a world of hurt” if the detector went off again when I walked through. As I thought about rendition stories I’d read about, it didn’t matter that I had my cross necklace and Bible in my backpack and coming home from a mission trip—the threat to my young, Arab body coursed in every nerve of my soul. It was a reality bodily and yet more than simply bodily. But again, it’s only an analogy.

In any case, throughout the whole work, every time he spoke of bodies I kept thinking through the dynamic of flesh/body (or sarx/soma) in the New Testament. At times, these terms can simply refer to the physical, biological material of the person—flesh and bones. But most biblical scholars will point out that more often than not, these terms are more of a complex of the spiritual and historical forces that are located within our lived, physical reality. In Paul, the sarx can refer the corpse as the site of the created and fallen dimensions of human experience and nature apart from Christ, while the body is often referring to embodied, human experience in the renewed sphere of the Spirit in Christ.

As I noted, Coates’ viscerality is quite materialist—his description of the spirit and the soul as the charge flowing through his nerves is formally reductionistic in that the physics of the body are all there is. But in another way, his emphasis is quite biblical, even Pauline. Christians confess in their creed, not merely the immortality of the soul (though we affirm it), but the resurrection of the body in its fully physical, material, social, and historical dimensions. To certain forms of spirituality and philosophy, Christianity’s focus on resurrection can appear crassly materialistic. But for Paul, what we do in the body, not merely in our “spirits”, matters. We were created and redeemed, body and soul, at a price–so the body is an object of moral concern and a site of moral care (1 Cor. 6:12-20).

Many of us can tend to lose sight of that, however, losing our understanding of the damning, bone-crushing, destructive, disembodying (quite literally) nature of sin, or the gloriously physical relief that the resurrection promises. Coates’ language, his emphasis, I think, has the salutary effect of reminding some of us Christians of the material dimensions of being created good as bodies in the world. As Christians, we surely believe there is more, but we must not believe there is any less.

Sin and “The Dream” as Kosmos

Coates is also a theologian of sin.  This is almost more obvious than the viscerality of his language. For Coates, to tell the story, the history, the experience of the black body is to tell the story of its plundering, its rape, enslavement, subjugation, and burial under the edifice of white society and persons who “think themselves white.” Narrating the black body means narrating the sins committed against it.

There isn’t a blind, Manicheanism in Coates’ telling, though, with pure martyrs and pure villains. I was struck throughout the whole at Coates’ self-analysis, his coming to self-consciousness and questioning of his own motives, his own narratives, his own ideas that he speaks of in response to his mother’s writing assignments. Coates operates with a heavy hermeneutics of suspicion, but one that’s aware of the pervasive nature of sin in the self–in all selves—especially his own. It’s downright Puritanical (not in the bad sense) in terms of its self-interrogation.

Connecting to this theology of individual sin,is his broader cosmology and theology of culture as expressed in his idea of “The Dream”, which he outlines for his son and constantly warns him against. For those acquainted with biblical cosmology, the Dream functions like “the World” or kosmos in John and Paul. The world is not simply the physical creation, but rather the cosmos including and especially human culture under the power of sin, hostile to God and his ways of peace. For the Christian, the world with its desires, pressures, systemic drives, and allure to conformity that threaten to overwhelm the believer with its ways of thinking, behaving, and being. It presents us with visions of the good life (money, sex, power, success, etc) and the standard, often-times godless patterns of procuring it.

The Dream, for Coates, is that of living “white”, of acting white, sequestered away in the safe, suburban communities, built on the sweat, tears, blood, bones, and centuries of black bodies plundered for their wealth–separated from the hard streets of Baltimore where being black and a child could still get you robbed of your body. It is a dream upheld and made manifest in school systems, social practices ranging from slavery to redlining to arrest quotas to the common trope assumption that because a young, black man won’t keep his pants up and shows the defiance to authority common to just most 15-year old boys, he’s kind of asking to get shot. Indeed, when you look at it closely, it’s not just that the Dream functions as the World, in many ways it serves as an angled description of what Scripture is actually speaking to.

And so, every time Coates tells his son Samori to resist the deep-seated ways his culture will try to shape and form his affections, his assumptions, his own dreams, desires, and prejudices, I just keep hearing Paul say, “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world…” (Rom. 12:1-2).

This, I think, is connected to that deep sense of sin as act and Sin as Power. That’s not how he’d put it, of course, but there is a very thick theology of universal, personal complicity, and at the same time of an external, systemic, supra-personal Power that enslaves, enlists, and overwhelms. It’s not just whites, but blacks striving to be white, who are co-opted and conformed to the Dream. Again, it’s sin as individual acts, but more than that, it is Sin as a power that works its way into corporate systems that have their own logic which, in some sense, can’t be overturned simply by the exercise of the will of one good-hearted individual.

As a Christian, I’m tempted to have recourse to the language of the demonic. Christians have always known that despite God’s rule and Christ’s reign, there is some sense in which world is “under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), the god of this age who tends to blind and deceive the world about the truth, especially of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). Why wouldn’t he work through social and political systems to lie and wreak death in the world now, if that’s what he’s been doing since the beginning (John 8:44)?

Religion, Truth, and the Crucifixion of the Body

Naturally, following a discussion of the “plight”, a theological read of the book might lend itself to a section on “The Gospel according to Ta-Nehisi Coates.” But, to be honest, I couldn’t find one. I don’t believe that’s the point, either. Coates isn’t offering his son a grand, universal hope, a solution. He’s trying to prepare him for reality in a world without a coming universal redemption, with people and systems that don’t know they need one. To carve out a life—one with love, tenderness, integrity, and a sense of honest pride—neither enslaved, nor blind to the world as it is. As one friend put it—he’s preparing him for life in this present, evil age when that’s the only one on the horizon.

And this is where I think about Coates’ atheism and honest confession that he’s always been alienated from the comforts of religion, having never been raised with them. There’s an understandable ambivalence (though, I don’t sense a hostility) towards religious faith in the book. On the one hand, there is his early incomprehension at those taken with its comforts—their willingness to endanger their sacred, fragile, and single-shot bodies against clubs, against dogs, against death. Religion seemed to cultivate a carelessness about the body. “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body…”

What’s more, there’s the problem of what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Coates has seen the quick rush to forgive in some churches and communities—calls that seem to glide quickly past the problem of Abel’s blood still wet on the pavement crying out for justice. Or the calls for non-violent suffering for black people from those watching the protests in the streets of Fergusson comfortably seated on their couches in the suburbs. Or reconciliation without any sense of restitution—or even an indictment. You can sense his realism, his history, his cosmic sense of injustice rise up much like protest atheism chronicled in Camus’s The Rebel.

How can religion of this sort not seem like a palliative?

All the same, Coates wonders if there’s something he’s missing out on. Something that he is alienated from in the faces and the souls of men and women he respects who believe differently on this score.

Wales WindowAnd this is where I think about the book I’m reading for Lent, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge. The front-cover is an image of the “Wales Window” given to the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was donated as a gift from the people of Wales after the 1963 Klan bombing that rocked the church and robbed the life of the four little, black girls in their Sunday best.

The stained glass is striking. In it, we see a Christ with brown skin, arms outstretched. Rutledge notes that the position of his head hangs at the same angle as that of an ikon called “Extreme Humiliation.” According to the artist, the two arms outstretched are doing different things. The one is thrust out, stiff-arming the powers of death and injustice, while the other reaches out, offering forgiveness for the world. Under him are the words “You do this to Me”, which come from the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. Here Christ identifies himself with his people, declaring that whatever is done or not done unto them, for good or ill, for woe or weal, for blessing or curse, “you do this to me.” You do this unto me.

The central mystery of the Christian gospel is the Holy God who out of the fullness of his own, perfect life stooped, became incarnate, identifying himself with the whole of humanity, and, as the Creed has it, suffered under Pontius Pilate. The Savior is the Divine Son who knew no suffering, yet assumed human flesh, a Body in midst of a dominated people to suffer on our behalf and rise again. God became a gendered, embodied Jew in the 1st Century, heir to hundreds of years of political oppression at the hands of colonizing invaders (Babylonian, Persian, Greek), mostly recently of an empire, Rome, that stood as the chief political, economic, social, and religious power the world had ever seen. He grew up under the eye of the soldiers of a people who prided themselves as superior to every other people; a people who used subject nations and cultures to prop up their own; a people who threatened anyone who crossed that system with torture and death. And eventually it was under the administration of their laws, their justice, that his body hung naked, exposed, broken, shamed on a cross, tossed on the garbage heap of history, scorned even by the elite of his own people. In the particular sense that Coates speaks of being black, or at least, not white—that is the space that the Son of God entered in his body. That is the place that his body died.

I cannot do justice to the multifaceted character of Christ’s death, not with 3,000, nor 3,000,000 words, but the thing we must say is that the death he died, he died willingly for sin. He died in order to wipe us clean from the sins we commit as well as deliver us from the Sin we are enslaved to. He died in order to atone and liberate. He died to do justice, to ensure that forgiveness is not offered on the cheap. That reconciliation does not simply walk past restitution and truth, or support a culture of impunity.

Indeed, one the most powerful accomplishments of Christ in the visceral, flesh-ripping, godlessness of the cross is the way it tells the truth and opens our eyes to the violence of sin in the world. The hideousness of the cross, Rutledge notes, the crucifixion of this man who is God, puts to flight sentimental religion and forces us to face up to the malignant, persistent ugliness of sin. It unveils reality, much as Richard Wright writes in the poem from which Coates draws his title. To look upon “the sooty details of the scene” of our Savior upon the cross is to have them “thrust themselves between the world and me.”

And I think this moment in the Gospel is important for me to sit with when reading Coates. Obviously, a concern for the body and Coates’ totalizing fear of its loss, of his ultimate powerlessness and inability to secure it or that of his son, is crying for an answer in the good news of the Resurrection. For Christians, death is not the concluding word, and in his resurrection, Jesus actively and powerfully breaks the power of Sin, the World, the Dream, by showing that despite appearances to the contrary, it does not have the final say of things. This is what gives us hope, gives courage, gives the moral steel that accounts for the paradoxical attitude of Christians towards the body: it is precious, it is good, it is inviolable, and yet it’s loss is not our absolute terror. God’s promises do hold us up.

But the resurrection only comes as good news after we’ve sat in the shadow of the cross. Jesus is the Resurrected one only as the Crucified one. Hope for reconciliation, both personal and cultural, only comes after we’ve truly reckoned with the nature of the rupture, confessed, and repented. This is one of what I take to be the glories of the Christian gospel: it forces you to see the truth about the world, about yourself, about your neighbor—both the grime and the glory—and it is precisely there where the God with a broken body meets us.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

I have no conclusion, really. With a book like Coates’ there’s always more to say. I haven’t weighed in specifically on any particular charges, critiques, details of history, or political implications to be drawn with respect to things like reparations or #BlackLivesMatter. And I’m not really sure that’s the point.

I suppose at the end of Coates’ work–beyond a better, heavier understanding of the struggles of my neighbors–I can’t help but come away with a stronger desire to plumb the depth of the Christian gospel, to grasp the power of Christ and him crucified and speak it into the darkest reaches of the human condition without maudlin or mawkish sentimentality. A hope hell-bent on truth. A reconciliation forged through justice. A God who enters our life and then invites us into his, saying, “This is my body, broken for you.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Of the Father’s Love Begotten: The Virgin Birth as Image of the Trinity

holy spiritThere’s no way around it–the miracle of Christmas is a trinitarian event through and through. Contemplating the baby born of the virgin Mary, sleeping in the manger in 1st Century Bethlehem, eventually will draw you into eternity to worship the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As I was reading Christopher Holmes’ excellent new work on the Holy Spirit this week, I ran across a fantastic passage where he is draws out some of the implications of Augustine’s theology of the Trinity by illustrating them by way of the virgin birth:

Jesus is conceived in the power of the Holy Spirit. His earthly birth points to his heavenly birth; his mission reiterates his procession. He is born in the Spirit in time, conceived in the Spirit, who is the Father’s love for him, and throughout his life is filled with the Spirit, who enables him to be who he is even in death, the Son of God. Thus the Son’s mission of obedience reflects the Son’s generation from the Father, who in generating him gives him his Spirit, the same Spirit whom the Son pours out on all flesh and who is “proper” to the Son as one eternally born of the Father. This is the Father who eternally generates the Son in the Spirit. Accordingly, the Spirit is the love of the begetter for the begotten; and the begotten for the begetter.

– Christopher Holmes, The Holy Spirit (New Studies in Dogmatics), 77-78.*

Now, there are a number of fascinating threads to tease out in this dense passage.

First, we must remember that all of God’s acts are Triune acts, even the ones we typically associate with one of the persons. As the old principle has it, all of the Trinity’s works outside the Trinity (Creation, Redemption, and Consummation), are indivisibly those of the whole Trinity. How could it be otherwise if the three persons truly are the One God?  But it’s also important to note that there is a trinitarian unity displayed in the indivisible works in history such that we begin to see the outlines of God’s inward, eternal life as Father, Son, and Spirit. In fact, it’s God’s work in history as we have it in the New Testament that originally forced the Church to recognize that God is eternally triune.

Second comes the issue of the “processions.” Augustine (and I’d argue, the New Testament) teaches us that the persons of the Trinity, while being one God, are distinguished from one another by “relations of eternal origin.” In other words, in all eternity, God has been self-related as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit such that there are patterns of relations between the persons. The eternal “processions” of the Son and the Spirit (God does not become a Trinity) are the key realities distinguishing God’s internal life. Classically, it’s been said that the Son proceeds from or is “begotten” or “generated” by the Father (fathers beget sons), the Spirit is “breathed out” or proceeds from the Father and/through the Son, and the Father is the eternal source who proceeds from no one. This is who the persons are–their relations are their identities and so forth.

Third, as already noted, there is a close relationship between who God is in eternity and who he shows us he is in history. When God works in history, while we don’t see all that God is in his eternity, we do see truly who and what God is. To put it another way, when the Son and the Spirit are revealed to us in their “missions” in history (becoming incarnate, being sent by the Father and Son to the church, etc), these missions map onto or are indicative of the eternal processions. There is fit between them. There is something about who the Son is in relation to the Father in eternity that makes it suitable that he specifically is the person who becomes incarnate for our salvation.  The one who is eternally begotten by the Father above is now begotten below without a human father. So while God is not reducible to what he does in history, what he does in history reflects the glory of God’s eternally resplendent being.

Fourth, in the Western tradition, especially after Augustine, the Church has recognized that the Holy Spirit’s proceeding from the Father is not apart from the Son. In fact, the Nicene Creed teaches that he proceeds “from the Father and from the Son.” This is because in Scripture he is shown to be sent by both Father and Son (cf. John 14:16, 15:26; 16:7), and is often referred to as both the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son (Acts 16:7; Phil. 1:19). So if the Son also sends the Spirit in history and the Spirit is that of the Son, that points to the Spirit’s procession coming from the Son as well as from the Father, though in a unique, differentiated way.

Now, Augustine adds another dimension to this. He says that the Spirit is not only the Spirit of Son and Father, coequal with both, eternally one with them, God proceeding from God, but on the basis of some key texts, that the Spirit’s unique processions ought to be thought of as the love of Father and Son. All of this transcends human speech, of course, but the Spirit is the Love of God for God–he is the Love that God is, precisely as the love of the Father and the Son. 

In which case, there are multiple dimensions of depth to that classic hymn, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” The Son is eternally begotten in the love of the Father “ere the worlds began to be.” The Son is begotten in time, born of a virgin (“that birth forever blessed”) by the Father’s love for his wayward creation. But this happened, “by the Holy Ghost conceiving”, God’s own Love is the agent of Christ’s mysterious, miraculous appearing. Of the Father’s Love begotten, indeed.

In the virgin birth, we don’t simply have a neat trick, then, a cool miracle proving that Jesus is God, but rather a sign, a mirror refulgent with glory of the Holy Trinity.

Soli Deo Gloria

*For those curious about Holmes’ work, I commend this post to you whereby he introduces his project.

5 Wrong Ways to Talk About Sin (TGC)

sinChristianity is inextricably bound up with the notion of sin. The Bible tells the story of the triune God’s rescue mission to redeem rebels out of their sin and guilt, which alienates them from his shared life of light and love. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the central message of how the Son came in the power of the Spirit to conquer sin and death through his own life, death, and resurrection. Without seriously considering the weight of sin, as Anselm so famously urged us to do, we can’t possibly understand the glory, goodness, and mercy of God’s liberation. Neither can we respond to it appropriately with repentance, faith, and worship. This is why Christians have historically spent so much time talking about sin.

If you’ve been around church long enough, though, you know there are plenty of ways to “talk about sin” that fall short of considering its full weight. I can think of at least five.

You can read the rest of the article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Abraham Kuyper on the Sovereignty of God As Political Limit

Kuyper Our ProgramDutch Theologian and Statesmen Abraham Kuyper had a particular knack for taking high-level political theology and–instead of keeping it at an academic level–putting it into popular form for the benefit of the Dutch masses, the middle-class citizens he was burdened to shepherd and lead in both church and state. In many ways, that’s the burden of his work Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto, the first volume of the beautiful collection of Kuyper’s works recently translated by the Kuyper Translation Society in collaboration with the Acton Institute and Lexham Press.

In this manifesto, he attempts to comprehensively lay out a political program rooted in the Calvinist worldview in contrast to the secular, liberal, Modernists inspired by the French Revolution. Through a commentary on the platform of his political party, Kuyper winsomely and popularly articulates a vision of the political life of the nation moving easily from depth-level political theology to the specific policy proposals needed for the good of the people.

Witness, for instance, this rather homely explanation of the concept of sovereignty:

Sovereignty in an absolute sense occurs only when there is an authority that has no other authority over it, that always commands and never obeys, that does not admit of restrictions or allow competition, and that is single and undivided for all that has breath.

I am sovereign in an absolute sense only over that with which I can do what I please. Since as a human being I never possess such unlimited power over anything, it is out of the question that I shall ever possess original sovereignty.
Just because I can draw or write anything at all on the piece of paper in front of me still does not mean that I am a sovereign over that piece of paper. For that paper is hard or soft, fibrous or smooth, of a certain thickness and length, and so on, and I am bound to all these properties. They restrict my power and force me to conform to them. To be sovereign in this case I would personally have to be the maker of that paper, this pen, and that ink, and I would have to make them each time again in order to have them serve my purpose and remove every impediment to my will.

But even if you think that this would be conceivable, I still would not have sovereign power over that piece of paper, since in making it I would find myself bound by the materials and the tools commonly used for the papermaking process, and I would often bump up against the limits of what is possible when I try to introduce still one more improvement or remove one last flaw. I would have to have complete control over those raw materials and those instruments. Assume for a moment that even if that were possible and that in the making of pen and ink I disposed over the same creative freedom, then just to be sovereign in the mechanics of writing I would have to be able to freely determine or alter the laws governing the adhesion of the ink to the nib and the flow of the liquid onto the paper.
-Abraham Kuyper, Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto.  (pp. 16–17)

From this basis, Kuyper carefully and clearly moves on to establish the limits political power whether of the ruler over the state, the father over the family, or man over beast, and even between the nations. Any who tries to cross these natural boundaries, is transgressing on the only absolute sovereignty of God from whom all natural power is derived and who alone has this power over all and stands as a limit against all authoritarianism. From there, Kuyper contrasts what this understanding of God’s sovereignty means for political sovereignty and the varieties of political visions on offer, and even the specific challenges of Dutch national life.

Obviously, the work shows its time and place. Many of the specific policy proposals of Kuyper’s program are suited only to the Netherlands, with its unique governing structure, national character, and geo-political position at the turn of the century. For one thing, forming an explicitly Christian political party in the United States is simply unworkable. All the same, Kuyper’s program stands as a model for current political theologians in a number of ways.

First, as can be witnessed in the sketch above, much of the theology stands the text of time because it is rooted in the trans-historical truths of the gospel, such as its unique anthropology and eschatology. Kuyper shows time and again the way–without desiring or advocating a “theocracy”–specifically Christian theology ought to inform our political engagement.

Second, Kuyper has a strong sense of both what the program is for as much as what it is against. This is a welcome change from so much negatively-framed political discourse flowing from Evangelical theological camps today. Kuyper’s program was not a retreat, nor a merely conservative reaction, but a positive vision for the common good of the Dutch people.

Finally, as already mentioned, its specificity to the time and place in which Kuyper wrote is an obstacle towards its immediate application. All the same, it can serve as a model for those looking to make their political theology concrete. Upper-level theory is good and necessary, but so is actual policy implementation. Obviously, this is not the step that most of us will be looking to make, as that requires a certain level of technical proficiency in policy matters most do not possess. Still, for those who do, Kuyper’s work will be a stimulating and challenging historical voice to engage with.

From all that I’ve read so far, I’m quite looking forward to the rest of the Kuyper series. And you should be as well.

For more info, go ahead and go to AbrahamKuyper.com. Also, for electronic types, the whole set is available on Logos.

Soli Deo Gloria

Anselm: “Taste the Goodness of Your Redeemer”

christ-on-the-cross-1587Anselm of Canterbury is credited with having invented with what is called the “satisfaction” theory of atonement in his classic work Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). In a severely condensed nutshell, humanity sins against its Creator, incurring an infinite debt of sin, having slighted the infinitely worthy Triune God’s honor and marring the beauty and order of his universe. This moral debt is owed to God and yet is unpayable twice over, not only because the debt is infinite, but because humanity has wounded itself and is now no longer even able to render the obedience it still owes, much less the outstanding debt. And yet, humanity is the one who owes the debt and so is the only one who ought to pay it.

God, though, being faithful to his creation and to his purposes for the good of his humanity aims to reconcile humanity to himself. To do so, the Son comes, assumes our human nature alongside his divine nature, lives a perfect life, dies a death he does not owe, and in virtue of his infinite goodness, offers it up as a good exceeding every debt in order to settle the debt of sin. He can do this on our behalf because he is true man. But the offering of this man can cover our debt because it is also the humble offering of the infinite God.

Now, there are a number of objections that have been lodged against it over the years–some of them which I myself share. One which I think has been quite unfair, though, is that Anselm’s logical presentation is of a “rationalist” sort, with one of the implications being that it’s connected to a rather cold sort of faith, narrowly concerned with ledgers and miserliness. That it’s the kind of faith that cuts the nerve of piety and true spiritual vitality.

I think it’s unfair because, first, it ignores the way the form of Anselm’s argument–the dialogue–shapes the presentation. Second, it ignores the deep beauty and grace which shapes his other works, many of which are written in the form of prayers to God, or spoken to the Christian soul.

We were given one such work in my seminar on atonement at Trinity, “A Meditation on Human Redemption” and I thought it worth sharing an excerpt we read in class the other day:

O Christian soul, soul raised up from grievous death, soul redeemed and freed by the blood of God from wretched bondage: arouse your mind, remember your resurrection, contemplate your redemption and liberation. Consider anew where and what the strength of your salvation is, spend time in meditating upon this strength, delight in reflecting upon it. Shake off your disinclination, constrain yourself, strive with your mind toward this end. Taste the goodness of your Redeemer, be aflame with love for your Savior, chew His words as a honey-comb, suck out their flavor, which is sweeter than honey, swallow their health-giving sweetness. Chew by thinking, suck by understanding, swallow by loving and rejoicing. Rejoice in chewing, be glad in sucking, delight in swallowing.

Where, then, and what is the strength and might of your salvation? Assuredly, Christ has resurrected you. That Good Samaritan has healed you, that Good Friend has redeemed and freed you by sacrificing His own soul life. Yes, it was Christ. Therefore, the strength of Christ is the strength of your salvation. Where is the strength of Christ? Surely horns are in His hands; there His strength is hidden. Strength is indeed in His hands because His hands were nailed to the arms of the cross. But what strength can there be in such weakness, what majesty in such humiliation, what worthy of reverence in such contempt? But surely because it is disguised in weakness it is something hidden, because veiled in humiliation it is something concealed, because covered with contempt it is something inaccessible. O hidden might! A man appended to a cross suspends the eternal death impending over the human race; a man fastened to a cross unfastens a world affixed to endless death! O concealed power! A man condemned with thieves saves men condemned with demons; a man stretched out on a cross draws all things unto Himself! O unseen strength! One soul yielded up in the torment [of crucifixion] draws countless souls from the torments of Hell; a man undergoes bodily death and abolishes spiritual death!

It’s been a while since I’ve read something that thick with spiritual vitality. The doctrinal content is rich, but this is not the language of detached doctrinal discussion, but that of prayer, praise, and adoration.

What’s funny, though, is that he continues from there in a similar mode of prayerful reasoning, to work through much of the same logic of salvation as he outlines in Cur Deus Homo. For example:

For the life of that man Jesus is more precious than everything that is not God, and it surpasses every debt owed by sinners as satisfaction. For if putting Him to death [is a sin which] surpasses the multitude and magnitude of all conceivable sins which are not against the person of God, clearly His life is a good greater than the evil of all those sins which are not against the person of God. To honor the Father, that man Jesus – who was not obliged to die, because not a sinner freely gave something of His own when He permitted His life to be taken from Him for the sake of justice. He permitted this in order to show to all others by example that they ought not to forsake the justice of God even because of death, which inevitably they are obliged to undergo at some time or other; for He who was not obliged to undergo death and who, having kept justice, could have avoided death, freely and for the sake of justice endured death, which was inflicted upon Him. Thus, in that man human nature freely and out of no obligation gave to God something its own, so that it might redeem itself in others in whom it did not have what it, as a result of indebtedness, was required to pay.

This same “logic” of satisfaction is what leads Anselm to comfort the believer with the beauty of their redemption given in Christ. No dry, detached piety here, but rich, spiritual truth.

I’ve nothing more to say except to close with one more excerpt which I hope encourages and comforts you today:

Behold, O Christian soul, this is the strength of your salvation, this is what has made possible your freedom, this is the cost of your redemption. You were in bondage, but through the cross you have been redeemed. You were a servant, but through the cross you have been set free. You are an exile who in this manner has been led back home, someone lost who has been found, someone dead who has been revived. O man, let your heart feed upon these thoughts. Let it chew continually upon them, let it suck upon them and swallow them whenever your mouth receives the body and blood of your Redeemer. In this life make these thoughts your daily bread, your nourishment, your provision. For through these thoughts and only through them will you remain in Christ and Christ in you; and only through them will your joy be full in the life to come.

Soli Deo Gloria

Does Jesus Judge the Wrong People? Or is it Still A Bit Silly to Disagree With Him?

disciplesWas Jesus overly judgmental? Did he ever look at someone and condemn them when ought to have welcomed and affirmed them? Did he ever call something evil, which was really good? Did he say that some things were unacceptable in the sight of God that really were acceptable in the sight of God?

To most orthodox Christians (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant), the confession of Jesus as Messiah, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, would rule that sort of thing out. I mean, Scripture clearly says he is without sin in a number of places. Beyond that, it’s part of the logic of the Gospel itself and a key to the salvific efficacy of his representative humanity on our behalf.

I bring this up because of an interesting post by J.R. Daniel Kirk on ‘Disagreeing With Jesus.’ It’s apparently a follow-up to Robert Gagnon’s piece at First Things piece praising Fuller’s decision not to offer Kirk tenure because of some of his views about Christ, as well as his evolving views on same-sex marriage. In it, Gagnon basically says that had Fuller done otherwise, they would have been allowing and opting for a position on sexuality squarely at odds with Jesus’ view on the matter per Mark 10:2-12 and Matthew 19:3-9.

Kirk’s response is basically to point out that we all disagree with Jesus on a number of issues:

I disagree with Jesus about some of the opinions of Jesus that he stated:

  • Moses wrote the Pentateuch
  • The truly final eschatological judgment would arrive within a generation of his life
  • My divorced and remarried friends are living in adulterous relationships

I disagree with Jesus about some of the opinions he probably had but didn’t state:

  • The world is flat
  • The world is 3,000 or 4,000 years old (in the first century)
  • The earth is at the center of the universe and the sun revolves around it

I agree with Jesus in some areas where many (or most) Christians disagree with us:

  • To understand Jesus best we have to understand his ministry as that of God’s faithful human representative (the son of humanity/the Human One)
  • Jesus didn’t know everything that God knows (like “the day or the hour”)

I also agree with the church about things that Jesus didn’t think or say:

  • Gentiles get to be part of the people of God without becoming Jewish
  • I’m not guilty of sin when I break the Sabbath every single Saturday

The idea, apparently, is that since many obviously disagree with Jesus on all sorts of issues, Gagnon’s argument is just a rhetorical ploy and not a serious, theological argument. Good disciples can disagree with Jesus at certain points without much of a Christological problem.

Now, I don’t really want to comment on the Fuller situation, nor even the same-sex issue. The Christological claims made in this short piece, however, seem very problematic. Since Kirk’s piece was brief, I’ll try to keep this as short as I can.

First, a number of the things Kirk says he disagrees with Jesus about assumes positions that are by no means foregone conclusions in Gospel scholarship. The old thesis about Jesus’ mistaken view of the coming, final day of judgment within a generation is one that is highly debatable. Another is his judgment that Jesus viewed divorce and remarriage as necessarily sinful, especially given the historic witness in Matthew 19:9 of Jesus giving at least one legitimate exception.

Second, that throwaway bit about germs is rather odd. As Adam Nigh pointed out in the comments, that’s just a historically focused version of the general problem of evil: why didn’t God use any number of supernatural or human means to tells us about germs or a half-dozen other medical insights Jesus failed to pass on? Quite frankly, bringing it up like it’s a serious, moral challenge is a bit silly.

Third, the idea of “disagreeing with Jesus” seems to suffer a bit when we get into counterfactual about what thoughts Jesus didn’t think and didn’t say. Kind of seems like we’re padding the list of disagreements for effect.

Fourth, and more importantly, Kirk mixes up a number of different categories of Jesus’ beliefs into a jumble. We’ve got Jesus’ (potential) views on the age of the earth thrown in with Mosaic authorship as well as his views on eschaton. But that’s really a questionable logical and “rhetorical ploy.” It seems plausible to make a distinction between Jesus knowing according to his human nature the age of the earth and a bit of geography, versus the onset of the coming kingdom of God, doesn’t it? Mixing all them up together just muddies the waters.

To sharpen this, let’s come back to the questions I opened with above. There’s nothing inherently sinful about Jesus not knowing certain cosmological questions. I’m fine with admitting a limitation to Christ’s total knowledge of random facts according to his human nature. That’s not sin. That’s just finitude. There’s nothing Christologically-riding admitting Christ was finite according to his human nature. Indeed, that’s Chalcedonian logic.

But what about his allegedly mistaken views about divorce and remarriage? In this case, Jesus is making a significant, moral judgment about the aims and intentions of the Creator regarding the most basic of all relationships. What’s more, given his own Messianic, self-understanding and his explicit statements about the binding authority of his own words as the Son of Man, making a judgment about this kind of thing isn’t a morally insignificant thing. Jesus getting divorce and remarriage wrong–saying it’s immoral when it really isn’t immoral–condemns as sinners those whom God doesn’t condemn as sinners. He morally binds those who shouldn’t be bound–the very sin Jesus criticizes in the Pharisees.

Let’s be clearer. The implication here is that the very Logos of God, sent to reveal the heart of the Father to the world, would be grievously misrepresenting God’s will for the world. That’s actually a lot more serious that Kirk lets on. For my money, I think we ought to be a bit less cavalier about admitting we disagree with Jesus on the aims and intentions of the one he called Father.

It’s a bit difficult to say, “Lord, you have the words of eternal life” with Peter and then add on, “except for on marriage, the eschaton, etc.” Seems like the sort of thing a disciple shouldn’t do.

Soli Deo Gloria