The Trinity in the Destruction of Sodom (Or, the Weirdest Argument for Consubstantiality of the Son)

Reading the Church Fathers on Scripture can be illuminating, surprising, and sometimes weird. This is part of what’s so fun about reading them. They come to the text of Scripture from a different time and place, with slightly different questions, exegetical instincts, and theological approaches, which present a question and a challenge to our own. I was reminded of this when diving into a little of Cyril of Alexandria’s work on the Gospel of John.

The Patriarch Cyril is best-known for his polemic against Nestorius and the central role he played in Christological controversies which leading up to the Council of Chalcedon (at which point Cyril was dead). Many will have read his little work On the Unity of Christ, which is what I have. I was not aware, though, that his commentary on the Gospel of John was translated until recently (Brandon Crowe quotes it in his excellent book The Last Adam). On a whim I looked it up and found online for free because, well, Cyril of Alexandria. Anyways, I started poking around and stumbled on one of the oddest bits of trinitarian reasoning I’ve read in one of the Fathers.

It comes in his comments on John 1:1, “and the Word was with God”, in his chapter arguing that the Son is consubstantial with the Father and therefore God in his own person. The trouble he’s dealing with specifically is the oddity of thinking of the Son as properly God but somehow also being “with God”, alongside him. Cyril proceeds to explain how this is so by commenting on various relevant Scriptures you might expect him to. For example, see this entirely unsurprising bit on John 14:

Consubstantial is the Son with the Father and the Father with the Son, wherefore They arrive at an unchangeable Likeness, so that the Father is seen in the Son, the Son in the Father, and Each flashes forth in the Other, even as the Saviour Himself says, He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father, and again, I in the Father and the Father in Me. But even though He be in the Father, and have again the Father in Him, Himself full well, as has been already said, perfectly exact unto the Form of Him Who begat Him, and depicting again in Himself without any shortcome, the Father whence He is:—-not therefore will He be deprived of His separate existence, nor will the Father lose His own special Being; but neither will the surpassing Likeness and Resemblance work any confusion of Persons, so that the Father Who begat and the Son Who is Begotten of Him should be considered as one in number. But sameness of Nature will be confessed of Both, yet the Individual Existence of Each will surely follow, so that both the Father should be conceived of as indeed Father, and the Son as Son. For thus, the Holy Ghost being numbered with them and counted as God, the Holy and Adorable Trinity will have Its Proper Fullness.

Alright, so far so classic Trinitarian. It doesn’t get more basic than Jesus’ discourses in the Gospel of John.

Now, jump down six or seven texts and we arrive at this fascinating bit of exegesis of Genesis 19:24:

Another. The Divine Scripture says that the cities of the Sodomites were burned by the Anger of God, and explaining how the Divine wrath was brought upon them, and clearly describing the mode of the destruction, The Lord, it says, rained upon Sodom brimstone and fire from, the Lord, since this too is the portion of the cup most befitting those who are wont to commit such sins. What Lord then from what Lord sent the fire on and consumed the cities of the Sodomites? It is clear that it was the Father Who worketh all things through the Son, since He is too His Might and His Arm, Who caused Him to rain the fire upon the Sodomites. Since therefore the Lord sends the fire from the Lord upon them, how is not the Father Other, in respect to His own Being, than the Son,, and the Son again than the Father? For the One is here signified as being from One.

I have to admit, Sodom and Gomorrah is not one of my top 10 go-to texts in proving the distinction-within-unity of the persons of the Godhead.

Still, the text is illuminating for a number of reasons. First, Cyril picks up on a real oddity in the repetition of the LORD twice in the verse. Calvin suggest the repetition emphasizes the God’s agency. Robert Alter says its a repetition of emphasis as well, but he focuses on connecting the phrase, “from the heavens” which links it to the destruction of the Flood. Gordon Wenham doesn’t comment on that repetition, but right before it he notes that the whole passage is riddled with ambiguities “the LORD”, “the men”, and “the angels” in chapter 18, but here in chapter 19 and in the encounter in, it is clear one represents or is the LORD, the Angel of the YHWH.

It seems, then, Cyril is picking up the Angel of YHWH reading and suggesting the repetition indicates something about the complexity of the agency of the One God being depicted. The argument depends on the doctrine of inseparable operations and its corollary: the outward works of the Trinity are undivided, but that doesn’t mean the persons are indistinguishable or confused in them either. In the incarnation, Father, Son, and Spirit are at work, but only the Son is incarnate and so forth. Cyril discerns a distinction of activity here as well.

Connecting this to the broader Patristic habit of seeing an order to the works of the economy as proceeding from the Father, through the Son, and perfected in the Spirit, Cyril focuses on the fact that all of God the Father’s works are “through the Son”, whom he has identified with the Angel of YHWH. And so, when “the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven”, we should understand that it is the Son who rains down fire on Sodom from the Father.

Weirder still is that while in other places the Fathers might describe the Son as the Wisdom of God, or the Power of God, by which he acts, it seems Cyril may be identifying him as the “Anger” of God, or God at work in the execution of his judgment against Sodom. (Though, it could be the capitalization in the translation is misleading me here.)

In any case, the point is that Cyril wants us to see that while the text is clear that while there is an overall unity to the act of judgment as that of the One God, there is a distinction in the agency implying an internal otherness appropriate to the two persons of Father and Son. There is one Judgement, but it comes through the Son from the Father.

Turning a bit from “trinitarian” issues, it’s worth noting that Cyril sees no problem reading the affair at Sodom and Gomorrah as an instance of active divine judgment and retributive punishment, with no mediators involved. We have here a deeply Christological exegesis which places the Son plainly at the center of the Old Testament text, but does so by making him the active agent of judgment in God burning a city to the ground. Suffice it to say this is markedly different from other recent proposals for relating Jesus to Old Testament violence. Though, it does seem consistent with Paul’s reading in 1 Corinthians 10.

At which point, it’s worth reiterating that this isn’t some weirdo outlier. This is Cyril of Alexandria, revered Patriarch, central figure in formulating and consolidating the Christological Orthodoxy for the whole Church, East and West. Now, you may be unconvinced by his reading (and I’m not sure I buy it myself),  but it does present a striking instance of the way the Fathers often don’t fit our popular expectations on these matters, which are often shaped by 20th Century prejudices, Eastern polemics, or recent progressivish retrievals.

Now, I don’t really have a big point here except that sometimes you find odd, things reading the Fathers. Though, I suppose the next time you’re teaching on the Trinity, maybe consider the story of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Soli Deo Gloria

Calvin on “He descended into Hell” (Guest Post by Tim Keller)

KellerToday I have the honor of hosting an original, guest post by Dr. Timothy Keller, chairman and co-founder of Redeemer City to City, VP of The Gospel Coalition, and former pastor and founder of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. 

Is it right for preachers to speak of Jesus experiencing the loss of the Father’s love on the cross?  After all, orthodox Trinitarian theology teaches that at the ultimate level, ontologically, the Father did not ever hate the Son. The Trinity remains completely unbroken. Indeed, when the Son was dying for us he was offering the Father a ‘pleasing sacrifice’ and a ‘satisfaction’ for sin.

But then what was the “forsakenness” that Jesus experienced on the cross? If in the ultimate sense he did not lose the Father’s love, what did he lose?  Is it wrong to say that when Jesus was on the cross he experienced estrangement from God? Is it wrong to say that he lost any sense and even assurance of God’s love?

Preachers will do well to read Calvin closely when he expounds the line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell.” (Institutes II. 16. 8-12)

Calvin argues this Jesus ‘descent into hell’ was not merely descending into physical death and the grave. He believes it represents biblical teaching that Jesus suffered not just bodily pain but all the torments that a soul in hell, cut off from God’s presence, would experience. He “bore all the punishments [evildoers] ought to have sustained” with only one exception, that those torments could not keep hold of him forever. He “suffered the death that God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked.” (II.16.10). Calvin does not mince words here. “Not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man. (II.16.10) And he says: “Surely no more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God; and when you call upon him, not to be heard. It is as if God himself had plotted your ruin.”  (II.16.11)

That is what Jesus experienced on the cross. As far as Christ’s experience was concerned, he lost everything he had with the Father, just as a damned soul would. He lost God’s presence, favor, communication, and therefore any feeling sense of God’s love.

Calvin knows that the strength of his language will make some people nervous. He rightly assures readers that there is no rupture in the Trinity. Though Christ experienced God’s wrath, “Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him…. How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God?” (II.16.11) This of course sounds confusing to many listeners. Jesus received the wrath of God and yet God was not angry with him? But that fits the Biblical data. Calvin sifts this data and shows us that ontologically, there was no alienation. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that Father never loved and admired his Son more than when he was dying to save us.

But existentially, Calvin wants us to know and preach that Jesus was as bereft of God’s love and presence as a damned soul. Of course the Father continued in his love for his Son, but on the cross Jesus lost all sense and experience and any practical possession of it. He felt like a soul in hell. On that Calvin is emphatic. He goes on to argue against those who rightly stress this continual love of the Father to the Son but who go on to over-emphasize it to the point of trivializing or minimizing what Jesus suffered. Here Calvin speaks directly to those who don’t want us to ever say that Jesus existentially “lost the Father’s love.”

Calvin engages those who say, for example, that Jesus did not actually feel forsaken or estranged. “They hold it incongruous that he would fear for the salvation of his soul.” (II.16.12)  But Calvin insists that Jesus did indeed lose his assurance of God’s love and did fear for his soul. He insists that Jesus “wrestled hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell” and so “he was victorious and triumphed over them.” (II.16.11)

Calvin addresses others who say that although Christ feared death, he did not fear God’s curse and wrath, from which he knew himself to be safe.”  (II.16.12) These are people who say that Jesus never feared or felt the loss of God’s favor and presence. He feared, perhaps, the pain of physical death, but he never felt damned and cut off from the Father’s love. They believe that Jesus on the cross thought, as it were, “Though I’m physically suffering I know the Father loves me, and this will be over soon.” Calvin says this makes Jesus more “unmanly and cowardly than most men of the common sort”. Why, he asks, was Jesus in such torment in Gethsemane? If Jesus was only afraid of physical pain and death, then plenty of human beings, who “bear it calmly” have faced death better than Jesus. (II.16.12) Instead, Calvin argues, he was trembling before the spiritual torments, “the terrible abyss”, of the loss of God’s presence and love, the experience of being “estranged and forsaken.”  If Jesus did not face and experience the dreadfulness of damnation, and the feeling that he was not “safe”, but lost and cursed, then he didn’t really take the penalty we deserved.

In summary, Calvin goes so far as to say that Jesus, in order to truly be our substitute and pay our penalty, had to have feared for his soul and his eternal safety. That is how severe a loss of the Father’s favor and love he experienced.

I think Calvin’s warnings are important.  If we say that Jesus never felt the loss of God’s love on the cross, then it diminishes his astonishing faithfulness. When he quotes Psalm 22, calling the Father “My God”, he not only calls God by his covenant name, but he is invoking a Messianic psalm with a triumphant ending.  If he did this when he felt nothing of God’s love and presence—as Calvin argues—it was then an act of obedience unique in the history of the universe. He clung in hope to God’s covenant love even when feeling utter divine abandonment, even when in hell.  Jonathan Edwards’ great sermon Christ’s Agony explains why. To the first Adam God said—obey me and I will be with you. But he didn’t. To the second Adam he said—obey me and I will forsake you and cut you off. Yet Jesus still obeyed.  Unlike Captain Ahab, who said, “from Hell’s heart I stab at thee”, Jesus said, as it were, “from Hell’s heart I will obey you still.” Calvin adds,  “For even though he suffered beyond measure, he did not cease to call him his God, by whom he cried out that he had been forsaken.” (Institutes, II.16.12).

Let’s heed Calvin’s warning not to think or hint that, ontologically, the Father ceased to love Jesus or, existentially, that Jesus did not lose all sense and assurance of that love. We must neither veer into the appearance that the Father was abusing Jesus nor into minimizing the depths of the suffering of Jesus on the cross for us.

Calvin summarizes his argument against those who, he believes, diminish the sufferings of Christ.

“From this it appears that these quibblers with whom I am contending…. have never earnestly considered what it is or means that we have been redeemed from God’s judgment. Yet this is our wisdom: duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God.” (II.16.12)

Scripture Says More Than You Think: Edwards’s Exegesis of Mutual Love

If you scan the literature, there’s been a recent boom in scholarship on Jonathan Edwards’ doctrine of the Trinity. If there’s something everyone agrees on nowadays is that whatever else Edwards is, he’s a trinitarian. One other takeaway, though, is that his trinitarianism is at once traditional and innovative.

In his context, pressured by Deists, Subordinationists, and other varieties of anti-trinitarian theologians, he sought to defend and deliver the doctrine of the Trinity to his people. He aimed to show both that it was fitting with the best speculative, idealistic philosophy of the day, but more importantly that it was the plain teaching of Scripture. (Though, it’s good to note Edwards’ readiness to blend the two is somewhat unique since most Reformed Scholastics shied away from the speculative moves developed by some of the Fathers and the Medievals, preferring to focus on exegetical defenses of the doctrine.)

This comes out clearly in his originally unpublished Discourse on the Trinity. While a good chunk of it is dedicated to parsing theological and philosophical analysis of persons, ideas, and so forth, the bulk is concerned with demonstrating the Scriptural foundations of his view. Edwards opines, “I think the Scripture reveals a great deal more about it than is ordinarily taken notice of.”

One place this comes out is in his treatment of the Holy Spirit. Edwards could be considered a broadly Augustinian theologian of the Trinity here. Augustine famously developed a number of psychological triads in De Trinitate. Taking his cue from man being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), he takes the rational soul as the closest (dark) mirror of the Godhead in the world (7:12; 12.6-7). Augustine then proposes three mental triads on the basis of God being love (1 John 4:8). First, he posits that love needs a lover, beloved, and love itself (8:12-14). Second, in the activities of the mind remembering, understanding, and loving itself (10:17-18). Third, and this was his favored analogy, the mind’s ascent in wisdom to remembering, understanding, and loving God (14:15, 25).

Edwards’ formulation most closely resembles the triad of Book 9, but with modifications due to his different metaphysics and context. The thing to note, though, is that in both Augustine and Edwards, the Holy Spirit is identified with the love of God, especially as its understood as the mutual love of the Father and the Son. In their work The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards (106), Steven Studebaker and Robert Caldwell identify key components of the model:

Five elements tend to characterize the Augustinian mutual love tradition in its various historical expressions. These characteristics form a fivefold gestalt. These are: 1.) the use of mental triads or the operations of the rational soul to illustrate the Trinity, 2.) the Father as the unbegotten, 3.) the generation of the Son as the Word, 4.) the procession of the Holy Spirit as the mutual love of the Father and the Son, and 5.) the reciprocity between the economic missions and the immanent processions of the divine persons.

Here’s Edwards stating the doctrine positively:

The Godhead being thus begotten by God’s having an idea of himself and standing forth in a distinct subsistence or person in that idea, there proceeds a most pure act, and infinitely holy and sweet energy arises between the Father and the Son: for their love and joy is mutual, in mutually loving and delighting in each other. Prov. 8:30, “I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before [him].” This is the eternal and most perfect and essential act of the divine nature, wherein the Godhead acts to an infinite degree and in the most perfect manner possible. The Deity becomes all act; the divine essence itself flows out and is as it were breathed forth in love and joy. So that the Godhead therein stands forth in yet another manner of subsistence, and there proceeds the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, viz. the Deity in act: for there is no other act by the act of the will.

Now, we can’t get into all the details about how Edwards’ idealism has inflected the whole account, but you see the basic elements in play here: the psychological analogy, the Father unbegotten, the generation of the Word, the Spirit as mutual love of Father and Son, and so forth.

Whether consciously or not, Edwards also follows some of Augustine’s key, exegetical moves, including his focus on 1 John 4. (On which, see Matthew Levering, “The Holy Spirit in the Trinitarian Communion: ‘Love’ and ‘Gift’?” IJST Volume 16 Number 2 April 2014, 126-142.) Edwards suggests the “Godhead or the divine nature and essence does subsist in love” is confirmed in the statement of 1 John 4:8, “God is love.”

But he argues that verses 12-13 in the same chapter “plainly” suggest to us that love is the Holy Spirit, since they read, “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Hereby we know that we dwell in him, because he hath given us the Spirit.” For Edwards, it is clear that the apostle John has identified the love of God in us as God’s dwelling with us, which happens by the Spirit’s dwelling within us. This “confirms not only that the divine nature subsists in love, but also that this love is the Spirit; for it is the Spirit of God by which God dwells in his saints.”

Edwards finds this logic confirmed in dozens of texts (Rom. 5:5; Phil 2:1; 2 Cor. 6:6; Col. 1:8), the name of the Spirit, the work of the Spirit in sanctification, types of the Spirit (oil), symbols of the Spirit (dove), metaphors and similitudes (water, fire, breath, wind, a spring, a river, etc), and so on.

Returning to the Spirit’s work in sanctification, Edwards says that communion with God is to participate in the Holy Spirit:

Communion is a common partaking of good, either of excellency or happiness, so that when it is said the saints have communion or fellowship with the Father and with the Son, the meaning of it is that they partake with the Father and the Son of their good, which is either their excellency and glory, (2 Pet. 1:4, “ye are made partakers of the divine nature;” Heb. 12:10, “that we might be partakers of his holiness;” John 17:22–23, “and the glory which thou hast given me I have given them that they may be one even as we are one I in them and thou in me”); or of their joy and happiness: John 17:13, “that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” But the Holy Ghost, being the love and joy of God, is his beauty and happiness, and it is in our partaking of the same Holy Spirit that our communion with God consists…

Here Edwards moves on to make a very interesting observation that demonstrates how attentive he is to Scripture in these matters. He supposes that this notion that the Spirit is the mutual love of the Father and the Son which is given to believers is the only good account for the fact that Paul (13x!) wishes grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, without ever mentioning the Holy Spirit by name. This only makes sense if, “the Holy Ghost is himself love and grace of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Or again, in places like John 14:21 and 23, Christ mentions the love of Father and Son for believers, “but no mention is made of the Holy Ghost” or “never any mention of the Holy Ghost’s love.”

Even more strikingly, Edwards notes how Scripture seems to be silent about the love of the Spirit within the Godhead itself:

I suppose to be the reason why we have never any account of the Holy Ghost’s loving either the Father or the Son, or of the Son’s or the Father’s loving the Holy Ghost, or of the Holy Ghost’s loving the saints, though these things are so often predicated of both the other persons.

The only account Edwards can give for Scripture’s silence regarding the Spirit’s mutual love for Father and Son is rooted in the abundance Scripture’s witness regarding the Spirit mutual love of Father and Son.

This isn’t even close to a full account of either Edwards’s exegesis, pneumatology, or his trinitarian theology.  What’s more recent works by Kyle Strobel, Oliver Crisp, and others have pointed out, Edwards’s account of the Trinity has some very serious, conceptual oddities. Still, even if one does not follow Edwards in all of his theological maneuvers, it’s clear articulation serves as a model for theologians who believe careful, committed exegesis need not be pitted against speculative, metaphysical reasoning in theology.

More importantly, on the material question of the Spirit as the mutual bond of love, he shows the plausibility and seriousness that should be given it on Scriptural grounds. Recognizing the Spirit as the, “infinitely holy and sweet energy [which] arises between the Father and the Son” need not be a matter of philosophical fancy after all, but rather of God’s own Self-Witness in his Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Two Pieces on Good Friday Preaching at TGC

elgrecoGod Doesn’t Forgive Like You

Did God really forgive sin on the cross? Did he pay the debt of sin his people owed?

One line of thinking suggests that to understand the cross as penal substitution is to deny the reality of God’s forgiveness. We usually think forgiving a debt means releasing someone from the obligation of paying it, right? But then if we think of the cross as Jesus paying our debt, then on the face of things, it would seem God didn’t actually forgive it. The choice would be forgiveness or payment—one or the other, but not both. In which case, to think of the cross as substitution and payment is to rob us of a God who truly forgives.

But is that correct? Do those options capture how God relates to us?

You can read the rest of this piece over at The Gospel Coalition.

3 Mistakes To Avoid in Your Good Friday Preaching

Preaching Christ and him crucified is central to the job of any gospel minister (1 Cor. 2:2). Good Friday drives this home perhaps more than any other day in the church calendar. On that day, the preacher’s task is to proclaim and explain why the bloody spectacle of the murdered Son of God is “good news.” How is such an apparent moral rupture the centerpiece of God’s great act of atonement, of reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19)?

Christ’s cross has always provoked hostility and scorn. It confronts us with our sins, bidding the old self to come and die so that the new self may rise and live. But that’s not the only difficulty involved.

Many have rightly recoiled at some of the defective ways pastors have preached the cross, especially its penal and substitutionary dimensions. When we misstep in this area, it gives people a distorted and damaging view of both God and his gospel. This is tragic not only because we deprive people of the gospel’s beauty, but also because, as C. S. Lewis observed, the more powerful and good something is, the more destructive it can be if it goes wrong. Just as a doctor cannot carelessly wield a scalpel, so pastors cannot carelessly preach the cross, lest we bring death instead of life.

While preaching the cross can go wrong in many ways, here are three key mistakes to avoid tomorrow.

You can read the rest at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Owen’s Polemical, Trinitarian Spirituality

communion with GodHistorian Richard Muller points out that if Reformed Orthodox theology had a “central-dogma”, contrary to most popular perceptions it wasn’t the doctrine of election, but that of the Trinity. That made intuitive sense to me when I read it. Even though I haven’t always been Reformed, the charge that it’s a sub-trinitarian tradition has never made sense to me.

Maybe that’s because one of the first books I read when I started getting into Reformed theology was John Owen’s Communion with the Triune God. In it, the Puritan giant’s main aim is to present his readers with an understanding of how we are called to communion and union with the Triune God. And not just the Trinity as “God in general.” Owen shows that we are also called to appreciate and commune with and worship each person distinctly in a manner appropriate them as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It’s really a phenomenally warm piece of Trinitarian devotional spirituality derived from sermons he preached to his congregation. I can tell you that it had a great impact on my spiritual life when I read it and I would recommend it highly.

What I didn’t know early on was that this wasn’t Owen’s only piece of Trinitarian theology. In fact, he’d written numerous volumes on it one way or another, including a number of heavily apologetic defenses like his lengthy Vindiciae Evangelicae, or the Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated and Socinianism Examined  in which he refutes the Unitarians and Socinians as well as his later A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Trinity. These are far more technical and polemical (at least the former is) pieces aimed at dispelling error and refuting heretics carried out with great passion and meticulous care.

The thing that’s key for us to see, though, is that these two kinds of works are just two sides of the same coin.

Nowadays, it’s very common to distinguish between writers of “spirituality” and “pastoral theology” and those who care about defending doctrine and carrying out polemics. But this was far from the case for the Puritan writers like Owen and his contemporaries.

For them, the polemics protected the spirituality and the spirituality drove the polemics.

In fact, some historians like Paul Lim suggest it’s at least partially because of his polemical context that Owen was driven to pursue and lay out such a rich Trinitarian spirituality. At the time there was a tendency on the part of the Socinians (and even some Arminians) to downplay or denigrate the Trinity as useless, false, or not of fundamental importance, since it was spiritually impractical. And so authors like Owen pressed to give a counter-response and left us with rich treasures of devotional trinitarianism. You can see the same thing in Herman Witsius, for instance.

Of course, when you stop to take in the broad sweep of Church history, that can’t be too surprising. Doctrine is often clarified, developed, and re-appropriated best at precisely those times when it comes under pressure from skeptics. Without them we wouldn’t have the polemics or devotional spirituality of Athanasius on the deity of the Son, Basil on the Holy Spirit, Augustine on Grace, and on down the line we could go.

In the history of the Church and even in the Scriptures (Paul, John, Jesus, the OT prophets…), those who care most passionately for the true worship of God often end up being those who argue for it most forcefully, looking to cut off idolatry and protect true worship. Those theologians of the Church deeply invested in the spirituality of the Church have been the most passionate in her defense. In the long run, then, spirituality and polemics are not at odds.

Indeed, they actually fuel one another. Knowing the good defenses of the faith and key doctrines can often serve to make them more secure in our minds and hearts moving us to worship. At other times, worshiping in Spirit leads us to pursue a deeper knowledge of the truth, which includes its defense.

And this is why I think we should not always be dismayed or discouraged beyond comfort when doctrinal fights break out. Nor should we always avoid it for the sake of a false peace. Yes, there is something distressing about it. But we should take comfort in knowing that God can (and often will) bring great fruit from these episodes.

That said, I think there is an order which should be maintained in the long run. Polemics are conducted for the sake of worship, not the other way around. That should be obvious, and I doubt any would deny that explicitly. All the same, I think the distaste some people have for reading clear, polemical theology comes from encountering those who have made the argument the point.

Thankfully, John Owen doesn’t seem to have been one of them.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Hays on Mark’s Jesus: The God Who “Walks By” On the Water

echoes of Scripture.jpgThe Gospel of John is typically acknowledged as having a high, divine Christology. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are far more disputed. In his recent, magisterial work, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospel Richard Hays makes a forceful case, though, that among other roles (Davidic Messiah, Son of Man, etc.), Mark intentionally (though subtly) identifies Jesus as the coming God of Israel in the flesh.

Given that the book is all about the way the Gospel writers use and appeal to the Old Testament, his mode of argument is unsurprising. Hays examine a number of key texts in Mark where Jesus is doing curious things (forgiving sin, calming the seas, leading sheep without a shepherd, etc.) and connects them to Israel’s Scriptures which show these are things only God has the right or the power to accomplish. In that light, divine activity reveals divine identity.

While each of the texts he examines are worth engaging, one text I’d never seen discussed in this respect is Mark 6:45-52, where Jesus walks on the Sea of Galilee (pp. 70-73).

Now, taken simply it seems like an obvious act of divine power, either by way of divine empowerment of a chosen agent (prophet), or direct divine presence. Though for the first, there don’t seem to be parallels.  And for those tempted to suggest it, the Exodus doesn’t fit much since there God splits the seas and lets everybody cross on dry ground. And since Elisha’s splitting the Jordan is a mini-Exodus, nix that as well.

For the second suggestion, you could argue that it connects to the theme of subduing the powers of watery chaos, which in the Old Testament was a divine act, and is emphasized in Mark 4:35-41. Still, Hays points out that there isn’t an explicit Old Testament citation, and the image of God walking on the water isn’t a common one.

So how is Hays going to connect it to the Old Testament and the identity of Israel’s God? Well, he cleverly points us to this magnificent speech from Job extolling the power of God:

His wisdom is profound, his power is vast.
    Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?
He moves mountains without their knowing it
    and overturns them in his anger.
He shakes the earth from its place
    and makes its pillars tremble.
He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
    he seals off the light of the stars.
He alone stretches out the heavens
    and treads on the waves of the sea.
He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.
He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed,
    miracles that cannot be counted.
When he passes me, I cannot see him;
    when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.
If he snatches away, who can stop him?
    Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
God does not restrain his anger;
    even the cohorts of Rahab cowered at his feet. (Job 9:4-13)

At first that might seem a slender thread to hang a reference on. But Hays calls our attention to a couple of confirming lines of evidence.

First, there is the basic linguistic link if you look at the Greek of Mark and the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) translation of Job 9.

Second, connecting the two texts would clear up an oddity in Mark’s narrative. In the story, Mark tells us that originally Jesus “intended to pass them by” (Mk. 6:48). Matthew doesn’t include that tidbit, and commentators have puzzled over it for centuries. But then we turn to Job’s speech. In it, we see him marveling over the mighty works and power of God and he says, “When he passes me, I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him” (Job 9:11).

Hays comments:

Thus, in Job 9 the image of God’s walking on the sea is linked with a confession of God’s mysterious transcendence of human comprehension: God’s “passing by” is a metaphor for our inability to grasp his power. This metaphor, as we surely realize by this time, accords deeply with Mark’s emphasis on the elusiveness of the divine presence in Jesus. Thus, the story of Jesus’ epiphanic walking on the sea, read against the background of Job 9, can be perceived as the signature image of Markan Christology. (72)

Third, Hays adds that the verb parelthein (passes by) “almost surely alludes” to the story of God passing Moses by in Exodus 33:17-23 and 34:6. In that story, God passes by to show him his glory from behind, as it were, because for Moses to see him directly would kill him. The Septuagint uses the same work over and over, making it almost a technical term for a divine appearance. All of that together would fit with the theme of the incomprehension of the disciples (Mk. 6:51-52).

Finally, Jesus’ words of assurance to the disciples in the boat (“It is I [ego eimi]; do not be afraid”) should probably be heard, then, as an echo of Exodus 3:14. There God reveals himself as “I am who I am” (LXX: ego eimi ho on). That phrase becomes a stock self-identifying phrase of Israel’s God throughout Scripture (Deut. 32:39; Isa. 41:4; 51:12; 43:11). So Hays:

“Thus, when Jesus speaks this same phrase, ‘I am,’ in his sea-crossing epiphany, it serves to underscore the claim of divine identity  that implicitly present in the story as a whole.”(73)

Of course, this is just one teaser of a reading of one, subtle passage. But set in alongside of the rest of Hays’ dazzling exegesis of other key texts, the argument that Mark’s Jesus is only a divinely-empowered man becomes labored and torturous.

In this text, Jesus is the God of Israel who treads on the waters, who passes by, present to save, though mysterious beyond comprehension.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Do Not Be Anxious to Be Modern In Theology

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

(Ecclesiastes 1:9-12)

If we had to classify the Teacher of Israel, it’s fairly clear he was not a modern.

Commenting on some of the defining marks of the theory of progress and the heart of the modern, Peter Leithart notes:

“The theory of progress rests on the notion that there is a cut in time between all that went before and what comes after the beginning of modernity. Modernity establishes itself by digging a monumental ditch, a ‘great divide,’ between the past and the present, between those still living in the past and those who are fully in touch with the possibilities of the present. The modern distinction of us and them and the boundaries that accompany it map out the world as modernity sees it. Modernity is an act of cartography, a zoning operation, an exercise in ‘chrono-politics.'”

Solomon Among the Postmoderns, pg. 32

Leithart sees this as part of modernity’s appropriation and secularization of Christian theology, particularly its eschatology: “Moderns treat modernity as if it were a new stage of redemptive history” (31). Instead of carving the world up into “in Adam” and “in Christ”, though, it’s “in Copernicus” or “in Aristotle” (or something less flattering like, “in Cave Dweller”). On this view, moderns understand the birth of Modernity as a radical break such that things are forever altered, they are better, we can’t go back, and we shouldn’t want to.

Chronological Snobbery

Now, when thinking about philosophy or theology, it’s typical to note that Modernity’s ditch-digging eschatology funds what C.S. Lewis has called its “Chronological snobbery”: “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

Rudolph Bultmann has a famous quote typically used to illustrate the need for his program for demythologizing the message of the New Testament, so that its existential challenge can be felt by modern men and women. In more conservative circles, fairly or not, it’s also a common example of the phenomenon Lewis is describing:

“We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”

Now that we have science and medicine, cars and so forth, who’s going to believe in superstitions like miracles, angels, demons, and the like?

Of course, taken baldly, and after reviewing the actual philosophical arguments for and against miracles and so forth, it’s a rather silly and somewhat arrogant claim. A good dose of Lewis, Aquinas, Plantinga, or other common works of apologetics others can disabuse you of that fairly quickly. All the same, it’s fairly intuitive and recognizable impulse.

Chronological Anxiety

As I’ve read more in theology over the years, I’ve realized that this sort of thing isn’t limited to “traditional” apologetics issues. And even more, it doesn’t always express itself as an arrogant snobbery. Rather it’s a sort of modern anxiety theologians have about the answers we have for the deep moral and existential questions our world is asking.

You can spot it whenever you see someone wringing their hands as they say something like, “the old answers just won’t work for us.”

Usually this can be connected to the Enlightenment and Romantic narratives of heroic doubt and world come of age (see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age). “In our intellectual infancy and innocence—before Copernicus reoriented the heavens, or the Lisbon earthquake, or the shattering of Europe in WW 1, or the Holocaust, etc. (pick your favorite intellectual or moral cataclysm)—we could accept such answers, but now, we simply can’t. And so we must bravely seek out new answers for a new age.”

perfectly simpleStephen Long points out that one of the easiest places to spot this anxiety is in modern revisions of the doctrine of God. He connects the revisionist project to G.W.F. Hegel in a few ways. (And I’ll be condensing and likely bastardizing here.)

First, there’s the bigger Hegelian (and Feuerbachian) impulse of identifying the theology of an era as a manifestation of the Spirit of that era (or projection of the human culture). In which case, the assumption is that the answers accepted in previous eras are particularly (and peculiarly) suited to those eras, and therefore not suited to ours.

Second, there’s the material appeal of his theology as a response the problem of evil that’s loomed large in the modern period ever since the Earthquake of Lisbon down through the Holocaust. Process metaphysics, a number of the 20th Century German theologies, and so forth, have all been influenced to some greater or lesser degree by Hegel’s revised metaphysics of the doctrine of the Trinity. In this revised economy of salvation, God becomes historical, not as the absolute author freely becoming incarnate in history while maintaining his perfection, but rather is dragged into it in such a way that he himself becomes and achieves his own self-realization (and self-salvation?) in the redemption of the horror and pain of history, and so forth.

Long thinks this is mistaken for a number of reasons, but one of them is connected to that anxiety to be modern:

This revised economy has had too much of a hold on modern theology. The need to be “modern” is part of the problem, when the “modern” is understood as a never-ending apocalyptic moment in which everything we have done up until this moment does not prepare us from the “now” that is about to arrive but never does. Everything must be revised; everything must be new. There has been a modern, apocalyptic anxiety about theology that seeks calls for revision and is fated to continue to do so, each call for revision trying to be more apocalyptic and historical than the previous one. The historical situatedness of this assumption need not hold us captive. To challenge this modern anxiety is not to wax nostalgic for premodernity. —The Perfectly Simple, Triune God: Aquinas and His Legacy, pg. 385

There’s much to comment on in this.

For one thing, Long pushes the notion of being modern past Leithart’s single “cut in time” and notes the way the modern ethos (which continues into postmodernity) is to continue anxiously cutting time between this age and that, these people and those.

And so, if we’re to be modern, giving answers to modern people, we need to constantly revise our answers for post-Holocaust, post-industrial, post-colonial, etc. age. Revisions must come by age-bracket now (insert joke about “millennial” eschatology).

Long’s comment also begins to push us towards the problem with such an impulse. For one thing, the thesis of the radically-situated and projected character of all theology is a radically-situated thesis itself. It is not necessary to view the nature of truth, theology, or the world that way.

Another way of putting this is that often enough the refrain, “The old metaphysics won’t work for us,” could be translated as, “The old metaphysics won’t work for some, dissatisfied white kids talking philosophy in a coffee-shop in the late-modern West.” Because something like the traditional metaphysics and economy of redemption seems to be doing fine in a global context, even if there are regional variations.

And even that’s not the whole picture, since there are plenty of late-modern kids in the West who find beauty, power, and strength in the older metaphysics. I know. I’ve talked to them, pastored them, and—surprise!—been one of them.

It seems plausible, then, the modern anxiety and assumption that just because they’re the “old answers” they can’t possibly work in a new context is more prejudice than established fact. Indeed, it borders on fideistic superstition since it exists in the face so many counter-examples sitting in pews across the world.

Nothing Is New Under the Sun

Which brings me back to Ecclesiastes. The Teacher’s early refrain is, “there is nothing new under the Sun.” I don’t want to deny the modern point that history is real, time passes, and cultural and material changes happen. But what we see this modern anxiety can take an extreme form such that it constitutes a denial of the continuity of human nature. “We are Moderns (or Postmoderns), it simply impossible for us to believe such things, since we are a different kind of human.” In that sense, it’s not just an eschatological heresy, it’s an anthropological one.

Coming back around to the problem of evil and the doctrine of God, it’s true that for some reason the problem took on a particular potency in philosophical reflection. But what surprises me in these discussions, though, is how often modern, theological revisionists tend forget that pre-moderns were well-acquainted with death and destruction, as if their answers constructed in a theological vacuum.

People act like Augustine didn’t live through the Fall of Rome or pastor in North Africa before the advent of Penicillin. As if Aquinas didn’t grow up in a world of warfare, or where mothers regularly lost their lives (or their children) in childbirth. Or as if Calvin and the other Reformers didn’t witness Religious wars, or have to pray for plague victims at their deathbeds. In other words, the people who came up with the “old answers” on the basis of Scripture were as well-acquainted with evil and pain as any modern or postmodern. Possibly more so.

In that case, if the “old answers won’t do” it’s possible to question the assumptions shared by moderns which keep them from accepting those answers, instead of the answers themselves?

Wolfhart Pannenberg, something of a reviser himself, has commented:

The fact that a later age may find it harder to understand traditional ideas is not a sufficient reason for replacing them. It simply shows how necessary it is to open up these ideas to later generations by interpretation and thus to keep their meaning alive.
Systematic Theology Vol. 2 , 422

The connects well with Long’s comments. To question this modern anxiety is not simply nostalgia for a straight-line return to premodern theology simpliciter, using all the same texts, formulas, with no alterations or considerations of our changed time and place. None of this relieves us from the task of application.

In order to preach the Word of God in our time, we have to know our time. We must know the moderns and the postmoderns. We should understand their objections, their fears, their particular anxieties and worries, which do exhibit cultural differences. It may take more arduous work “to open up these ideas” about God to the women and men of our times.

And because of the human finitude of our forebears, that may even include subjecting our theology to the Word of God afresh. God may move and show us that prior generations were insufficiently attentive to some aspect of revealed truth. One of my theological heroes, Herman Bavinck, is a fantastic model in this regard, in his ability to retrieve and creatively re-articulate the “old answers” of the Reformed tradition in such a way that attends to modern concerns.

But I suppose my point at the end of this long meditation is to say, when it comes to the practice of doing theology—having a Word from God to our neighbors—in the modern (or postmodern era), “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6). Do not think that in this we must constantly start anew with the release of every Mac operating system.

It is not unlikely God has provided you the answers you need through the work of the Church reading Scripture in history. A good many of them might even be premodern.

Soli Deo Gloria