The Miracle of Christmas, or On the Incarnation (Advent Readings)

nativityChristmas is coming. Advent is upon us. In the rush and bluster of the season, it’s all too easy to still our hearts, to stop, wait, and prepare ourselves to receive the Savior in the manger. A few years ago I noticed my heart somewhat dry around this time and so I took up the project of listening to Christmas hymns and carols. While that can connect many of us to the spiritual reality we are celebrating, reading key texts on the theological reality we are approaching: the Incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh, the Creator humbling assuming creation in order to redeem us from the condition of alienation, oppression, and damnation.

For those looking to dive into some soul-stirring meditations on the miracle of Christmas, I would recommend two works: Athanasius and Karl Barth.

On the Incarnation

Athanasius wrote his classic treatise, “On the Incarnation of the Word” as a follow-up to his apologetic work, “Against the Heathen.” Building upon his critique of the various pagan philosophies of the time, Athanasius undertook to explain and defend the heart of the Christian gospel, the Son’s assumption of human nature in order to redeem his fallen creation. In 9 very brief chapters, he lays out the logic of creation, the dilemma of sin, the accomplishment of the cross, the Resurrection, and answers various objections from all directions (Jews, Pagans, etc.). It remains a standard work of orthodoxy Christology and Trinitarian faith. What’s more, it’s rigorous as well as beautiful.

You can purchase it, or read it for free online here. For those put off by the idea of reading an old book, either because of its difficulty, or irrelevance, I’ll merely quote from C.S. Lewis’ introduction to the work upon its republication:

When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression. His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence.

As any reader of Athanasius will tell you, this little book is worth libraries of modern volumes.

The Miracle of Christmas

That said, sometimes the moderns have something to say. Karl Barth is one of them. Now, while I can’t endorse everything in this following recommendation, for the theological student, Barth’s reflection in the Church Dogmatics (vol. 1 part 2, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 172-202), is essential reading. The whole section is typical Barth: long, winding, extensive delving into the tradition, the narratives, and ultimately into the Christological heart of the event. No summary will do it justice, but this little quote in which he speaks of the Virgin Birth forming the corresponding limit to that of the Resurrection ought to whet your appetite:

The virgin birth denotes particularly the mystery of revelation. it denotes the fact that God stands at the start where real revelation takes place–God and not the arbitrary cleverness, capability, or piety of man. In Jesus Christ God comes forth out of the profound hiddenness of His divinity in order to act as God among us and upon us. That is revealed and made visible to us in the sign of the resurrection of the dead, but it is grounded  upno the fact signified by the Virgin Birth, that here is this Jesus God Himself has really come down and concealed Himself in humanity. It is because He was veiled here that He could and had to unveil Himself as He did at Easter. The empty tomb, on the other hand, denotes particular the revelation of the mystery. It denotes that it is not for nothing that God stands at the beginning, but that it is as such that He become active and knowable. He has no need of human pwoer and is free from all human caprice. Therefore even the ultimate extremities of human existence, as He submits too them and abandons Himself to death, offer no hindrance to His being and work. That God Himself in His complete majesty was one with us, as the Virgin birth indicates, is verified in what the empty tomb indicates, that here in this Jesus the living God has spoken to us men in accents we cannot fail to hear. Because He has unveiled Himself here as the One Heis, we may and must say what the Christmas message says, that unto you is born this day the Saviour. The mystery at the beginning is the basis of the mystery at the end; and by that mystery of the end the mystery of the beginning becomes active and knowable.  — CD 1/2, pp 182-183

That’s just a paragraph, but in that short excerpt, you see the way Barth masterfully develops the miracle of the Virgin birth in light of the doctrine of revelation and Resurrection of Christ. This is just one small part of the way Barth shows that the proclamation of Christ, born of a Virgin, is actually integral to understanding the mystery of the Gospel and Christ himself. Obviously, this chapter is probably not for everyone, but again, theological students and pastors only ignore it at the risk of their own spiritual and theological impoverishment. If you don’t own the Dogmatics, which is very possible, get to a seminary or theological library nearby, photocopy the section, and take it with you. The section stands alone quite nicely.

Well, those are my two recommendations for reading during the season. I hope they offer you some encouragement. If you all have any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Soli Deo Gloria

There is a Reason Everyone Still Quotes Athanasius Around Christmas

athanasiusblackdwarfThere is a reason everyone still quotes Athanasius around Christmas:

For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us.

He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father’s Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled. He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death.

All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way.

No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father.

This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.

–Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, ¶8

Soli Deo Gloria

Top Five Reformedish Books of 2013

AD: I use Grammarly to check plagiarism because what if I go on the Janet Mefferd Show? 

Once again it is time for my annual “Top Five Reformedish Books” of the year. This is actually a horrible post to write. I read a lot of good books this year. Many of them deserve to be on Top Five book lists somewhere. For me, though, these particular five distinguished themselves. Now, unlike some other lists, I am not simply choosing from books published in 2013, but rather from ones that I’ve read in 2013. I am still catching up on 20 centuries of thought, you know. Well, without further ado, here they are:

death by livingDeath By Living: Life Was Meant to Be Spent by N.D. Wilson – I’ve already reviewed this over at the Gospel Coalition where I said:

For return readers looking for quick comparison between Notes and Death, I’d say that if the last one changed the way I thought, this one might change the way I live. Notes invites you to embrace God as the sovereign, beyond-imagining author of this ridiculously unexpected universe. Death challenges you to live as a character, or rather, as a sub-writer of enfleshed, breathing words. Big ones. Interesting ones. Once again, you’ll find yourself in a well-shaken cocktail of poetic memoir, philosophy, theology, sharp wit, polemical fisticuffs, hilarity, and exhortation in the form of a paean to the grace of a life well-lived in the shadow of eternity. For the newcomer, you may want to strap in first.

walking with GodWalking With God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller – I’ve read a number of books on the subject, especially in my undergrad in philosophy, and I have to say, it is going to be the new classic on the subject. Unlike other works on the subject, it is not only pastoral, or only philosophical, or only theological, but approaches the issue of suffering from all of these angles and more. Keller brings sociology, literature, theology, philosophy, and, of course, the Scriptures, to bear on the seemingly intractable burden of suffering and evil. I’ll go out on a limb and say this is his best book yet. Given that you and everyone you know will encounter pain and suffering in this world, everybody should go out and pick up this book.

people and placePeople and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology by Michael Horton – This is the fourth volume of Horton’s dogmatics examining traditional doctrinal loci from the standpoint of a retooled covenant theology. Building on the work of Farrow, Volf, and others, Horton offers an instructive treatment of the origin of the Church, the sacraments, the classic marks of the Church, and her mission in the world. Of course, eschatology figures prominently in the discussion, and there is an excellent discussion of Scripture and tradition towards the front-end. As always, Horton is in constant conversation with Roman Catholic ecclesiologies, Barth, Radical Orthodoxy, Stanley Grenz, and general Evangelicals setting up a clear, irenic, and charitable contrast. While some discussions are a bit thick for the non-specialist, I highly recommend it to anybody interested in the ecclesiological discussions of the day, especially if you’re looking for a Reformed account that can play alongside the big boys like Ratzinger (RC) and Ziziouslas (EO).

athanasius leithartAthanasius by Peter Leithart – I decided to get down to business and read Athanasius’ Four Discourses Against the Arians this year, so I picked up Leithart’s volume as a bit of a guide. As usual, I was not disappointed. Paying close attention to Athanasius’ metaphysical categories and scriptural exegesis, Leithart cleanly and clearly expounds the good bishops’ beautiful Trinitarian and Christological theology, bringing it into living conversation with theologians at work today. Not only is Leithart an able interpreter of Athanasius’ polemical and pastoral theology, he sets the discussion in lively account of his theo-political controversies. For anybody interested in Athanasius, or the conversation around the ‘theological interpretation’ of scripture, it’s a great place to take the plunge.

paul and the faithfulness of GodPaul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright – I’ve waited for this book for a few years now. While I’m only through the first volume (weighing in at 570 pages), I can safely say this is the Paul book of the decade. It will be impossible to write about Paul from now on without engaging Wright’s arguments in this sprawling masterpiece. Beyond that, what can I say? It is the most grossly comprehensive thing I’ve ever seen on the subject. It’s Wright at the height of his powers: asking the big questions, giving even bigger answers; setting Paul in his 1st Century context against various backgrounds (2nd Temple Judaism, Roman, Greek); engaging New Perspectives and Old Perspectives; telling stories and arguing for stories; close exegesis and sweeping overviews from 20,000 feet; actantial analyses for days. No, you don’t agree with everything he says, but that isn’t why you read Wright, now is it?

Honorable Mentions:

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity by Charles Taylor

The Word of God for the People of God by J. Todd Billings

Union with Christ by Robert Letham

Soli Deo Gloria

“No One Knows the Day or Hour”–Why Keep it a Secret?

secretIn the Gospels Jesus tells us that no one knows the day or the hour of his coming, not even the Son himself (Matthew 24:36), and a good many of us have often wondered why. Why would Jesus keep us in the dark about that sort of thing? It seems awfully important and helpful information to know. In fact, some of us are so curious we try to figure it out anyway, despite Jesus’ warning.

It turns out that people in the early church were curious about those verses as well, but for different reasons. The Arians were in the habit of pointing to it as evidence that Jesus wasn’t divine and coeternal with the Father. How could he be if he didn’t know at what time these things had been ordained to pass? Athanasius has no patience for this and points out, again, that we need to think more deeply about what it means for the Son to take on flesh. He not only assume a human body, but human weakness, hunger, exhaustion, and yes, even ignorance at times. While he knows these things according to his divinity, in the economy he accepted a properly human ignorance for our sakes.

As it happens, though, in answering a Christological challenge, Athanasius sheds some light on another question, like, for instance, why God doesn’t tell us the final day and hour. He gives us two good reasons:

  1. “For it is profitable to you to hear so much [that the Son doesn’t even know] both of the Angels and of the Son, because of the deceivers which shall be afterwards; that though demons should be transfigured as Angels, and should attempt to speak concerning the end, you should not believe, since they are ignorant; and that, if Antichrist too, disguising himself, should say, ‘I am Christ,’ and should try in his turn to speak of that day and end, to deceive the hearers, ye, having these words from Me, ‘No, not the Son,’ may disbelieve him also.
  2. And further, not to know when the end is, or when the day of the end, is expedient for man, lest knowing, they might become negligent of the time between, awaiting the days near the end; for they will argue that then only must they attend to themselves. Therefore also has He been silent of the time when each shall die, lest men, being elated on the ground of knowledge, should forthwith neglect themselves for the greater part of their time…For who, knowing the day of the end, would not be dilatory with the interval? but, if ignorant, would not be ready day by day? It was on this account that the Saviour added, ‘Watch therefore, for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come;’ and, ‘In such an hour as ye think not, the Son of man cometh.’ For the advantage then which comes of ignorance has He said this; for in saying it, He wishes that we should always be prepared;”

Four Discourses Against the Arians, 3.49

Jesus wants us to be able to tell false prophets from the true Word of God, and he wants us to be prepared. He knows the schemes of the enemy as well as our weakness, so he gives us protection and encouragement.

These might not be the only reasons God holds back a knowledge of the day and hour of his return, but it’s a good place to start. Quit trying to peer into the day or hour God has appointed by his secret plan, but rather prepare yourself to live at all times in light of his coming, whether it is 2 days or 200 years away.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mistaking a Stick for the Son

sunpaintingEver run across those verses with God kind of loudly declaring “I am God, acknowledge that” and so forth? You find them in Isaiah (43:11; 45:5), Ezekiel (12:15; 2044), and places like that. I remember when I first read them in my studies, I was kind of put off. I didn’t get it at first. God seemed awfully narcissistic and insecure to be going on about himself like that, kind of like the awkward guy who refers to himself in third person. (“Derek doesn’t like mayonnaise. Derek is the greatest.”)

Well, later on, I read a bit more, understood the context, and began to deeply love these declarations of God’s sovereign uniqueness. He truly is the LORD, and compared to him there is no other. I love the bold, forthright assertion of his His kingly ‘colossal self-regard’, to use Walter Brueggeman’s phrase. What’s really amazing about it is that there’s actually something very humble about God coming to us and declaring himself to a rebellious people. Given our willful blindness to the truth, why should a great and mighty Creator bother with us at all? Yet in these statements God invites us to relationship with a true and living God, not the false little idols we’ve made for ourselves.

Athanasius paints helpful picture for us when it comes to understanding these passages:

And this account of the meaning of such passages is satisfactory; for since those who are devoted to gods falsely so called, revolt from the True God, therefore God, being good and careful for mankind, recalling the wanderers, says, ‘I am Only God,’ and ‘I Am,’ and ‘Besides Me there is no God,’ and the like; that He may condemn things which are not, and may convert all men to Himself. And as, supposing in the daytime when the sun was shining, a man were rudely to paint a piece of wood, which had not even the appearance of light, and call that image the cause of light, and if the sun with regard to it were to say, ‘I alone am the light of the day, and there is no other light of the day but I,’ he would say this, with regard, not to his own radiance, but to the error arising from the wooden image and the dissimilitude of that vain representation; so it is with ‘I am,’ and ‘I am Only God,’ and ‘There is none other besides Me,’ viz. that He may make men renounce falsely called gods, and that they may recognise Him the true God instead…

Discourses Against the Arians 3.8

Our idols are like finger-paintings of the sun posted in our windows. There’s no comparison to the real thing. In his mercy, God reveals himself to us that we might turn from these darkening idols to the true light of God.

Now, Athanasius is dealing with this text in his disputes with the Arians.  They were contending that in light of these, it’s blasphemy to say that the Son is co-eternal with the Father. Athanasius goes on to give the passage a Christological shape in order to expose their confusions:

Indeed when God said this, He said it through His own Word…For the Word of the Lord came to the Prophet, and this was what was heard; nor is there a thing which God says or does, but He says and does it in the Word. Not then with reference to Him is this said, O Christ’s enemies, but to things foreign to Him and not from Him. For according to the aforesaid illustration, if the sun had spoken those words, he would have been setting right the error and have so spoken, not as having his radiance without him, but in the radiance shewing his own light. Therefore not for the denial of the Son, nor with reference to Him, are such passages, but to the overthrow of falsehood.

-ibid.

Just as its ridiculous to think that the sun could shine a light without its own radiance, Athanasius says it’s a mistake to think of God saying “I am the LORD, apart from me there is no other” without His Word. The Son is not some thing external to the Father, but is of his own essence. From all of eternity God has been the Father of the Son. Which is why, when he wants to make himself  known, God declares himself to us through Jesus Christ, the Son. The Son is how God calls us away from the worship of false gods of our own making, speaking light into all of our darknesses.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Theological Importance of Knowing What ‘Time’ It Is

old-clockMost of us don’t think of knowing what time it is as a significant theological issue. Beyond showing up promptly out of respect for an acquaintance, or knowing when to get to church on Sunday, how could it be? According to Athanasius it could mean difference between heresy and orthodoxy. In his First Discourse Against the Arians he sets about answering objections to the Son’s deity from Scripture, showing that the Arians’ hermeneutics were hopelessly misguided and indeed, characterized by interpretive folly.

Bringing forward texts like Hebrews 1:4 “being made so much better to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs”, they argued from this that it is clear that the Son is made ‘better’ in which case he could not be eternal, uncreated, admitting of improvement. Athanasius says that this exegetical failure is rooted in their ignorance of time.

Appealing to the Eunuch’s question to the apostle Philip, “of whom does the Prophet speak, of himself, or of some other man?” (Acts 7:34), he expounds the very important interpretive rule that:

…it is right and necessary, as in all divine Scripture, so here, faithfully to expound the time of which the Apostle wrote, and the person, and the point; lest the reader, from ignorance missing either these or any similar particular, may be wide of the true sense… (7.54)

Athanasius notes how persistent the disciples were about understanding these particulars, especially the time, so that they would not fall into error:

…And the disciples, wishing to learn the time of what was foretold, besought the Lord, ‘Tell us,’ said they, ‘when shall these things be? and what is the sign of Thy coming?’ And again, hearing from the Saviour the events of the end, they desired to learn the time of it, that they might be kept from error themselves, and might be able to teach others; as, for instance, when they had learned, they set right the Thessalonians. who were going wrong. When then one knows properly these points, his understanding of the faith is right and healthy; but if he mistakes any such points, forthwith he falls into heresy… (ibid.)

Scripture also gives us the negative example of what happens when one is temporally disoriented:

…Thus Hymenæus and Alexander and their fellows were beside the time, when they said that the resurrection had already been; and the Galatians were after the time, in making much of circumcision now. And to miss the person was the lot of the Jews, and is still, who think that of one of themselves is said, ‘Behold, the Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and they shall call his Name Emmanuel, which is being interpreted, God with us;’ and that, ‘A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up to you,’ is spoken of one of the Prophets; and who, as to the words, ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter,’… (ibid)

Arius and his followers were making Hymenaeus and Alexander’s mistake, not noting the time with respect to the texts in dispute. If they had, they would have observed that the apostle is not referring to the Lord with respect to his pre-incarnate state, but within the economy of salvation with respect to his humanity. That is the time when God “spoke to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:2), and the Son obtained a more excellent name than the angels (Heb. 1:3, 4).  In other words, they didn’t understand the hermeneutical difference it makes that the story’s main character has a “history” that begins in eternity.

Christianity is a historical faith about things that took place in particular locations at precise times. Salvation is a dramatic reality which means that knowing which act we’re in can drastically impact the way we read the lines. While modern biblical studies have directed us to pay closer attention to the concrete socio-historical circumstances surrounding the texts, and recent narratival/canonical approaches have re-emphasized the redemptive-historical location of the text, Athanasius reminds us to keep an eye on the distinction between history and eternity.

Soli Deo Gloria

Director, Soul, and King: The Word

directorReading the early Fathers gives you a sense that they were smitten by the wonder of God’s creative glory. Ireneaus was one of the first and greatest theologians of the significance and grandeur of God’s works. Following on his heels comes Athanasius’, waxing eloquent on the subject in his work Contra Gentes. In his argument against the pagan gods, he points to the magnificent order of the universe as evidence that they could only be the result of a single, purposive God according to Wisdom–the Word Himself.

Master teacher that he is, Athanasius gives us three similes to explain how the Word gives order to the Universe:

  1. Director – “And for so great a matter to be understood by an example, let what we are describing be compared to a great chorus. As then the chorus is composed of different people, children, women again, and old men, and those who are still young, and, when one, namely the conductor, gives the sign, each utters sound according to his nature and power, the man as a man, the child as a child, the old man as an old man, and the young man as a young man, while all make up a single harmony…”
  2. Soul – “or as our soul at one time moves our several senses according to the proper function of each, so that when some one object is present all alike are put in motion, and the eye sees, the ear hears, the hand touches, the smell takes in odour, and the palate tastes,—and often the other parts of the body act too, as for instance if the feet walk..”
  3. King – “or, to make our meaning plain by yet a third example, it is as though a very great city were built, and administered under the presence of the ruler and king who has built it; for when he is present and gives orders, and has his eye upon everything, all obey; some busy themselves with agriculture, others hasten for water to the aqueducts, another goes forth to procure provisions,—one goes to senate, another enters the assembly, the judge goes to the bench, and the magistrate to his court. The workman likewise settles to his craft, the sailor goes down to the sea, the carpenter to his workshop, the physician to his treatment, the architect to his building; and while one is going to the country, another is returning from the country, and while some walk about the town others are going out of the town and returning to it again: but all this is going on and is organised by the presence of the one Ruler, and by his management…”

Against the Heathen, -§43

Of course Athanasius notes that these pictures are “inadequate”, and “yet with an enlarged idea” they serve to illumine the way God sustains the creative rhythm of reality through his Word–“For with the single impulse of a nod as it were of the Word of God, all things simultaneously fall into order, and each discharge their proper functions, and a single order is made up by them all together.”

In all this he is a student of  the Psalmist who proclaims to us:

1The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

Let us never cease to marvel at the works of the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria