“It’s Only a Metaphor”

“None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable , you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you — even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers and triumphs over all opposition.”

Thus Neil Gaiman opens one of the latter chapters in the novel, American Gods (p. 551). It’s clever as an ironic bit of storytelling in that it plays with a typical, modern approach to belief in the gods, as only so much metaphor, right before it launches into the rest of a narrative about a battle of the gods.

Of course, much of our popular view of metaphor and religious belief is confused as well. You find this both in popular and academic contexts. Often when someone says something like, “It’s a metaphor, don’t take it literally,” they don’t mean, “well, be careful misinterpreting that particular figure of speech.” What they end up meaning is something like, “it’s only a metaphor, don’t take it too seriously, or as reality.” To call something a metaphor is to say it is only a florid way of saying something that, if we really wanted to understand as it is, we ought to express in a more straightforward, literal fashion. Like, say that of the sciences.

LewisNow, the problem with that view is one C.S. Lewis pointed out long ago in his essay, “Is Theology Poetry?” when dealing with the charge that much Christian Theology is only so much un-purified metaphor.

We are invited to restate our belief in a form free from metaphor and symbol. The reason we don’t is that we can’t. We can, if you like, say “God entered history” instead of saying “God came down to earth.” But, of course, “entered” is just as metaphorical as “came down.” You have only substituted horizontal or undefined movement for vertical movement. We can make our language duller; we cannot make it less metaphorical. We can make the pictures more prosaic; we cannot be less pictorial.

Nor are we Christians alone in this disability. Here is a sentence from a celebrated anti-Christian writer, Dr. I. A. Richards.

“Only that part of the cause of a mental event which takes effect through incoming (sensory) impulses or through effects of past sensory impulses can be said to be thereby known. The reservation no doubt involves complications.”

Dr. Richards does not mean that the part of the cause “takes” effect in the literal sense of the word takes, nor that it does so through a sensory impulse as you could take a parcel through a doorway. In the second sentence “The reservation involves complications,” he does not mean that an act of defending, or a seat booked in a train, or an American park, really sets about rolling or folding or curling up a set of coilings or rollings up. In other words, all language about things other than physical objects is necessarily metaphorical.

We could dispute some of Lewis’s parsing, but the fact of the matter is the language of science is typically shot through with metaphor. Any good science writer who is paying attention to what’s going on will admit as much metaphor and analogy is involved in the models used to describe the more theoretical reaches of physics (think of the now-defunct String Theory) as there is in the doctrine of Eternal Generation.

What’s more, much of our “literal” language is littered with the detritus of metaphor that has died and been forgotten. For example, we speak straightforwardly about the “leg” of a chair on analogy with the “leg” on an animal or a human. What was once a notable metaphor has become “literal” by being lexicalized through regular use. Again, this happens in science: think of the language of an electrical “current” that “flows.”

This brings us to one of more important points Janet Martin Soskice makes in her work Metaphor and Religious Language. The use of metaphors has an important role to play in extending language, as one of the ways where we supply terms where one is lacking in our vocabulary. Metaphors can extend, not only our vocabulary, but our way of conceiving reality by suggesting “new categories of interpretation” which lead us to think of “new entities, states of affairs, and causal relations.” This is why metaphors are so useful, not only in the hard sciences, but in conceiving social, political, and, yes, even theological realities.

I’m barely scratching the surface of the discussion of metaphor, but my point has simply been to note that labeling some bit of language “metaphorical” is not say it is “less real,” or, “not referring to anything out there.” Yes, they can be terms of art, literary dressing, and so forth. But all the same, metaphors are useful in everyday language, the language of science, and in theology insofar as they are reality-depicting. Metaphors are not a distraction from clear thinking about a matter, or a way of distancing us from understanding the truth of the world. Instead, they can be a way of perceiving and understanding them in a more adequate way than we could otherwise.

In which case, when we hear the phrase, “God is our father,” it’s not so much a choice between deciding whether or not its true or only a metaphor. Rather, it’s about deciding whether the metaphor is a true and good one, and if it is, in just what way. And for Christians, this is where Scripture is our guide. Reading the Bible attentively allows us to see God’s own deployment of metaphorical language for himself, attuning us to the ways he wills to be understood and known.

Soli Deo Gloria

Perhaps Just One More Thesis on Church Discipline?

Wes Hill has written a provocative reflection on the matter of church discipline (or seeming lack thereof) in the Episcopal and Anglican communions. Framed around the challenge of his Reformed friends about why these churches seem never to ask people committing flagrant, public sin to refrain from communion, he forwards five theses on Church discipline. Now, as with just about anything Wes writes, it’s all very thoughtful and worthwhile to engage with.

To summarize, as one of those Reformed folks with questions about Anglicanism, I’ll say that I sympathize broadly with the piece. I think thesis #1 is very over-stated, but much of the problem with disciplining individual members for sexual failures does ignore the broad context of pastoral and disciplinary failure in the church as a whole. I see this with badly catechized college kids all the time. In that sense, yes, we’re all complicit here. What’s more, in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, conversion on these culturally-disputed matters takes time. Finally, we need to exercise patience in our recovery or rediscovery of the practice of discipline, especially when we consider that discipline is aimed at forgiveness.

All of this reminds me of Lewis’s words about the way God may judge different generations by different standards with respect to different sins. Cultural forces, church failures, etc. can indeed shape the moral subject and make obedience on certain issues harder or more confusing than at other times in church history. I do think this is one area where that is true for our age (though not absolutely), in the way that other issues were in others.

That said, it’s precisely for that reason my mind returns to the earlier conversations around “orthodoxy” language being used for matters of sexuality, or on the sort of labels we affix to pastors, theologians, and priests who teach contrary to Scripture on these matters. Should we call them, the pastors in charge of God’s flock, false teachers or no? Is this an orthodoxy or catholicity issue, or not? And should we say so?

Which is to say, my biggest question with Wes’s piece is that I don’t see a clear answer on what seems to be the deepest issue of discipline within the Anglican or Episcopal church, which is not the sinful laity, but the fact that the clergy are not held to account for explicitly teaching that things that ought not be done can be done. As with Israel, It is the theological laxity and moral corruption of the priests who do not guide or guard the sheep which is the prior issue (Ezek 34). If discipline is to be recovered, it seems wise to start at the top. Otherwise we will never start.

Or again, if the matter is the lack of catechesis and moral instruction of the church, then it seems all the more important we use strong language to communicate just how wide a departure these teachers have taken from Scripture and the catholic tradition. We may exercise patience with individuals, yes. But such patience paired with a broader unwillingness to use the clearest possible language about about the issue is exactly the sort of thing which yields the situation Wes is lamenting.

It is that language, and that clarity, I’m not at all sure I find in Wes’s proposal. Perhaps, then, one more thesis is needed?

Soli Deo Gloria

 

To Dance, or not to Dance with the Trinity?

kermit-to-self

Me: Read for your paper. Other Me: Write about that Dancing with the Trinity thing for an hour. Nothing bad can happen.

Fred Sanders critiqued a new book by Richard Rohr on the Trinity, The Divine Dance, yesterday at TGC. As with most of Sanders’ writing, it was playful, with puckish humor. It was also atypically forceful for the ever-genial Sanders, condemning the work as crossing the bounds of Nicene and general Orthodoxy at various points. (FWIW, the location surprised some, as well, because Sanders is a quite openly Wesleyan theologian, quite uninterested in defending Calvinism. Apparently, they asked him because he is a well-respected, expert on trinitarian theology in general.)

In any case, it provoked dismay and chagrin among Rohr’s fans and even some more neutral onlookers. I’ll touch on that below, but one interesting question it raised for me was the issue of whether or not we should use the very popular image of the Trinity as a “Divine Dance” in our preaching and teaching.

Dancing with Lewis and Keller

If you’ve heard a sermon on the Trinity in an Evangelical church in the last 50 years, I would not be surprised if you’ve seen the pastor appeal to a very famous passage in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity where he appeals to the image to explain the dynamic, inner life of the Triune God. I mean, I know I’ve used it. In any case, here it is:

And that, by the way, is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person. I know this is almost inconceivable, but look at it thus. You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the ‘spirit’ of that family, or club, or trade union. They talk about its ‘spirit’ because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they would not have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course, it is not a real person: it is only rather like a person. But that is just one of the differences between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.

So we see that Lewis is in the middle of a discussion of what it means for God to be love. In the middle of it, he appeals to the image of a dance to begin to speak of the procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son as the loving union of Father and Son (per Augustine, ‘the bond of love’).

Beyond the fact that people suck down anything Lewis writes (yours truly included), I don’t know how many books on the Trinity in the last 50 years have simultaneously appealed to the Greek word perichoresis used by some of the Fathers (Gregory, Maximus, later John of Damascus). Originally, the term was used to describe the interpenetration of Christ’s two natures in the incarnation. Later, the term was expanded to speak of the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity a la the Johannine discourses (“I am in the Father and the Father is in me”).

Now, the word’s etymology can be linked to the idea of movement and aroundness, and so somewhere along the line, the link between perichoresis and dance was born.  In the 20th Century, it’s been used by a number of Trinitarian theologians like Jurgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, and others as a key way of speaking about the unity of the persons of the Trinity, the God/world relationship, and sundry other uses that extend beyond the original purposes of the term. We’ve experienced something of a perichoretic overload. The dance has gotten out of hand.  (BTW, we had a Mere Fidelity episode on it here.)

In any case, Sanders’ critique may have left the impression that to use the image at all was heretical in itself. Mike Morell, Rohr’s co-author/transcriber, responded to Sanders’ criticism by pointing out that if the image is off-limits, that’s quite awkward since one of TGC’s co-founders, Tim Keller, has appealed to the image himself in places like The Reason for God. Here is the quote:

The life of the Trinity is characterized not by self-centeredness but by mutually self-giving love. When we delight and serve someone else, we enter into a dynamic orbit around him or her, we center on the interests and desires of the other. That creates a dance, particularly if there are three persons, each of whom moves around the other two. So it is, the Bible tells us. Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic pulsating dance of joy and love. The early leaders of the Greek church had a word for this—perichoresis. Notice the root of our word ‘choreography’ is within it. It means literally to “dance or flow around.”

Awkward, right? So do Keller and Lewis fall afoul of Sanders’ critique? How about the likely dozens and hundreds of other authors who have used it? Are they immediately to be considered heretics? Should we ditch the dance? What’s going on here?!

To Dance or Not To Dance

Well, given that I’ve gone back and forth about the image myself, I’ve got a few thoughts on the subject.

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between perichoresis and the dance image. The two are different things and you can appeal to perichoresis without invoking the dance. Perichoresis has gotten a bit buzzwordy and goofy, but that’s no reason to ditch the classic terminology. Just use it properly.

Second, there are at least two different uses of the dance image. It can be deployed in an illustrative and modest way, or an intensive and extensive way. In other words, it’s the difference between an image and a model.

I think Lewis is a good example of the illustrative image use. He spends a good deal of time in the book trying to explain things like the eternal generation of the Son, differences in between divine and human personality, and establishing a fairly standard, Nicene view of the eternal relations of Father, Son, and Spirit. And then he casually deploys the dance as an image of the livingness and movement of the divine life without trying to figure out if the dance is a mambo, or a waltz, or something else. It’s quick, it’s illustrative, and it’s done. (Given that he basically uses it briefly in a couple books, I tend to think that this is where Keller fits, too, even if he may fall afoul of the common etymological fallacy Sanders’ mentions in his footnote of the review.)

Others seem to take it as something more of a full-blown model, especially when linking it to a view called social trinitarianism, which takes the persons of the Trinity to be more like modern individuals, with three distinct, centers of consciousness, will, and so forth, who are united in being, but tend to look something more like a family. When the dance image gets invoked, at that point it starts to take on a whole different level of meaning, and we have all sorts of psychological and relational dynamics worked out and so forth. It can become far more intensive and extensive.

Finally, as an extreme version of this, you might do what Sanders says Rohr does: make the image central, set it within a relational metaphysic that has shades of pantheism and panentheism, gesture at a fuzziness in the Creator/creature distinction, downplay Scriptural language for the Trinity, openly disdain hundreds of years of reflection on the issue, talk about femininity within the interstitial spaces between the persons of the Trinity, start suggesting humans belong within it, and, on top of that, suggest we should “ignore the dancers” we were talking about in the first place. (Now, I admit I haven’t read the book, but Sanders has provided direct quotes, and since he has sneezed more Trinitarian theology than I have read, I tend to take his word for it.) If that’s what’s going on, then at that point the problem isn’t the dance image, but this whole, relational, “flow” metaphysic that has started to do all sorts of heterodox things with the rest of our theology.

With these differences in view, I think it’s possible to say that the dance image itself, if used modestly, quickly, and as just that—an image, not a model—is still kosher. I do think it’s good to be careful with these things, though. If you’re preaching, we need to connect to our people, and speak to them about the dynamic, living God. But we also need to remember that the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit has given us the best image of himself in his works in history as the Son comes from the Father in the power of the Spirit to live, die, rise again, and bring us new life in the gospel.

What God has shown and said about himself needs to be our touchstone for everything we eventually say about him. Use the image as and only if you can reinforce something revealed, but be careful you don’t build an entire world around it.

Theology and Idolatry

And this brings me to a final point I want to make. It came up over the summer when this whole Trinity debate happened as well. Some people were shocked yesterday that someone would come out so forcefully to debate about the Trinity (also, there was probably a difference in interpretation of Sanders’ tone).

Still, I think there’s this thought in broader Evangelicalism, both conservative and progressive, that beyond the mere affirmation of it, it’s super esoteric, difficult, and not the sort of thing to get crazy about, because if you do, you’re probably just an academic protecting your turf, or someone who just likes being right for the sake of being right.The order and nature of the persons, the single being of God, and so forth–that’s no reason to write off a person’s work is it?

I have to admit that, in the abstract, there’s part of me that sympathizes.

But this has not been the attitude of the church for most of its history. What’s more, the Bible contains very strong language about idolatry. In Exodus 20, the first commandment is to not worship other gods, while the second is to avoid making up images of God out of your own head. Don’t picture God as he hasn’t pictured himself. Because when we do, we inevitably get it wrong, and start to shrink God down to our size, distort him, and remold him in our image. All throughout the Scriptures the warnings against falsely worshipping him resound, especially in the prophets. It’s not a minor theme.

That matters because, (a) God is holy and majestic and glorious and we shouldn’t distort that, but also because (b) God wants us to know him, relate to him, love him, and receive love from him in truth. And wrong, distorted, heretical thoughts about him hurts that. Eugene Peterson says “a lie about God is a lie about life.” This is not about logic-chopping but about worshiping God in Spirit and in truth (John 4). God gives himself to be known and loved by us, but not in whichever way we want or find congenial, or fires our creativity. He wants to be loved as he is. If anybody is going to accommodate God to our knowledge, it is God himself.

Listen, I get that the Trinity is hard to think and write about. I have struggled to get my own trinitarian theology straight for so long. And if you’re struggling with it, that’s fine. Especially if you’re someone in the pew who is not ordained, or going around teaching people about it.  Or maybe writing entire books on it.

But if people do go writing entire books on it, teaching on it with authority, and then if they get it severely wrong in a way that threatens to mislead many, many people, this seems like the kind of thing it seems worth having a go around about.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity – The 4 Loves: Affection

Mere FiThis week Alastair, Matt, and I consider the first of ‘the four loves’ that C.S. Lewis discusses, affection. I think it was a smashing discussion, but that may just be me.

If you do too, though, feel free to share this around, or leave us a review at iTunes. If you’re interested in supporting the show (with money, that is), you can check out our Patreon here. We don’t make any money, but it would be nice if Matt didn’t have to keep losing it.

The Paradox of Spiritual Hindsight (We Only See Sin in Light of Christ)

danger in the rearviewKierkegaard said that life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward. More popularly, “hindsight is 20/20.” I think there is no place this holds more truly than in the spiritual life. We’re finite beings, never more than marginally aware of the far-reaching impact upon the future of any single one of our choices. As Pascal said, if Cleopatra’s nose had been half an inch shorter, her fateful love affair with Mark Antony might never have happened, and the face of the ancient world might have been completely transformed.

But it’s not only finitude that affects our spiritual perception, but the state of our souls themselves.

Nowhere is this clearer than with the knowledge of sin. Sin is an active and malevolent evil that persists precisely because it hides itself. One of its marks is occlusion and confusion to hide in the shadows of our self-perception. The folly of sin isn’t restricted to the unintelligent either–indeed, at times is worse with the intellectually gifted. The smarter you are, the more complex and clever your self-justifications and rationalizations. Total Depravity, in case you were wondering, is really about this sort of dynamic–there’s no part of your self that’s pure, clean, and unaffected by sin. Even the more “noble” bits of you like the intellect have been corrupted by sin.

This leads to one of the many paradoxes of Christianity–the reality is that we only see our sin truly once we’ve begun to repent of it. Of course, someone could easily object that it’s unsurprising that once you become a Christian you begin to find more sins than you did before–that’s how brainwashing works! If we reflect on it, though, we can see the way this paradox makes quite a bit of sense without resorting to the brainwashing interpretation.

C.S. Lewis shed some light on the dynamic in his classic Mere Christianity:

When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.

Many of you have seen this, right? The friend who has maybe had one or two drinks will listen if you tell them to slow down, but if they’ve had four or five, they’re not as likely to see the need.

Or again, if you’ve ever gotten new glasses, you know that you might have some sense of the fact that your vision has trouble for a while. But after getting your glasses for the first time, or the next prescription, you put them on and marvel at how clear the world becomes. It’s only after you begin to see clearly that you exclaim, “I never knew my eyesight was so bad!”

Karl Barth, in his own, inimitable way, painted a vivid picture of the paradox in a sermon on Ephesians 2:8 that he preached to inmates in his hometown of Basel:

You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe! You ask, Do we really live in such danger? Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Savior, and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross…Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our  — because of our sin — sharing our captivity — burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: By grace you have been saved!”

Lewis shows us the way sin clouds our sense of sin, our conscience, or judgment about these things in ourselves, but while he hits on the subjective dimension, to the knowledge of sin, while Barth points us to the objective side. You see, while it’s possible to begin to recognize the reality of sin, the fact of sin, and even our own complicity, it’s not until we see Christ crucified for us that we truly understand the magnitude of it. The Son of God, murdered, hanging from the executioner’s gibbet is what my sin cost.

Of course, we only see that once we’ve come to see Christ crucified for me–that is, once we are Christ’s.  Not only was my sin that costly, my danger that pressing, my guilt that grotesque, so also was God’s love for me that magnificent. It is precisely in this way that God shows his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:8).

Pascal was caught up with the beauty and mystery of this paradox. He constantly spoke of the necessity of recognizing our greatness as created in God’s image and our wretchedness as sinners without God. In fact, part of our greatness is in the fact that we know we’re wretched! A tree can’t know it’s wretched, but we can. Of course, part of our wretchedness comes with the fact that we don’t know we’re wretched. And when you do know that you’re wretched, well, it’s crushing.

Pascal realized there’s only one way to know them both properly and that is in the light of Christ:

Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride. Knowing our wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair.

Knowing Jesus Christ strikes the balance because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness. –Pensees, (527)

Coming to know Christ helps us come to a knowledge of sin that simultaneously lifts us up and humbles us. He shows us our greatness and our wretchedness. He gives us God and a right recognition of our sin at once in light of his own glorious and horrible cross.

Or, as Tim Keller often puts it, “We’re far worse than we ever could have imagined, and far more loved than we could ever dream.”

Soli Deo Gloria

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

Greek’s Bearing Gifts (A Couple Quick Responses To The “Greek” Charge in Theology)

platoaristoFor some time now, one of the main charges made against the early Church Fathers and the Medievals has been that in translating the gospel to their Greek contemporaries, they ended up altering (or disfiguring) it. Or at least in part. This kind of thing usually comes up most with respect to the doctrine of God. The idea is that in order to make the gospel intellectually respectable, or simply because they couldn’t recognize their own presuppositions, the Fathers constructed their doctrine of God in ways that were dependent more on principles of Greek philosophy, rather than based on the picture of God given to us in the Israel’s Scriptures. On this view, speech about an “impassible” and “immutable” God has less to do with the God of Jesus, than with Aristotelian or Platonic ideas about apatheia and so forth. Typically this has been dubbed the “Hellenization thesis.”

Now, this was an extremely popular charge over the last century or so, especially among those looking to ditch some old doctrines, and reconceive God along other lines. It’s still quite popular today, at least among the bloggerati as well. When you want to retool something, or reframe it differently than it’s been taught for a few hundred years, or longer, it’s usually good to have a story for why people used to teach something, and why we need to move on from it. A story of unfortunate corruption and decay fits the bill quite nicely.

I bring all this up because Michael Allen had a great post over at the Zondervan Academic blog, “Common Places”, on the way the Hellenization Thesis needs to be put to bed. I quite agree. Allen goes about showing the way it’s been dispatched by more careful historical and theological work of late. To summarize the situation, he quotes Robert Louis Wilken:

“The notion that the development of early Christian thought represented a Hellenization of Christianity has outlived its usefulness … a more apt expression would be the Christianization of Hellenism, though that phrase does not capture the originality of Christian thought nor the debt owed to Jewish ways of thinking and to the Jewish Bible.”

From what I’ve read of the literature, which admittedly is limited, that sounds about right. Allen then goes on to make a number of helpful suggestions about the way theologians ought to adjust to life after the death of the Hellenization thesis, all of which are worth your time. It’s dying in academia, but in the popular theological mind it still stalks about like a ghost clinging to life among the living.

Most people often don’t have the time to do the specialized studies of the Fathers and the Medievals to demonstrate this, however. So, I thought it might be helpful to note briefly a few ways of responding, or thinking about the “Greek” charge when coming across it popularly.

“Prove it”, or The Genetic Fallacy.  The first is to note simply that many forms of the “Greek” charge are a form of the genetic fallacy. In other words, the assumption is that because an idea came from a Greek source, it is therefore unbiblical and false. But just because Aristotle came up with an idea, it by no means follows that the idea isn’t true. It still has to be demonstrated according to Scripture that some Greek idea is incompatible with the gospel. In other words, “Prove it.”

Two Biblical doctrines ought to give us pause in connection with this. First, is the doctrine of the Image of God. Without getting into the issue of natural revelation or the possibility of natural theology, despite the fall, humans can still get some reasoning done. It’s not salvific, or anything, but it’s still there. Second, is the doctrine of common grace. God gives out good gifts to both Jew and Greek, Christian and non-Christian, by his mercy and the common work of the Spirit in creation. The fall has corrupted our knowledge of God, and every philosophical principle needs to be held up to the light of Scripture, but we shouldn’t be too surprised when some of them lineup.

Jesus Has Layers  – Closely related to this is an idea forwarded by some that the intellectual interaction between Biblical revelation and Greek philosophy was a good part of God’s providential ordering. Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has written about the critical role the attempts of the early Greek apologists played in the project of making the gospel intelligible and plausible to non-Jews. Gentile like us shouldn’t so quickly turn on the very principles that played such a significant role in their own conversion (ST: Vol 1, pg. 72).

C.S. Lewis wrote positively in Miracles about the way certain Greek philosophizing could “cleanup” biblical imagery without substantially changing, or weakening it. Indeed, it seems not improbable that God had a design in mind for the clash and encounter of Hellenistic and Biblical thought. Biblical truth is thick, with many layers.

Some theologians have made the point that it’s quite possible that with each new culture and thought form Christian theology encounters, more dimensions to the unchanging revelation of God will unfold. It’s not that the truth changes, mind you. It is that with each new culture and life situation, the same earth-shattering gospel of Christ crucified, risen, and reigning speaks to the particular problems and paradigms of those people in a new way. The meaning is the same, but it’s significance and implications expand.

It could be that the interaction of the Jewish-shaped gospel with the Greek intellectual culture brought out some of the implications inherent in the message itself. Jesus has always had surprising layers and depths to him. Is it really so hard to believe that Greek Christians managed to discover some enduring ones?

Soli Deo Gloria