He Knew What Was In Man–And Yet He Came Anyways

Calvary_movieposterOne of the striking things about Jesus’ earthly ministry, was his stark realism about the people he was working with. When the crowds initially huddled around him to make him king, impressed by his outward signs, Jesus did not entrust himself to them, “because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). John Chrysostom notes that this is sign of Christ’s divinity, since only God can know the hearts of men: “He therefore needed not witnesses to learn the thoughts of His own creatures, and so He felt no confidence in them because of their mere, temporary belief.” Jesus was no sucker.

Recently watching John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary called this aspect of Jesus’ character to mind. Calvary tells the story of a parish priest, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), in a small community off the coast of Ireland. He’s confronted in the confessional by a local man, a victim of the horrifying sexual abuse at the hands of a clergyman, who tells him that within a week’s time, on Sunday, Father James is to meet him on the beach where the man is going to kill him. The man (who remains initially off-screen and nameless) says that he’s going to kill Father James, not because he’s a bad priest, but precisely because he is a good priest. That’s not the kind of thing people could ignore, anymore.

The rest of the film takes place in the remaining seven days as Father James struggles with his choice to either turn the man in (since the confessional seal does not apply to a future, unrepentant crime), run, or remain to minister to him, all set in the context of ministering the broken, wretched, sinful, and unrepentant people of the town. And unrepentant, they are. In a week’s time, Father James encounters adulterers, the violent, a serial murderer and cannibalist, pederasts, a self-absorbed, financial fatcat, cynical atheists, pornographers, and just about anything else you can imagine. And it is this aspect, among many others, that gripped me.

Father James is not a perfect priest. Some of the counsel he gives is quite inept, he curses, he drinks, and seems to look the other way on all sorts of sins, I’d probably think to say something about. All the same, Father James has a serious sense of vocation to give comfort and solace to the people of his parish in the various situations in which they find themselves. In doubt. In fear. Trapped in self-hate and depravity. Bitter apathy. Self-violation. It is to these that Father James came to give comfort and whom he could not abandon. Even as they mock him. Even as they attempt to bribe, cheat, and deceive him. Even as one–one who called him friend–threatens to kill him.

While grieved, Father James is not basically shocked. He is grieved, but looks at these people–his people–for what they are and he ultimately chooses to dwell among them all the same.

We have countless reasons to marvel at the Incarnation, the metaphysical mystery of the humiliation of the Son come in the flesh of a baby boy, of course. All the same, it is perhaps this dimension that has compelled me over the years. Jesus knew what was in man. He was not shocked or surprised at our sins, at our pettiness, our narcissism, and self-absorption. He wept over Jerusalem, but he knew why he came; he came for the dregs. To live, to breathe, to sweat, to laugh, to cry, and eventually, to die among them, so that they might one day live again with him.

The Incarnation is the good news of the God who knew what was in man, but came anyways.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Christmas v. Advent?

Mere FidelityMerry Christmas! Well, presuming that you haven’t had N.T. Wright steal away your Christmas fun. The usual crew shows up this week to discuss this article by Peter Leithart (a self-proclaimed Grinch of sorts). In a sense, what do we gain and what do we lose when we start to pit the Christmas of Faith against the Nativity of History? Is it Christmas v. Advent? Do our cultural expansions of the Christmas stories add or detract from our understanding of what happened all those years ago?

We hope this conversation deepens your Christmas reflections as it has ours.

Soli Deo Gloria

Christmas: Thus God and Man are United in Christ. Thus, in Christ, we Possess God.

christ childThe heart of the Christmas message is that there, lying in the manger, lies God in human flesh. In a word, then, Christmas is about the Chalcedonian Definition (451 A.D), or rather, the other way round. If you’ve never read it, here it is:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

As technically precise as it is, many have questioned and wondered whether in defining, or at least laying down some boundaries for how to think about Christ, the Fathers have departed from the simpler, or clearer language of Scripture. The worry is that in the process of parsing of things metaphysically, through the conceptualities of Greek philosophy and terminology, the Biblical Gospel has been lost.

Herman Bavinck answers this sort of charge at length, beautifully summarizing his findings in this brief passage:

Thus God and man are united in Christ. While Scripture does not speak the language of the later theology, materially it contains what the Christian church confesses in its doctrine of the two natures…For according to Scripture, the Word that was with God and was himself God became flesh (John 1:14). He who was the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being has become partaker in our flesh and blood and like us in all things (Heb. 1:3; 2:14). God sent his own Son into the world, who was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4). Though existing in “the form of God,” he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7). From the fathers, according to the flesh (κατα σαρκα), comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever (Rom. 9:5). Though the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, he is nevertheless also the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:13–18); though son of David, he is simultaneously David’s Lord (Matt. 22:43); even though walking about on earth, he still continues to be “in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18), “the one who is in heaven” (John 3:13), and existed before Abraham was (John 8:58); in a word, the fullness of deity dwells in him bodily (σωματικως, Col. 2:9). Every moment in Scripture, divine as well as human predicates are attributed to the same personal subject: divine and human existence, omnipresence and [geographical] limitation, eternity and time, creative omnipotence and creaturely weakness. What else is this but the church’s doctrine of the two natures united in one person?

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation, pg. 298-299

It must not be lost to sight that all of this theologizing is done to preserve the crucial Gospel truth: it is God who is with us, to save us in Christ. Calvin comments on Matthew 1:23:

The phrase, God is with us, is no doubt frequently employed in Scripture to denote, that he is present with us by his assistance and grace, and displays the power of his hand in our defense. But here we are instructed as to the manner in which God communicates with men. For out of Christ we are alienated from him; but through Christ we are not only received into his favor, but are made one with him. When Paul says, that the Jews under the law were nigh to God, (Ephesians 2:17,) and that a deadly enmity (Ephesians 2:15) subsisted between him and the Gentiles, he means only that, by shadows and figures, God then gave to the people whom he had adopted the tokens of his presence. That promise was still in force, “The Lord thy God is among you,” (Deuteronomy 7:21,) and, “This is my rest for ever,” (Psalm 132:14.) But while the familiar intercourse between God and the people depended on a Mediator, what had not yet fully taken place was shadowed out by symbols. His seat and residence is placed “between the Cherubim,” (Psalm 80:1,) because the ark was the figure and visible pledge of his glory.

But in Christ the actual presence of God with his people, and not, as before, his shadowy presence, has been exhibited. This is the reason, why Paul says, that “in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily,” (Colossians 2:9.) And certainly he would not be a properly qualified Mediator, if he did not unite both natures in his person, and thus bring men into an alliance with God…

For it cannot be denied, that this name, Immanuel, contains an implied contrast between the presence of God, as exhibited in Christ, with every other kind of presence, which was manifested to the ancient people before his coming. If the reason of this name began to be actually true, when Christ appeared in the flesh, it follows that it was not completely, but only in part, that God was formerly united with the Fathers.

Hence arises another proof, that Christ is God manifested in the flesh, (1 Timothy 3:16.) He discharged, indeed, the office of Mediator from the beginning of the world; but as this depended wholly on the latest revelation, he is justly called Immanuel at that time, when clothed, as it were, with a new character, he appears in public as a Priest, to atone for the sins of men by the sacrifice of his body, to reconcile them to the Father by the price of his blood, and, in a word, to fulfill every part of the salvation of men. The first thing which we ought to consider in this name is the divine majesty of Christ, so as to yield to him the reverence which is due to the only and eternal God. But we must not, at the same time, forget the fruit which God intended that we should collect and receive from this name. For whenever we contemplate the one person of Christ as God-man, we ought to hold it for certain that, if we are united to Christ by faith, we possess God.

This is a staggering and astonishing reality. If we are united to Christ, “by faith, we possess God.” This is the mystery, the miracle, and the grace of Christmas: in Christ, God truly gives himself to sinners for their salvation and joy.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Mere Fidelity: Christmas Cheer

This week’s Mere Fidelity finds Andrew, Matt, Alastair, and myself talking about the things that gave us cheer throughout the year. Apparently, that involves making fun of my driving skills, talking about books, laughing, and discovering Alastair has been knitting the whole time. Enjoy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Christmas is About The Eschaton

parousiaAdvent is about the coming of Jesus, the arrival of God in the flesh. This is the mystery we look back towards and celebrate with joy. The babe in the manger, come to reveal God, to be God with us: Emmanuel.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Christmas, though, isn’t a holiday that terminates in on itself. Yes, we rightly celebrate it in its own right, but it is a day that points forward to another day, one which has yet to arrive, and we await with a holy longing: the return of Christ. Christmas, at core, is about the Last Day of the Old Creation and the First Day of the New Creation.

I was reminded of this truth by Michael Allen in his recent piece over at Zondervan Academic on the recent trends and future prospects of eschatology in modern theology. He points out the positive movement of the last century in terms of the earthiness of Christian hope: we are waiting a New World, one with earth and sky, not merely clouds and harps. But he also says something has been lost to view that theologians like Bavinck managed to hold on to well:

I do not advocate a return to life prior to the remarkable witness of theologians like Bavinck. His biblical imagination, commitment to the full canonical scope of Scripture, and unswerving determination to let dogmatic eschatology shape Christian ethics are all to be commended and never to be forgotten. And yet it seems to me that one can (and many seem, unintentionally, to) herald something akin to Bavinck’s Augustinian vision without capturing the very center of Augustine’s eschatology (and that of the classical Christian consensus that marked at least the late patristic and medieval eras). There may be something approximating an “Augustinian naturalism” (unintentionally) where the focus and emphasis falls upon the New Jerusalem rather than her chief occupant, forgetting that the best news of Christian bliss is not newness but nearness: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev. 21:3). Hence the repetition of the promise: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:7, 12, 20).

The good news of Second Coming and the New Creation is not simply the earthiness of it all. Yes, let’s rejoice and look forward to the resurrection of the body. Let us hope for the renewal of the cosmos. Let’s delight in the idea that every field and stream, every star and galaxy will be born anew, shining with the lustre of the glory of God. But let us not forget that it is the glory of God that makes all things shine. God is what makes the New Creation good news.

As Allen reminds us, Revelation 21 presents us with a vision of God dwelling with man:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Revelation 21 is the consummation of the movement of God on John 1, and indeed, Genesis 1. God, the Triune Creator, the Eternal One whose glory makes the brightest supernova seem like a child’s night-light, has reunited Heaven and Earth, so that we might be near him without being consumed by the beauty of his holiness.

Christmas is about the eschaton.

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

The Journey of the Magi

journey of the magiAs anybody who has been on a long trip to a foreign land can tell you, these treks change you. You experience things on the journey, and encounter realities that reshape your understanding of the world. Eliot, as only Eliot could, peels the schmaltz off story the wise men from the East, to reveal the way their Journey to see the Christ-child must have changed them. Indeed, he points us to the way our own journeys ought to change us.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

–T.S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi

Soli Deo Gloria