He Must Go Lower Still

My Epic is one of my favorite bands. In this 5 minute song they capture the pathos the Son’s grimy descent in his incarnation, leading to the death-shattering resurrection and ascent to glory. Take some time to listen, meditate on the lyrics as we approach Christmas.

Look, he’s covered in dirt
The blood of his mother has mixed with the Earth
and she’s just a child who’s throbbing in pain
from the terror of birth by the light of a cave

now they’ve laid that small baby
where creatures come eat
like a meal for the swine who have no clue that he
is still holding together the world that they see
they don’t know just how low he has to go
Lower still

Look now he’s kneeling he’s washin’ their feet
though they’re all filthy fishermen, traitors and thieves
now he’s pouring his heart out and they’re fallin’ asleep
but he has to go lower still

there is greater love to show
hands to the plow
further down now
blood must flow

all these steps are personal
all his shame is ransom
oh do you see, do you see just how low, he has come
do you see it now?
no one takes from him
what he freely gives away

beat in his face
tear the skin off his back
Lower still, lower still
strip off his clothes
make him crawl through the streets
Lower still, lower still
hang him like meat
on a criminal’s tree
Lower still, lower still
bury his corpse in the Earth
like a seed, like a seed, like a seed
Lower still, lower still

Lower still, lower still…

The Earth explodes
she cannot hold him!
And all therein is placed beneath Him
and death itself no longer reigns
it cannot keep the ones he gave himself to save
and as the universe shatters the darkness disolves
he alone will be honored
we will bathe in his splendor
as all heads bow lower still
all heads bow lower still

Soli Deo Gloria

N.T. Wright, Empire, and the Advent Hope of Eschatology

paul and the faithfulness of God “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” -Acts 17:30-31

While it’s become something of a truism in the last few years to note that much New Testament christology has an anti-imperial tone to it (as Wright puts it, the basic confession of the faith “Jesus is Lord”, means “Caesar is not”), what often goes unmentioned by many is the threat to Empire posed by its eschatology. N.T. Wright explains how this works:

…in particular, the developing discourse of imperial cult in Asia constantly stressed the fact that the Roman empire, once launched, was going to continue, and to bring its great blessings to the world, for ever. ‘The discourse of imperial cults was committed to preventing the imagination from imagining the end of the world.’ No, declared Paul: God has fixed a day on which he will have the world brought to justice.

That was, of course, an essentially Jewish view. The Jewish objections to the entire Roman view of the gods was not simply about monotheism (though that was of course the basis of he standard critique of idolatry), nor even about election (their belief that they, rather than the Romans or anybody else, were the chosen people of the one true God.) It was about eschatology: about their belief that the one God had determined on a divine justice that would be done, and would be seen to be done, in a way that Roman imperial justice somehow never quite managed. Rome’s claim to have brought the world into a new age of justice and peace flew, on eagle’s wings, in the face of the ancient Jewish belief that these things would finally be brought to birth through the establishment of a new kingdom, the one spoken of in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in Daniel. Thus, though their resistance to empire drew on the ancient critique of idolatry, the sense that Israel’s God would overthrow the pagan rule and establish his own proper kingdom in its place led the Jewish people to articulate their resistance in terms of eschatology. Sooner or later, the eagle would meet its match.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God, pp. 342-343

Rome might claim finality and ultimacy for its ‘peace’ and ‘justice’, but there is a greater judgment coming. Part of the political hope of early Christian eschatology is that no empire, or authority that sets itself up against the Lordship of Christ can last. There is one Lord who will judge and reign in righteousness, who will bring about the true Golden Age, and he doesn’t brook rivals forever.

As we celebrate the first week of Advent it’s important to remember this is not just hope for 1st Century Christians. Modern Tyrants still recognize a threat when they see one. When I was in college I took a class on Christianity and China and learned about some of the differences between the house churches and the government-approved Three-Self churches. One of the most surprising was their teaching on the end-times. In his work Jesus in Beijing David Aikman says while most are basically orthodox theologically, it is “unlikely a worshiper in a Three Self Church will ever hear a sermon the Second Coming of Christ.” Like all other Empires, the communist regime sees the coming consummation of Jesus’ reign as a threat to claims of its own.

One of the best ways to observe Advent this week is to pray for the persecuted church around the world. Lift up our brothers and sisters living in totalitarian or hostile religious environments that they might be protected and liberated. Pray that as they meditate on the First Coming of Jesus looking towards Christmas, they might be strengthened by the Spirit in the sure hope they have in his Second Coming. Pray that even the midst of their struggles they might be able to sing with Psalmist:

Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!

Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;

he will judge the peoples with equity.”

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

let the field exult, and everything in it!

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

before the Lord, for he comes,

for he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness,

and the peoples in his faithfulness. (Psalm 96:10-13, ESV)

Soli Deo Gloria

Popular Science Disproves Virgin Birth with SCIENCE!!! (CaPC)

virgin and ChildPopular Science wants you to know that a human virgin birth (or, more properly ‘virginal conception’, not ‘immaculate conception’, which is something entirely different) is pretty impossible. While “parthenogenesis” has been known to happen in non-mammalian species, there are a couple of obstacles to that happening for us:

So what stands in the way? First, a mammal’s egg cell usually won’t divide until it receives a signal from the sperm. Second, most mammalian eggs have only half the number of chromosomes necessary for development. If there isn’t any sperm, the embryo will end up with only half the DNA it needs to survive.

Both of those barriers could potentially be overcome in the lab or through random mutation, but there is a third obstacle that probably can’t be. Under normal conditions, the DNA in both egg and sperm cells is altered such that some genes will be more active while others are suppressed. When the egg and sperm join to form an embryo, these imprints work in tandem, ensuring that all the necessary proteins are produced in the right amounts. If an egg cell starts reproducing on its own, without the sperm-cell imprint, the offspring won’t survive for very long.

Scientists estimate that imprinting affects about 200 different genes. For parthenogenesis to occur, many of these changes would have to occur through random mutation. “I just think it’s too complex and you’d need too many things to happen accidentally,” says Marisa Bartolomei, a molecular geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania. While highly unlikely, it’s still theoretically possible that scientists could one day induce the necessary changes in the lab. “Is there a mutation that could eliminate all imprinting, so we would see that we didn’t need Dad or Mom in order to have normal development?” Bartolomei asks. “This is a question that people have asked a lot, and we don’t know the answer.”

So there you have it. Guys, we might have been excited about Christmas coming, but SCIENCE has shown us that virgin births can’t happen, so if you want to celebrate, fine. Just trade in your nativity scenes for Santa and his flying reindeer, or realize they’re both just pleasant but impossible holiday myths. Right.

Now, to be fair, the guy didn’t strictly say this is about Christmas. Nor did he single out Jesus’ birth as impossible, or actually draw the explicit conclusion that it’s all a myth that pre-scientific believers swallowed whole because they didn’t know any better. Sure, it was titled “Could a Virgin Birth Ever Happen?” and had a painting of the Mary with the baby Jesus in her hands, but, you know, that could mean anything.

Still, were it the case that this little article was intended to imply something of the sort, in the way that popular Dawkins-style unbelievers, or old-school liberals like John Shelby Spong typically tend to, I’d like to point out a few key lines of Christian thought to quickly cut that off.

You can read the rest of my response over at Christ and Pop Culture.

To Celebrate Jesus’ Birth, Here are Some Fun New Words to Play With

coleWhen I found out that Graham Cole, author of one of my favorite pieces of atonement theology, wrote a biblical theology of the incarnation, The God Who Became Human: A Biblical Theology of the Incarnation, I bought it right away. (Then I waited to read it until Christmas to read it.) Now, you might not think a book like this is a big deal. I mean, surely there are tons of theology books on the incarnation, right? And they all involve the Bible right? Yes, that’s true enough as far as it goes. But this is not just a study on key verses here and there in the NT, or an extensive dissection of the Chalcedonian definition with some biblical texts interspersed here and there. Instead, it’s a sweeping review through the story-line of the Bible in order to trace the theme of God-with-us, from Genesis to Revelation.

Through a close study of the storyline, key OT theophanies, prophetic texts, and a survey of the NT data, Cole aims to show that the incarnation doesn’t just burst on the scene unannounced, or merely within little, obscure, prophesied hints here and there, but as the fitting capstone to the OT revelation of an ’embodied’ God. In order to do that, though, he has to introduce a couple of new terms that I think are worth a little discussion and could be helpful for those of us looking to expand our theological tool-kit.

In essence, I’m giving you a couple of new words to play with for Christmas.

Transcendence, Immanence, and “Concomitance”? Most of us might be familiar with the traditional terms “transcendence”, referring to God’s over-and-against relationship to creation. As Cole notes, the greatest metaphysical principle in the Bible is the Creator/creature distinction and this is what transcendence speaks to. God is not limited by, confined to, or identified with his creation–he transcends it. ‘Immanence’ on the other hand, speaks to God’s indwelling of creation. His nearness and working within creation to govern and bring it to fruition and perfection. As the two polar terms, traditionally they have covered the spectrum of God’s relation to creation.

Drawing on Process theologian Norman Pittenger (without the Process implications) Cole suggests we need a third, middle term, ‘concomitance’:

The idea of divine concomitance adds an important nuance in understanding the divine relation to creatures…Concomitance adds to these categories [transcendance & immanence] the notion of alongsideness or God with us. The notion of the divine alongsideness is important in both Old Testament an New. For example, Moses pleaded for the divine accompaniment in Exodus 33:15-15: ‘Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”‘ And Jesus promised it to the eleven disciples in Matthew 28:18-20 in the famous Great Commission. (p. 33)

Of course, Cole says that we see this God-with-us concomitance most clearly in the incarnation. Here God comes to dwell with his people. He is not merely transcendent above them, or immanent to them in providence, but concomitant as an active presence alongside them.

Now, I have to admit, I feel myself torn about the term. On the one hand, I don’t see anything wrong with it and it seems helpful enough. On the other hand, I’m having trouble distinguishing it too sharply from a heightening of divine immanence, which is what I’ve always taken to be the God-with-us term. Still, it might be a helpful one to have in your theological tool-kit when dealing with the doctrine of God and divine-human relations.

Anthropomorphism, Anthropopathism, Anthropopraxism – The next new term of interest is ‘anthropopraxism’. A lot of Cole’s work is dealing with the issue of narrative portrayals of God in the OT. Theological students will know that ‘anthropomorphism’ is the classic term used to describe language about God in which human qualities or functions are attributed to God as a way of describing him. More specifically, it can be limited to speech attributing physical characteristics God’s “hands”, or “mouth”, or human functions like calling him “Father”.

The less-common, but related term used in theological speech is “anthropopathism” and it refers to language attributing human emotions like sadness, anger, joy, delight, and so forth, to God. Now, to be clear, the terms are not meant to downplay or deny their reality, but function to preserve their analogical character. As noted in the past, God has an emotional life, even if the Creator/creature distinction prevents us from simply analyzing our own experiences and reading them up onto God.

“Anthropopraxism” is Cole’s attempt to cover a third category of God-language in Scripture and that is the language of action (“praxis” = practice). God is often said to “walk” or  “see” or “hear”, or be engaged in some sort of activity which requires us to employ an analogy based on human activity. It’s for such occasions that Cole would have us use anthropopraxism. Of course, as with concomitance, Cole would have us see in Jesus Christ, the ultimate manifestation of our anthropomorphic, anthropopathic, and anthropopraxic God. In him, God takes on human life, with the full range of human limitations, emotions, and activities (excepting sin) in order to redeem us from sin. That’s the mystery of Christmas.

Unlike concomitance, I have no such reservations except that given it’s newness, people might not know what you’re talking about. But, you know, explaining terms is half the fun of theology anyways, right?

Soli Deo Gloria

Why We Need Christmas

Jesus 3Christmas is about revelation, God coming down and making himself savingly known to us. In one of my all-time favorite articles entitled “Why We Need Jesus” Michael Horton reminds us why this is exactly what we need if we’re ever going to encounter a gracious God:

The Incarnation presents to us the odd truth that the particular is not a shadow of the universal, on a lower rung of creaturely things. Rather, the gospel says the most particular thing—a Jewish rabbi in first-century Palestine—is the universal. And we can’t reason, intuit, or experience our way to this reality; we can only meet it first as history.

We hold to this claim for important reasons. First, our “search for the sacred” is warped by idolatry. God is incomprehensible in his essence: immortal, invisible, eternal, unapproachable Light (1 Tim. 6:15-16), the sight of whose face we cannot survive (Ex. 33:20). God doesn’t contradict reason, but transcends it infinitely (Isa. 55:8-9; Rom. 11:33).

If this were all we knew, then we might throw up our hands and conclude with the radical mystics and skeptics that we cannot really know God, at least in a rational way that we can put into words.

However, Scripture tells us more: God stoops to our capacity, accommodating our understanding. We know him according to his works, not his essence. We know that God is merciful, for example, because he has acted mercifully in history and revealed these actions as well as their interpretation through prophets and apostles. We cannot discover God in his hidden essence. And yet, we find him where he has descended to us, in the humility of a feeding trough, a cross, and frail human language.

You can, and should, read the rest of the article here. Not only is it a great article about the mystery of Christmas, but it functions as an introduction to a Reformed doctrine of revelation, as well as Michael Horton’s theology in particular.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Crib Leads to the Cross (Or, the Fathers on the Incarnation and Passion)

At Christmas we celebrate the advent of our Lord, the mystery of Incarnation of the Son of God.  For those of us with a theological bent, it raises a question that theologians have asked for centuries: if not for sin, would the Son have become incarnate anyways? Or, is the Incarnation the central act of salvation or the Passion? Christ’s birth or Christ’s death? Which is logically prior? Obviously they’re both important, but the way you answer this question has implications for other doctrines down the line and there are good arguments on both sides.

Mysterium paschaleCatholic giant Hans Urs Von Balthasar addressed this question in one of the most fascinating atonement theologies of the 20th century, his Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, a meditation on the Triduum Mortis, the three days of Christ’s atonement: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection Sunday. Honestly, even though I’m not sure I can go for his controversial theology of Holy Saturday, brilliant though it is, most Evangelicals could stand to read his section on Good Friday–it’s worth the price of the book alone.

Before getting to the treatment of the three days, Balthasar argues that the Incarnation is clearly ordered to the Passion and that most attempts to reconcile the two trains of thought are misguided. Yet, the same time, if we look deeply into the Scriptures, the tradition, and the deeper theological logic, we will see that:

…to focus the Incarnation on the Passion enables both theories to reach a point where the mind is flooded by the same perfect thought: in serving, in washing the feet of his creatures, God reveals himself even in that which is most intimately divine in him, and manifests his supreme glory. (pg. 11)

East and West
Balthasar’s biblical arguments and later theological elucidation are both fascinating and convincing. The section that was most eye-opening for me in reading it a few years ago, was his section on the testimony of the tradition, both East and West on this subject matter.

Typically we are told that in the Orthodox East, a greater emphasis was laid on the Incarnation and that the Passion is accidental within the scheme, while the Latin West has placed a greater emphasis on the death on the Cross and so subordinates the Incarnation. Balthasar argues that this is a mischaracterization for “There can surely be no theological assertion in which East and West are so united as the statement that the Incarnation happened for the sake of man’s redemption on the Cross.” (pg. 20) Since this is somewhat uncontroversial of the West, specifically of the East he highlights that in their main theory, “the assuming of an individual taken from humanity as a whole…affects and sanctifies the latter in its totality, except in relation with the entire economy of the divine redemptive work. To ‘take on manhood’ means in fact to assume its concrete destiny with all that entails—suffering, death, hell—in solidarity with every human being.” (ibid.)

The Consensus
He then goes on to substantiate his claim with more citations from the Fathers than I have space to quote here; a number of them in Latin and Greek. I will reproduce only a few:

Athanasius

The Logos, who in himself could not die, accepted a body capable of death, so as to sacrifice it as his own for all.

The passionless Logos bore a body in himself…so as to take upon himself what is ours and offer it in sacrifice…so that the whole man might obtain salvation.

Gregory of Nyssa

If one examines this mystery, one will prefer to say, not that his death was a consequence of his birth, but that the birth was undertaken so that he could die.

Hippolytus

To be considered as like ourselves, he took upon him pain; he wanted to hunger, thirst, sleep; not to refuse suffering; to be obedient unto death; to rise again in a visible manner. In all this, he offered his humanity as the first-fruits.

Hilary

In (all) the rest, the set of the Father’s will already shows itself the virgin, the birth, a body; and after that, a Cross, death, the underworld—our salvation.

Maximus Confessor

The mystery of the Incarnation of the Word contains, as in a synthesis, the interpretation of all the enigmas and figures of Scripture, as well as the meaning of all material and spiritual creatures. But whoever knows the mystery of the Cross and the burial, that person knows the real reasons, logoi, for all these realities. Whoever lastly, penetrates the hidden power of the Resurrection, discovers the final end for which God created everything from the beginning.

Again, I have left out various citations by figures such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzen, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, Augustine, and others (pp. 20-22). Still, as Balthasar notes, “These texts show…that the Incarnation is ordered to the Cross as its goal. They make a clean sweep of that widely disseminated myth” that the Greek Fathers, against the Latins, are focused on the Incarnation to the exclusion of the Cross. (pg. 22)

MangerThe Crib leads to the Cross
As interesting of a conclusion as this is for the history of theology, “more profoundly” says Balthasar, “the texts offered here also demonstrate that he who says Incarnation, also says Cross.” (pg. 22) Of course this should come as no surprise. In all these texts the Fathers were only repeating the apostles, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5),  and our Lord himself who said, “And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” (John 12:27)

As we look to the Crib, we must see the Cross in the background—both holding our Savior in his weakness and humility—the peaceful beginning pointing the agonizing end suffered for our sakes; the cries from the cradle foreshadowing the cries from the Cross. This Christmas, as we gather around to celebrate the mystery of Incarnation, we cannot forget the Passion.

Soli Deo Gloria