Nyssa: The Recovery Must Fit the Disease: (Or, Not Everyone Is A Youth Group Refugee)

nyssaEarly on in my theological reading, I gained the impression that contextualizing our presentation gospel was a new concept that Lesslie Newbigin came up with in the 1970s and 80s. It’s not. Understanding the unique challenges that each culture, or sub-culture, or philosophic and religious tradition poses to the gospel is a task that has been with the church since its inception.

Case in point: Gregory of Nyssa. Reading in preparation for my courses this week, I ran across this fantastic little passage on contextualizing our presentation of the faith in the prologue to his The Great Catechism.

The presiding ministers of the “mystery of godliness” have need of a system in their instructions, in order that the Church may be replenished by the accession of such as should be saved, through the teaching of the word of Faith being brought home to the hearing of unbelievers. Not that the same method of instruction will be suitable in the case of all who approach the word. The catechism must be adapted to the diversities of their religious worship; with an eye, indeed, to the one aim and end of the system, but not using the same method of preparation in each individual case…The method of recovery must be adapted to the form of the disease. You will not by the same means cure the polytheism of the Greek, and the unbelief of the Jew as to the Only-begotten God: nor as regards those who have wandered into heresy will you, by the same arguments in each case, upset their misleading romances as to the tenets of the Faith. No one could set Sabellius right by the same instruction as would benefit the Anomoean. The controversy with the Manichee is profitless against the Jew. It is necessary, therefore, as I have said, to regard the opinions which the persons have taken up, and to frame your argument in accordance with the error into which each has fallen, by advancing in each discussion certain principles and reasonable propositions, that thus, through what is agreed upon on both sides, the truth may conclusively be brought to light.

Gregory is preparing this catechism to be used widely, so he reminds potential pastors and apologists they need to be flexible in their presentation. In their catechetical classes where inquirers and initiates come to learn about the faith they will be dealing with a wide variety of hearers. Some are traditionalist Jewish monotheists offended at the incarnation. Others are Greek, folk polytheists tempted to chop up God’s unity into a diversity of gods. While still others are semi-Christian heretics of various varieties, many influenced by leading philosophies of the day. Which means you can’t count on the same formula, the same order of presentation to work every time, even if you’re teaching the same truth at the end of it.

It is the same today. For some, you’ll have to tackle philosophical questions about ethics, while others are interested in the Bible and science, and still others care about where the gospel speaks to their deep, existential questions about meaning or the trauma they’ve suffered. Without ultimately surrendering the content, or key principles, we need to learn a certain flexibility as ministers of the gospel in our instruction and proclamation.

I’m reminded of the recent kerfuffles over how to present the gospel raised by the Tim Keller interview with Nick Kristof. There were plenty of complaints coming from all angles. For me, a lot of the complaints seemed variations of a frustration that Keller didn’t present things the way they would have to the particular audience they were concerned with. He’s speaking to progressive New Yorkers and they’re thinking about their friends in the conservative youth group they grew up in.

Pete Enns, for instance, thought Keller’s responses could be seen as dismissive towards questioners or skeptics wrestling with doubt. He thought he didn’t sufficiently empathize with questioners struggling with issues of recurring concern, or acknowledge the tension sufficiently. The kind of blunt, straightforward answers Keller gave seemed clipped, formulaic, and would likely turn off the hearers Enns had in mind.

Now, that may be so for a particular kind of skeptic. But when I read it, I thought of my aggressively skeptical classmates in my philosophy undergrad who probably would have rolled their eyes at a show of empathy. If you didn’t immediately follow it up with a straight answer to a straight question, or a respond to the challenge, they would probably see it as a squishy dodge and walk away convinced Christians really didn’t have anything to say. In which case, it’s precisely the sorts of answers Keller gave which would have at least made them stick around long enough to argue about them and hear more.

My point is not that Keller’s way in the interview is the only possible or right way to respond to skeptical questions. It’s not even a defense of his interview. (Though, I thought Scot McKnight’s response to most of the critics was well-put, and that most didn’t consider the nature of the interview carefully anyways.) My point is simply to highlight the fact that we need to take care to not reduce all those who we’re trying to reach for the gospel to one pure type. Nor should we imagine the apologetic tack you would use for one group is obviously suited for all.

Of course, the key figure giving us warrant for “contextualizing” the gospel in the New Testament is the Apostle Paul. To Jews, he quotes Scripture to prove the Messiah; to Greeks, he engages in a bit of “worldview” evangelism before he comes to the figure of Christ (both in Acts 17). In the freedom of the gospel and under the Lordship of Christ, he makes himself all things to all people for the sake of reaching some (1 Cor. 9). But I would imagine that to those trying to reach Greeks, his approach with the Jews would seem narrowly Biblicistic and dogmatic. While to those concerned with Jewish outreach, his broad philosophical appeal might seem too initially accommodating.

Not every skeptic is a youth-group refugee. Nor are they hard-core atheist apologists. Some are squishy, New-Agers. Others are pragmatic, business-types. Still others are people who already think themselves properly “religious” and chafe at the notion they need an upgrade. And in our post-Christian society, some are just curious inquirers without all the hang-ups about which we might be worried. We need, then, to heed Gregory’s wisdom: “The method of recovery must be adapted to the form of the disease.”

In which case, some of us should be slower to condemn those who are skilled in administering the medicine of the gospel to patients different than those we typically treat.

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