How Nicaea and Chalcedon Can Help you Read Your New Testament. (Or, Wesley Hill on Paul and the Trinity)

Paul and the TrinityDoing systematic theology through exegesis and exegesis using systematic categories can be a tricky business. A little knowledge of history can show us the way that sometimes our easy recourse to our inherited theological grids may have short-changed our exegesis. For instance, are NT references to the Son of God so obviously and cleanly statements of deity as many have traditionally believed or are they references to his Davidic lineage? And when Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man” is he really referring to his human nature or, as most recent scholars have suggested, is it a reference to the heavenly, divine figure of Daniel 7, “One like the Son of Man”? In both cases, we see that some pressure from our inherited theological systems has forced our exegesis to miss some things. Critical evaluation has undermined some old conclusions, but happily enough, in this case, it ended up reinforcing the basic theological structure on more secure historical grounds.

In recent times, though, there’s been a movement in biblical studies towards recovering classic theological categories and doctrines for the sake of aiding historical interpretation. In his recent work Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters, Wesley Hill argues that by consciously avoiding trinitarian categories in an effort to be “historical” in their interpretation of Paul in his Jewish context, scholars have been working with one hand tied behind their backs. This is especially the case in their approach to texts regarding Christology and the doctrine of God.

Redoubling Around “High” and “Low” Christologies.

While moving away from a focus on titles like “Lord” and “Christ” in the last few years, much of the discussion has been caught up in understanding how Paul’s Christology modifies (or doesn’t) his monotheism. In other words, it assumes a view of God and the world, then tries to figure out where Paul places Jesus on the spectrum of things. Is his view of Jesus “high” or “low”? Does it “threaten” his monotheism, or is Jesus unified or differentiated or subordinated enough to protect against polytheism, modalism, or whichever danger seems more pressing to you as a scholar? Hill’s argument, insofar as I’m not destroying it, is that a retrieval of trinitarian categories like “relationality” and reading strategies like “redoublement” are helpful in moving us past some of the difficulties created by the low/high paradigm.

With the fathers like Athanasius, medievals such as Aquinas, and even recent relational theologies, Hill argues we need to understand that the identities of Father, Son, and Spirit are mutually-defining in the texts in such a way that both unity and differentiation is accounted for. God is the one who raised Jesus Christ by his Spirit (Romans 8:11), and so forth. The Father’s person is defined by his relation to the one who would become Jesus and his Spirit. Jesus is the one who has always been the Son of that Father. The Spirit is the Lord, the Spirit of God as well as the Spirit of the Son. That is who he is and always has been.

Or with the idea “redoublement”, we see that there are two non-ultimate but equally appropriate ways to consider and read texts about Jesus’ relationship to God. First, in many places we find language about what is “common” to them both,  for instance, the “form” or nature and equality that the Son shares with God (Phil. 2:6). But also, and just as important, is the differentiated relation between the two as we see that the Son whose elevation and gift of the “name that is above all names”, still ends up glorifying “God the Father” who is distinct from the Son (Phil. 2:11).

The same movement is useful in other key texts such as 1 Corinthians 8:6, where we have a clear inclusion of Jesus within the key monotheistic Shema which asserts YHWH as Lord and God against all false, non-existent lords and gods of the nations. Two options usually present themselves to the interpreter. Either keep the distinction between Jesus and God and downplay the significance of the inclusion or recognize it, but play down the very clear distinction between Jesus and God. The concept of redoublement helps us accept both the asymmetrical differentiation according to person–Jesus isn’t simply absorbed into a flat “God” identity–but also Jesus’ place on the Creator side of the Creator/creature distinction at the heart of the text.

Watson’s Chalcedonian Clarification

Hill develops all of this at length, through careful, historically-sensitive exegesis of the Greek text, dealing with historical proposals by scholars such as Hurtado, Bauckham, McGrath, and others. Parallel to Hill’s work, though, I’ve been reading through Thomas Watson’s sermons on the Westminster Catechism, A Body of Practical Divinity and was reminded of the way recovering Chalcedonian categories for New Testament interpretation helps clarify exegetical difficulties as well.

For instance, there are a number of texts in the New Testament that suggest Christ has been exalted, or that upon his resurrection and Ascension he received a new, kingly status that he didn’t possess in the past:

…concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, (Romans 1:3-4)

…Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, (Philippians 2:9)

But if the Son is eternally God, then how can he be exalted at a certain point in time after the resurrection? How can he receive a name that has always been his from all of eternity? In these texts, interpreters as far back as the first couple of centuries have found reason to see some sort of adoptionism whereby Jesus was not always God, but becomes the Son of God at a particular point in time.

Commenting on the Catechism’s section on the exaltation of Christ, Watson addresses the difficulty posed by these texts:

In what sense has God exalted Christ?

Not in respect of his Godhead, for that cannot be exalted higher than it is: as in his humiliation, the Godhead was not lower; so in his exaltation, the Godhead is not higher: but Christ is exalted as Mediator, his human nature is exalted.

In a move that parallels, complements, and possibly clarifies our retrieval of redoublement, Watson draws on the affirmation that Christ has two natures, both a human and divine one. The Son has eternally always been the Son of the Father, equal in power, glory, beauty, and divine authority. And yet, at a particular point in time he assumed–added to himself–a human nature that has not always sat on the throne of heaven, but has walked in humility and weakness as a peasant in the 1st Century. This union, the person of the Godman, the Mediator, according to Watson, is the subject of these texts speaking of the exaltation of Christ. It’s not simply the Son according to his divine nature, nor a simply human Jesus abstracted from the Son–that Jesus can’t exist. No, it is the Son in his humanity who is exalted and newly acclaimed as king upon the throne of the universe.

Of course, Hill deals with sort of thing in his work as well. Still, reading Hill alongside Watson has further reinforced the value of reading both modern and historical authors, as well as biblical and systematic theologians, as legitimate sources and models for the practice of reading Scripture. It doesn’t have to be the sort of either/or affair it sometimes becomes in certain academic contexts. a number of helpful, further insights on the reading historical texts in a

Indeed, in this work, Hill himself is a model for reading historical texts in a theologically-responsible way and reading texts theologically in a historically-responsible way. I’d highly commend his work to anyone looking to see it done right. May his tribe increase.

Soli Deo Gloria

Selma and the Sufferings of Christ

SELMAI went to go see the movie Selma with my wife yesterday and, as I predicted, I was wrecked. I do not cry often, nor especially in films, but along with the stories of the martyrs, the history of the struggle against slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation move on my heart. I wept as I have not wept in years. The kind of tears that wrench your gut and stick in your throat for hours. As I went home that evening, just thinking of the various injustices and degradations depicted threaten to bring on another torrent. I was exhausted with the grief and, yes, the heaviness of hope.

I am no film critic, but suffice it to say, the film was powerful. I really do suggest you go watch it. It is not just Black history, or American history, but our history, as Christians and humans made in the Image of God. The depth of human depravity, the height of human courage, and the slow, but inevitable coming of justice–however partial, however incomplete–is a story that will not sit easy, but builds you and blesses you nonetheless.

While there are any number of spiritual and theological themes I could profitably take up in this post, I want to talk about Jesus and Selma. Or rather, I want to ask a specific question about what our Christology, our view of Jesus, has to do with our view of what happened in Selma and what happens in the suffering of God’s people around the world. Admittedly, this is not the only question, and maybe not even the most important Christological question raised by the film, and yet I want to briefly address it nonetheless, because I think there is comfort and challenge involved here.

Does God Cry?

In the middle of the film, when Martin Luther King Jr. is out of town, a small band of Selma protesters engage in a night march. The police get wind of it and decide to teach them a lesson by ambushing them with a wave of brutality and violence. In the middle of it all, one young protestor, Jimmie Lee Jackson, is shot and killed trying to protect his mother and grandfather. It is wrenching and heartbreaking. When he hears the news, King comes to visit Jackson’s grandfather and speak some words of comfort. King addresses him and assures him that Jimmie will not have died in vain, but the very first words he says, are something to the effect of:

“I want you to know that when Jimmie died, God was the first to cry. He was the first to shed a tear.”

It is a powerful moment, especially as you watch Jimmie’s grandfather look at King with an expression of humility, comfort, and deep pain and say, “Oh yes, I believe that. I know that.” The words are so appropriately-timed and attuned to speak a message that provides balm for the soul. God knows your pain. He is not distant from your cares and woes. They are his cares and woes. Your tears do not fall to the ground alone but join with those shed from heaven above, by the God of all creation.

Of course, the question that struck me in the theater was, “Is that true? Does God shed a tear for Jimmie?”

A God Who Cannot Suffer Becomes A Redeemer Who Can

I asked the question because, as Wesley Hill recently reminded us, for most of her history the church has taught the doctrine of impassibility. The nearly unified confession of church history until about the 20th Century was that, strictly speaking, God does not and cannot in “suffer” passions–be overwhelmed by irrational or uncontrollable feelings, etc–or be acted upon in his divine nature. The Triune God is the author of life whose own glory is that of perfect, unchanging glory. He is incapable of being overwhelmed or overcome in his divine life. So does God cry? Well, in a sense, no. God is spiritual, not physical. In himself he cannot be overwhelmed as we are, have an adrenaline rush with a flush of the face, a flaring of the nostrils, or an unbidden moistening of the tear-ducts. God does not cry.

At the same time, though, as Ben Myers reminded the attendees of last week’s LA Theology conference, for the Church Fathers the presupposition of impassibility is precisely the logic behind the cross. As I’ve explained before, God’s impassibility should not be taken to mean that God does not care, or that he has no emotional life–he does. It’s just that we should not think of it precisely as we do our own. In fact, this is the glory of the God of the gospel: we find a God who cares so much that the one who cannot suffer and die in his own nature, takes on human nature in order to suffer and die with us and for us. The Impassible God is the one who loves so implacably that he overcomes the obstacle of his own perfect life in order to participate in our life, so marred with pain and sin, to redeem us from it. In other words, the God who could not suffer, became a Redeemer who could.

Jesus is the God who became human so he could shed tears with us at the tomb of Lazarus.

Eternal Mediator

What now, though? The Scriptures teach that this Godman is the one who, after his Resurrection, was exalted to the right hand of the Father in order to intercede for us even now. According to Hebrews, like Melchizedek, Christ “continues a priest forever” (Heb. 7:3). The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity is currently a human seated on the throne of the universe. If it is not too speculative, I would hazard the courage to say that Jesus is the God who can still shed human tears for his people in this world racked with sin and injustice.

I say this on the basis of Acts 9, when the Resurrected Christ comes to Saul, the marauder of the church and says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The Risen Christ so identifies with his people that any assault on them is an assault on him. Their suffering is his. Their tears are his. As Calvin writes about this passage:

…the godly may gather great comfort by this, in that they hear that the Son of God is partner with them of the cross, when as they suffer and labor for the testimony of the gospel, and that he doth, as it were, put under his shoulders, that he may bear some part of the burden. For it is not for nothing that he saith that he suffereth in our person; but he will have us to be assuredly persuaded of this, that he suffereth together with us, as if the enemies of the gospel should wound us through his side. Wherefore Paul saith, that that is wanting in the sufferings of Christ what persecutions soever the faithful suffer at this day for the defense of the gospel, (Colossians 1:24.) —Comment on Acts 9:4

Though impassible in his own nature, in Christ, God suffers in and with his people. Jesus is the God who cries for Jimmie Lee Jackson.

This is an unspeakable comfort for those suffering under grave oppression around the world. Whether it be the marchers in Selma, laboring for the justice of God’s kingdom, or the persecuted church around the world, God’s joy and impassible life does not mean he is separated from our pain and struggle. He is there in the heart of it, working to redeem it.

Yet the Gospel moves us beyond the tears of Christ to remind us that by his once and for all suffering on the Cross and victorious Resurrection, Christ has secured the day when “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.” (Rev. 21:4)

May we look forward to that day as we look about our world filled with injustice and pain. May that hope gird us up as we shed the tears that will inevitably come as we follow Christ in looking the brokenness of the world, in order to meet it with the gospel of our justice-loving God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: On Friendship

This week on Mere Fidelity Matt Anderson, Andrew Wilson, and I take up the issue of friendship, or friendship covenants, in response to Wesley Hill’s helpful and thought-provoking Christianity Today cover story “Why Can’t Men Be Friends?” Also, Matt wrote a piece on it last week too, and that came up.

It’s really good stuff. And Matt is bombastic.

Soli Deo Gloria