Rigby, C., Holding Faith: A Practical Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Part 2)
By Lisa Bozarth Ozaeta
Part Two GOD MEETS US
WHERE DOES GOD MEET US?
The Doctrine of the Incarnation
BEGINNING WITH JESUS
Westminster catechism, which by question #4 is asking students the weighty question, “What is God?”
God is “a Spirit who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”3
Any knowledge we have of what God is like comes from God showing us what God is like. Even when we can list off the divine attributes, as we have learned them from Scripture (and perhaps the catechism), it is another thing to be able to say what these attributes mean about who God is and how God acts, as well as why they matter to our lives of faith.
Calvin assumes, for example, that God is impassible—unaffected by anyone or anything.8 He says this because he surmises, alongside many theologians who have gone before him, that divine impassibility—the idea that God is unaffected by anything—is a logical extension of the divine immutability, the idea that God is unchanging.
To be affected is to change, Calvin is thinking, therefore the unchanging God must not be affected, and is therefore impassible.
The problem is, there are many passages in Scripture where God is affected by us because God loves us and wants us to be faithful. God sends the flood in the Genesis story, for example, because God is affected by humanity’s sinfulness and feels a need to act.
God listens and makes adjustments, when Abraham negotiates for the city of Sodom to be saved if there are a remnant of faithful left.10 Jesus, whom Calvin believes is God incarnate, is affected by the death of Lazarus, weeping at Lazarus’s tomb.11
Calvin proposes that the biblical writers are making use of anthropomorphisms.
In other words, he suggests, the descriptions of God being responsive to what we hope for and feel are included in the biblical witness only for the benefit of our understanding, not because God actually is affected.
The most commonly engaged entry point for talking about the character of God, once we have eschewed beginning with a list of divine attributes, is God’s dramatic entrance into existence with us in the person of Jesus Christ.
Barth’s approach to ordering Christian doctrines, in contrast to Calvin’s approach, is to begin with God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and to move on to discussion of the attributes of God only in the context of remembering Jesus Christ’s life and work.
If we reflect on what Jesus’s suffering and death teaches us about the character of God before we try to articulate what it means to say God is all-powerful, then the cross and all it stands for will shape our understanding
As Daniel Migliore notes, we will be far less likely to characterize God as a God of “sheer power” if we found our considerations in the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.14
THE WITNESS OF THE GOSPELS
To be thinking of Jesus Christ in the context of the broad history of God’s saving work is also to recognize that God acts even after the events of the resurrection.
baby Jesus readies to be born, the incarnation of God in Mary’s womb has begun the shaping of a new story that is not a different story than the story of God’s redemption of Israel, but is more, I think, than simply the next chapter of the same story.
Perhaps we might liken it to the beginning of a sequel that tells the same story from the vantage point of a different community in a different time and context.
Mary is the Miriam of the sequel.
She, like Miriam of the first book, celebrates that the intervention of God in creaturely history means an overhauling of power structures that clears space for marginalized and underprivileged people to flourish.
“I will sing to the LORD, for an overflowing victory!” sings Miriam, celebrating the escape of the Israelites from the Egyptians.
“has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.”20
I’ve got it! I’ll connect Jesus to what goes all the way back as far as our religious tradition has been able to fathom. I’ll draw a parallel between talking about where Jesus came from and God’s relationship to creation itself.
JOHN AND THE EMERGING DOCTRINE OF INCARNATION
Jesus is the one in whom the “Word” (logos) became flesh, John says. This Word his readers would have recognized as the organizing principle of the universe. It is the power by which, it was thought, everything is made and operates.
Rather, what makes Jesus’s connection to eternity so interesting to John, and what makes him think his readers’ relationship to Jesus can transform them, is precisely the fact that the Jesus who indeed does “dwell among us” as a fellow human being is also essential to the existence of creation itself.
This two-directional insight of John’s probably did more than any other to provoke the formation of the doctrine of incarnation. By two-directional, I mean that the insight moves both from our knowing Jesus in the context of our world through to the truth of his connection with God; and from the reality of his eternal existence—before time was even created!—through to our knowing of him within the confines of creaturely history.
For John, as for the doctrine of incarnation, to know Jesus is to know God. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,”
THE INSIGHT OF NICEA
By the third and fourth centuries several Gospels were circulating, but Mark, Matthew, Luke/Acts, and John had already emerged as the four that were considered to be authoritative.
Athanasius holds that Jesus shares in the very “stuff” or “substance” of God. The term he uses for this, a term that did not originate with him but with which he is associated because he argues for it so persuasively, is homoousios. This term means, etymologically speaking, “of the same stuff” (homo = “same” and ousia = “stuff or substance”).
Arius that Jesus was very near to God, indeed, but didn’t, actually, share the same substance with God. Taking Arius’s concerns and perspective into account and in contrast to the Athanasian homoousion, it was proposed that Jesus was homoiousios with God.
To say Jesus is homoiousios with the Father is to claim he is of like substance, but not exactly the same substance.
Eventually, the doctrine of the Trinity developed as a way of explaining how it is that people of faith confess Jesus is homo-ousios with the Father without compromising on the oneness of the Godhead.
Another concern raised, by those more inclined toward Arius’s view32 than the Athanasian homoousion, is that to think of Jesus as being just as fully God as God the Father would be to compromise on both his humanity and his divinity.
Athanasius remained steadfastly against his opponents on this point, insisting that the homoousion compromised neither on the character of Jesus’s humanity nor the integrity of his divinity.
“He has not ceased to be God by reason of becoming human, and he does not flee from things human because he is God,” he wrote. That humanity and divinity coexisted in the person of Jesus Christ with no compromise to either,
At the Council of Nicea in 325, people of faith gathered, argued, and struggled with this question of the homoousion because they believed who Jesus Christ is matters to how they understood the character of their relationship to
But it did serve to anchor, and also to precipitate, many of the crucial doctrinal discussions and decisions made over the next 125 years.
At the Synod of Alexandria (362 CE) and the Council of Constantinople (381 CE), for example, people of faith asked themselves the question: Is it only the Son who is of the same substance with the Father? Ultimately, they declared that the Holy Spirit, with the Father and the Son, was also and equally divine.
At the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, people of faith returned to the specific matter of how to relate Jesus Christ’s humanity and divinity. Having decided that the Son shared the same substance with the Father, this next question made sense.
THE WISDOM OF CHALCEDON
At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the order of the day was to figure out how it is that the two natures of Jesus Christ can coexist in his one person.
Crystal clear in the text of the Statement itself is that the fact the begotten one is born and the divine one is human is “for our sake and the sake of our salvation.”
Salvation is accomplished, in fact, precisely by virtue of he fact that our one Savior is at once both begotten and born, fully divine and fully human.
that Jesus is fully human and fully divine “without confusing” the two natures and “without change” to either of them.
the Statement also proclaims that his two natures are related to each other “without separation and without division.”
But first it is important that we pause and notice that something we generally see as absolutely essential to any talk of salvation is notably absent. What happened, we might ask, to the cross?
THE EMPHASIS OF CHALCEDON
we might remark, don’t all Christians believe that it is by way of the cross that Jesus saves us? If so, why is it, then, that the Chalcedonian statement emphasizes salvation with no mention of the cross whatsoever?
Again, instead of talking about how Jesus saves us by dying on the cross and rising from the dead,
Chalcedon speaks of Jesus’s saving work being accomplished by way of his two natures being joined in one person.
we might want to move on quickly from Chalcedon to reviewing the events of Jesus’s life, pondering his teachings, marveling at the miracles he performed, and standing, awestruck, before the cross and the empty tomb. We think that’s where the real action is, don’t we?
We assume it is finally by way of what he does that Jesus accomplishes salvation on our behalf. I have a pretty simple story that gets that the details about who Jesus Christ is do matter because they shape our understanding of what love looks like, and how we commit to living it.
Historically, people have acted in many different kinds of ways in the name of Jesus Christ and in the name of Christian love. It is a real question, in fact, whether more people have been helped or harmed; whether more life has been nourished or annihilated, in the name of the Christ who taught us to love God and neighbor. Who we say Jesus Christ is makes a difference to how we understand loving
Chalcedon—for all their significant faults—thought it was obvious that how we live our everyday lives, as people of faith, will be shaped by what we think about the person of Jesus Christ.
it must be acknowledged that our forebears also had motives that were not worthy.
decisions at Chalcedon were often leveraged, and continued to be leveraged, in ways that set people in opposition to each other.
As Constantine used the Nicene decision to promote homogeneity that he claimed was essential for unity, so leaders in the fifth century and beyond used the Chalcedonian Statement to force a like-mindedness that was convenient for the state,
THE FULLY DIVINE ONE IS FULLY HUMAN: GOD IS WITH US45
Because Jesus Christ has entered into our existence, and lived for us, and died for us, and risen from the dead for us, our lives are “hidden with Christ in God.”
Without the kenosis (the self-emptying of God, in Jesus Christ) there can be no theosis (lifting up of the human, in Jesus Christ).
To do this is, technically speaking, to commit heresy of docetism. Docetism is in evidence whenever we think of Jesus as God in disguise—when we think to ourselves, Those silly disciples! When are they going to realize who Jesus Christ is, underneath all that skin!
Is Jesus human now? In my experience, if this question catches us off guard it is worth considering why.
If we answer no, because it just seems too strange to us to think that Jesus could still be human, then when is it, exactly, that we believe Jesus ceased being in a human state?
The problem with answering the question in the negative is that it treats the incarnation as a kind of “thirty-three-year experiment” rather than a revelation of who God is from and to eternity.
Thinking of Jesus as human now is, unquestionably, awkward.
Why would we assume Jesus’s physical body is only a past reality—and not a present one—just because we cannot fathom how it could possibly be true, literally?
This is because of something theologians like to call the scandal of particularity, or the idea that the humanity of God, known to us in Jesus Christ, is some things and not others.
it is easier to think of his sex merely in terms of “accidents,” in the Aristotelian sense.
The benefit of interpreting particularities as accidents, and not essence, is fairly clear, from a perspective concerned with understanding the person of Jesus Christ in ways attuned “with us and our salvation.”
Apollinaris’s view: “What has not been assumed cannot be restored; it is what is united with God that is saved,” he said.66
This statement, often expressed as “that which has not been assumed has not been redeemed,” is one of the most well-known and frequently invoked insights in Christian theological history.
Believing that women are redeemed in Christ, just as men are, it must be that there are not two kinds of humanity, but one:
the humanity Jesus assumed is the humanity of women just as much as it is the humanity of men,
even though the Word was made incarnate in a human being who was “accidentally” male (and Palestinian, and Jewish, and a certain, singular height).
There is only one essential humanity, and the Word has entered into it just as any of us do, with certain particularities.
While Calvin holds that the divine Word is ubiquitous (everywhere present), he also believes that it is in one special location and not another at any given time, as it is incarnate in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth.
Calvin thinks that the eternal humanity of Jesus Christ, which the Creed says is “sitting at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” is critically important to understanding the shape of our salvation.
that Jesus is seated in one place and can never move, but that the Jesus who is everywhere present is at the same time now in one place, and not another.
the meaning of the sacraments in relation to it.
Calvin is clearly looking through a Chalcedonian lens. He is asking himself the question: How is this resurrected body of Jesus still a fully human body, if Jesus is now in a “glorified” state?
Jesus must have walked physically through a door. His explanation for John’s phrasing is that the disciples were too full of grief to notice that he had come in, or been let in by someone who unlocked the door and opened it for him.
about why what happens in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is not that the bread and the wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
if Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God the Father, his flesh and blood cannot be physically located in the elements of the sacrament.
thought that Christ’s body and blood are “really present . . . by the ‘bond of participation’ that is the Holy Spirit.”79 But this, he thought, was a different thing than saying they are “locally” present.
Calvin insisted, speaking against the idea that Christ’s body and blood could somehow be in every piece of bread and every drop of wine consumed in the Lord’s Supper.
WHY THE “FULL HUMANITY” CONTINUES TO MATTER
our knowing that God knows us.
If Jesus, post-resurrection, were not in some way identifiably human, we would not be able to say that, in and through him, we are in actual relationship to God.
If Jesus’s humanity were only a temporary condition, we would know God as the fully divine one who went out of God’s way for us to do something extra special.
The humanity, in the case of a Jesus who is not human now, would be a pedagogical tool that would help us know about the God we are incapable of knowing directly.
Such an understanding of Jesus Christ’s humanity would be quite logical, especially since it syncs with Christian convictions about the magnitude, mystery, and unknowability of God.
But it is not, finally, adequate to the task of articulating what, at the Council of Chalcedon, our forebears in the faith saw as the heart of the mystery:
that is, that our salvation rests, somehow, in the existence of this one, Jesus Christ, whose very constitution, from the vantage point of human understanding, appears to be a contradiction.
We are saved because in and through Jesus Christ—the one who is eternally fully human as well as fully divine—we know not only that God visited with us, at one point, but that God is with us—right now.
In Jesus who was and is fully human, we are privy to the humanity of God.
THE FULLY HUMAN ONE IS FULLY DIVINE:86 PARTNERSHIP WITH GOD?
Chalcedon has been distorted whenever we speak elegantly about God’s radical presence with us, in the person of Jesus Christ, without testifying with equal fervor to the truth that, because God is with us (the fully divine one is fully human), we are with God (the fully human one is fully divine).
Chalcedonian idea—that we as human beings are in some sense through Christ integrated into the life and work of God—has consistently been neglected by those who have little interest in inviting people to think of themselves as the “hands and feet” of God.
The idea of the humanity of God, when understood to carry all of we humans into God’s life-giving work of this world, is exhilarating for those who value egalitarianism and inclusion, but frightening for those who are more comfortable with hierarchical ways of thinking about who God’s agents are in the world.
This idea, it seems, is even more unnerving to the status quo than the idea that (for example) Jesus, the divine one, weeps. But the potential, here, to “liberate the oppressed”93 must be revisited and claimed.
GOD WITH US AND US WITH GOD
IN WHAT WAYS DOES GOD CLAIM US?
The Doctrine of the Trinity
In the person of Jesus Christ, Christians believe, God not only meets us but also makes us God’s own.
As Jesus asks Peter, so we, too, are asked, by God: “Do you love me?”1 From a trinitarian vantage point, we might recognize this question as implicit in creation,
What is healed in Christ is not God’s love for us, however, but rather our faulty perception of it.
We are God’s creatures; we are God’s children; we are God’s ambassadors. God desires fellowship with us; God wants to shower us with blessings; God calls us to participate in the ministry of reconciliation.
A NOTE ABOUT TRINITARIAN GOD LANGUAGE
traditional language is, decidedly, male.
Since then and still today, children and adults are baptized in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Christians baptize in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” for example, in order to remember we are members of the one household of the same triune God, together with those who have been baptized for the last two thousand years.
Church congregations generally recite the Apostles’ Creed, which again is built on this apostolic formula, whenever the Lord’s Supper is celebrated; this reminds Christians they are joined across both time and space—
don’t think good intention is enough to justify use of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” without acknowledging and attending to the fact that this language has been too often used either to exclude,
the language of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” has been used to justify the superordination of men and the subordination of women, the idea that men are the “leaders and initiators” and women are the “responders and followers.”
the almost sole use of male language for God has influenced how we understand God, and how we understand men and women to resemble and/or not resemble God.
*I will use the apostolic language of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” but I will also try to model an expansive way of engaging this apostolic language.
*Elizabeth Johnson, that the best way to make sure Father language is not misunderstood is to use other language for God as well. When we use “equivalent female images” for God, for example, we are reminded that who God is cannot be exhausted even by the very best titles we might
Calvin insists, further, that God “has manifested himself to be both . . . Father and Mother,”
God “did not satisfy himself with proposing the example of a father . . . but in order to express his very strong affection, he chose to liken himself to a mother, calling his people not merely ‘children,’ but the fruit of the womb, towards which there is usually a warmer affection.”
The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing commits to using expansive language for God because to do so is consistent with God’s very nature.
But the threeness, with all of its specificity, reminds us of another truth equally descriptive of God, that is: God has entered into existence with us not only abstractly, as the one who in some sense gives us life, and loves us, and keeps us going through our lives.
God has met us concretely, in the context of our own creaturely history.
God the Father created us willfully and with desire. God the Son saved us by entering into a specific moment and person in time. God the Holy Spirit birthed the church, with all its various, specific peoples, languages, and gifts.
THE HEART AND THE SKELETON
If we think of the incarnation as sitting at the heart of the faith we hold, the Trinity might be understood more as the frame or the skeleton of our faith.
In the Apostles’ Creed, for example, there is no mention of the Trinity—but the idea that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit serves as the outline of what we commonly refer to as the three articles of the faith:
Contrary to the stereotypes about the Trinity that associate it with some sort of esoteric piety, to confess God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to insist God is present and involved in our day-to-day lives.
If the doctrine of the incarnation is all about God being with us, LaCugna and other contemporary theologians suggest, the doctrine of the Trinity is about God being for us.
STORY ONE: THE CHILDREN’S SERMON SCRAMBLE
It is easy to get snagged by the temptation to treat God as a kind of puzzle. We ask: How can 3 = 1 and 1 = 3? There are all kinds of answers we can come up with, especially if we feel pressure to say something. One annual occasion that inevitably supplies such pressure is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday following Pentecost. Doing the children’s sermon is often, for many, a dreaded assignment, but I would bet there is no Sunday that it is more actively avoided than on Trinity Sunday.
Instead of expressing to those kids why it matters that we believe God is triune, you’ve treated the Trinity as though it is some kind of a puzzle, a mathematical marvel to be figured out.
So what? Why does the Christian confession that God is triune matter to our lives of faith?
The problem with invoking the category of mystery in order to justify giving up on the pursuit of understanding is that it forgets the mystical character of mystery itself.
When it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, by contrast, there is no one who can solve the problem of how 3 = 1 and 1 = 3 because whatever these equations are doing, they are not trying to invite us into the challenge of problem-solving. Rather, what they are trying to invoke in us is an appreciation of the fact that who the triune God is is beyond any human formulations.
The mystery we are invited into is, rather, that God is, at once, both equally one and three.
What might look like a puzzle or a riddle is, actually, itself an answer: a statement of who God is. Our task is not to decipher it, but to recognize it participates in a deeper meaning than can be captured by any neat and tidy solution and to discern what it is about and how it affects us.
STORY TWO: THE ENCOURAGING, HEARTBREAKING LETTER
So trained we are to try to solve puzzles or provide answers to equations that we are inclined to treat the nature of the triune God as if it is a conundrum to be solved,
God is the Father who loves us, the Son we know as Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit who is with us right now,
to say God is triune, I taught, is to say God is love, God is relational, God acts, and God is knowable.
She needed someone to point out the simple truth that to say God is love, related, acting, and knowable is to say God has met us and claimed us as God’s own.
to help people quit trying to figure out how to explain the mathematics of the Trinity so they can focus on how the doctrine might transform the ways we think of God and ourselves.
GETTING TO IT: FOURTH-CENTURY PASSION FOR WHY THE TRINITY MATTERS
two ecclesial councils: the Council of Nicea (325) and the Council of Chalcedon (451).
the trinitarian debates were committed to honoring both God’s unsearchable character and God’s self-revelation in discrete moments and events of history.
Nicea and Chalcedon were marked by the concern that Jesus’s full divinity and full humanity were equally and wholly represented.
Similarly, at the Council of Alexandria (362) and the Council of Constantinople (381) the operative concern was how simultaneously to honor both the unity of the Godhead and the particular contributions and actions of each of the trinitarian persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
two main schools of thought represented at Alexandria, the gathering committed to the work and debate that led to the development of the trinitarian formula that was adopted at Constantinople in 381.
362!) there was a great deal of emphasis on the oneness or unity of God.
immanent Trinity—God in God’s own internal relationships to the triune self. The concern of the West was that, if we overemphasize God’s distinct actions as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we will finally move too far astray of monotheism and be functioning as though we believe in three gods,
God in God’s own internal relationships to the triune self.
concern of the West was that, if we overemphasize God’s distinct actions as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we will finally move too far astray of monotheism and be functioning as though we believe in three gods, rather than the one true God.
By thinking of God first as one, and then as three, they thought, the Christian church could ensure we were not committing the heresy of tritheism, respecting the fundamental Christian insight that God is the one, undivided, sovereign being who is Lord of all.
represented by the three Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil the Great)
Epistemological concerns drove the Cappadocians’ agenda. For them, it didn’t make sense that we could dive in and begin thinking about who God is as one without first recognizing God in God’s acts on our behalf. God meets us by creating us, redeeming us, and sustaining us, the Cappadocians
God meets us by creating us, redeeming us, and sustaining us, the Cappadocians thought, and it is in these and other acts of God that we come to know the divine unity.
Their emphasis—on the acts of God, rather than on the being of God, came to be identified as the economic Trinity.
The Cappadocians defended themselves against the Western accusation of tritheism by developing a model, along the lines just described, that later came to be called the social model of the Trinity. It is a model that has been developed and is today espoused by theologians including Jürgen Moltmann
heresy of modalism. Modalism is the idea that the one God more or less “morphs” into each of the three persons as each is needed. God starts out as Creator, then takes the form of the Son when redemption is required, then finally is present as the Spirit when we need comforting.
If the goal of the Cappadocians’ framing of the doctrine was epistemological, the concern of the Westerners was ontological—they wanted to be sure there was no compromise to the being of God in the way they formulated their understanding of the one-in-three.
Just as both sides, in the Chalcedonian debate of 451, agreed with Gregory of Nazianzus’s position that that which is not assumed is not redeemed, so there were major points of agreement between both sides of the trinitarian debates that took place at the council of Alexandria in 362.23
All reaffirmed, against the earlier Arian heresy, that the Son is the same stuff (homoousios) with the Father. Both sides affirmed the Holy Spirit is of the same stuff as well.
All agreed, even though they had different starting points and emphases, that God is both one and three, both three and one, and that tritheism and modalism are heretical extremes that need be avoided.
point of heated debate between the Eastern and Western churches is something that was seeded in Alexandria in 362 and developed until the point of the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches, which took place in 1054.
a single prepositional phrase has divided the body of Christ for over a thousand years. The phrase is “and the Son,” commonly known, in the Latin, as the filioque clause.
The phrase is “and the Son,” commonly known, in the Latin, as the filioque clause.
The filioque clause was not introduced until 589, at the Council of Toledo in Spain.
the Westerners added the phrase to the Nicene Creed because they believed it helped preserve the unity of God.
“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, and who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.”
The thinking of the Western church was that subscribing to the “double procession” of the Holy Spirit, from both the Father and the Son, helps us conceptualize the life of the triune God in a more coherent manner.
It is more consistent, for example, with some of the Augustinian analogies for the trinitarian God that, by 589, were shaping Western Christendom. God the Father is the Lover, God the Son the Beloved, and God the Spirit is the bond of love between them, Augustine had taught.
very real sense ensures the unity of the triune Godhead by bearing witness to the relationship between the Father and the Son.
idea that the Father and the Son together send the Holy Spirit further reinforces that they are united by way of the Spirit who continues their shared work in the world.
The Eastern church was and still is understandably chagrined that the filioque clause was added to the Creed, not only because they disagreed with what it represented theologically, but also because the Western church has acted poorly, from a political standpoint, when they voted on the addition without their agreement.
their conviction was that the filioque clause renders the Holy Spirit passive, and in this way compromises on the Spirit’s status as equally God. The Father and the Son are actively engaged in sending, but the Spirit is, only, sent.
The Spirit, moreover, seems finally to be an extension of the Father and Son’s relationship rather than, truly, her own, distinct person. It is almost as if the Eastern church interpreted the addition of the filioque as a clear indication the Western church is “binitarian” rather than “trinitarian.”
These debates that raged from Alexandria (362) to the schism (1054) continue to have an impact on the global unity of the church.
Still today, those who subscribe to the filioque are not permitted to take Communion at the Table in Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, precisely due to the concern that only those who are trinitarian are members of the one body of Christ and are invited, by him, to partake.
Moltmann considers how we might understand who Jesus Christ is and what he does differently if we interpreted everything about his life in terms of the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Teasing out the implications of this, it seems to me that, when we think of Jesus as being enlivened by the Spirit as he teaches, heals, and socializes, we find it easier to understand how it is that we may abide in him, and he in us—we are joined by way of the very same Spirit, the one who indwells us is the very one who indwells him,
the Spirit makes it possible for us not only to be “servants” of God, but also God’s “friends”—partners with God in the ministry of reconciliation.33
SCANDALOUS PRESENCE: THE TRINITY AND CHRISTIAN LIFE
theological concept called “the scandal of particularity”—that the very idea the
“the scandal of particularity”—that the very idea the God who holds the waters of the universe “in the hollow of God’s hand” enters into one, particular historical person is in some sense outlandish.
The scandal of the incarnation is perhaps obvious, especially when we think about God in relationship to the womb and the cross. But what is so scandalous about the Trinity?
There is something about the coexistence of the three and the one, in the life of God, that seemed to everyone quite precarious.
solution developed at Alexandria (362) and adopted at Constantinople (381) as being of very little help. “God is one ousia in three hypostases,” the statement as being of very little help.
“God is one ousia in three hypostases,” the statement said.41
The language of “substance” and “persons” (“God is one substance in three persons”) developed later, and actually strayed pretty far from the original Greek terminology.
While this confusing language frustrated many, Kelly describes the deliberation at Alexandria as “statesmanlike” because it invited conversation about what was meant, and kept people from both sides of the debate in conversation.
What is so scandalous about the Trinity is reflected in the statement itself, I believe. It is that somehow, in the life of God, unity and distinction coexist, each wholly and without compromise.
The fact is, the way we think about God impacts profoundly the way we think about ourselves.
Somehow—we claim and we hope, when we confess the three in one—we individuals will no longer conflict with the unity that is the communion of saints.
Yes, we will recognize one another. But our distinctions will only strengthen our connections, and our unity will only celebrate our distinctions. Now, that idea is truly scandalous!
JOINING THE DANCE: THE TRINITY AND CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY
peri means “around,” scholars disagree about which root grounds choresis. Is it chorein, which means something along the lines of “make room for”?
Or is it choros, which means “dance”? Wrestling with these possibilities, perichoresis has been translated, variously, as “interpenetration,” “mutual indwelling,” and “dancing around.”
Barth makes something of this when he argues that the triune persons who indwell one another perichoretically also actively fellowship with one another and participate in partnership with one another.
Like a family telling stories around a shared meal, I imagine each of the three persons of the Trinity telling distinctive stories about the crucifixion (for example) in ways that are really the telling of a shared story.
The Father might speak, at the table, from the vantage point of Creator, remembering the joy of creating all things good, rehearsing the created harmonies between God and humanity, between nature and humanity, between Adam and Eve.
The Son might remind the household of God of the central role of the spoken word to the creation itself. With words the Creator said, “Let there be light!” and there was light.
And the Spirit might tag onto the story of the Son, reminding him that the Word was present, in the beginning, as Wisdom—present before anything that was made was made, working alongside the Creator, “rejoicing and delighting in the human
asserting that God meets us in and through the incarnation and claims us as the God who is three-in-one and one-in-three.
Part Three GOD MAKES US
WHO DID GOD CREATE US TO BE, AND WHAT WENT WRONG?
The Doctrine of Creation
Many stories of creation also reflect our dualistic ways of describing our lives.
In this chapter, we consider the Christian doctrine of creation and what it tells us about how Christian people of faith understand God’s relation to the created order and the character of creation itself.
Christian doctrine of sin, recognizing how heinously it disconnects us from the glorious goodness of creation as we realize our salvation in Christ
CREATION AS INTERPLAY OF MEETING AND MAKING
God knows us and claims us, the Bible says, “before the creation of the world.”2
By contrast to this, when we lay claim to the goodness of creation, as God made it whole and complete, we no longer have a ready answer to why there is sin and suffering.
Calvin goes so far, in fact, as to describe sin as an “aberration.”16 It is an aberration because it is the antithesis of what and who God created us to be; it is contrary to the reality of our created goodness.
LOOK AT THE HEAVENS!
Why is there something rather than nothing? The answer, from the vantage point of faith, is short and sweet: because God made it.
DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY AND EVOLUTION
For example, the fact that creation is here “because God made it” does not preclude the possibility that God made it by way of a Big Bang, as described by evolutionary theory.
THE DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY AND THE DIVINE MOTIVE
SOVEREIGN CREATOR, BROKEN WORLD
RECLAIMING OUR CREATED “GOOD”-NESS
The idea that creation is good is, actually, a fairly radical one, from the vantage point of twenty-first-century American culture.
But, as we discussed in the preceding chapter, we tend to think of ourselves and one another as “not all good,
The not-good things that surround us, it would seem, would be well explained by positing that there are ambiguities in the fabric of creation itself.
This is the tack taken by some creation narratives.
This is not true of the creation stories in Genesis, where all the emphasis on goodness might lead us to look elsewhere for stories more connected to the brokenness of our actual lives.
Traditionally, the Christian tradition has emphasized that there was no chance of anything being compromised in the raw materials used by God in the making, since God created anything and everything ex nihilo (out of nothing) to begin with.
Augustine, again in his Confessions, puts great emphasis on the idea that, since God is good, and God created everything–and God created everything ex nihilo–everything God created has to be good, in its substance.
Here, roughly, is the logic many of our forebears employed that connected the idea of creation ex nihilo with the affirmation of the created goodness:
(1) First, they began with the Judeo-Christian confession that there is only one God.
(2) Second, they affirmed that there is no ambiguity or capriciousness in this one God—God is, they held, entirely good.
(3) Third, they posited that, because there is only one God, everything that exists must have come from this one God who made it.
(4) Fourth, they concluded that, because all things originated with the one good God who made all things, therefore all things are completely and wholly good.
(5) Fifth, then, the confession of the creation ex nihilo simply and in one clean theological sweep affirms the goodness of creation by reminding people of faith that the one, good God made all that is, with no additives or ambiguities included.
Addressing the concern that the rejection of the creation ex nihilo leaves open the threat of dualism, those following in the trajectory of Keller and Oord are clearly not proposing creation by multiple gods.
Rather, they are challenging us to think in a different way about creation, a way that does not try to account for the origin of the chaos that existed “in the beginning,” but rather accepts it as an indication that creation is a process that encompasses ambiguities indicative of life in this world.
This more process-oriented approach to the doctrine of creation does not concern itself with the beginnings and ends of creation as much as with the ongoing, collaborative work of creation itself.
our forebears thought the idea of the creation ex nihilo upheld the integrity of both God and creation. It reminded them, as has been mentioned, that God is not simply the most powerful of gods, but that the God Christians trust is without rivals;
It reminded them, also, that the creation made by this God is similarly whole and intact: free itself to act creatively without being bogged down by any elements derived from traumatic, violent, or otherwise damaging influences.
As a corollary to rejecting the creation ex nihilo, Kelly, Oord and others insist that we emphasize God’s relational character when we articulate a doctrine of creation.
Are there any ways in which adhering to the creation ex nihilo can actually support and advance important values emphasized by process-oriented thinkers?
The first corrects the impression that there is a necessary connection between subscribing to the creation ex nihilo and portraying God as standing at a distance from creation.
The second argues that, insofar as the creation ex nihilo upholds monotheism, it makes possible a critique of any and all would-be gods that would pull us away from doing the work of justice in the world.
The third argues that creation ex nihilo actually promotes a relational understanding of God by positing a more immediate relationship between God and creation, and then between fellow human beings, than it is possible to have when there is stuff that stands between God and our very existence.
The idea that God created ex nihilo has certainly been used to portray God as being at a distance from the created order, painting a picture of God that overemphasizes the divine transcendence (God’s distinction from creation) at the expense of the divine immanence (God’s presence in creation).
That is, it has been associated with a portrait of a God who is separated off from creation instead of standing with it and even in it, or at very least with a portrait of God who is first and foremost at a distance and only secondarily enters into communion with it.
But creation ex nihilo need not be interpreted as separating God from creation.
When understood more as distinguishing God from creation than as distancing God from creation, the creation ex nihilo actually makes it possible to envision God’s radical fellowship with creation.
From the vantage point of our daily lives, then, this idea that the God who creates ex nihilo and who admittedly stands in clear distinction from the created order can and does enter wholly into creation itself helps us think more deeply about the character of all intimate relationships.
The fact is that we, as human beings, cannot truly be met except by a “Thou,” by one who is distinct from us however, much is shared.
To uphold the creation ex nihilo, then, is to confess that we really have been met by the Other, in our creation.
“You knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb,” says the psalmist,recognizing the Creator as simultaneously right there with him and clearly transcendent to him, knowing his days.
There is something about the utter distinction of God that, in fact, makes God’s nearness to the psalmist all the more possible.
The God who creates ex nihilo is the ultimate “Thou” who—unencumbered by any external metaphysical necessity or need—is ready to meet us in perfect freedom, carrying nothing along with Godself that can get in the way of being with us and for us.
Clearly, the psalmist experiences the Creator’s distinction from him as part and parcel of their extraordinarily intimate relationship. The divine transcendence is anything but the opposite of the divine immanence. It does, in fact, give way to it.
But in each of these four a major corollary supported by the creation ex nihilo—that God has no rivals—is clearly in evidence.
Only God is God—Nebuchadnezzar isn’t, the devil isn’t, our stress levels are not, white slaveholders are not. All of these, as well as all other would-be “gods,” are prophetically denounced by appeal to the God who is
Something that is not often noted: to affirm the creation ex nihilo is to highlight the direct and immediate character of creation’s relationship to the divine.
Creation out of something envisions God putting us together in a way that might be somewhat akin to Geppetto choosing the very best materials to craft Pinocchio.
In such an endeavor, there might be no lack of love, attention, or self-sacrifice, but there would be something standing between the Creator and the created: that is, the constructive work of the creation itself.
To claim that God created ex nihilo is to recognize God as an artist who is in immediate relationship to his or her art, relationship that is not mediated even by materials used. God is the artist who makes neither from materials that are outside God’s own self or are part and parcel of God’s own self, but from out of nothing.
God is therefore able, as Creator, to be immediately present to what is made both because there are no raw materials standing between Creator and creature and because what is made is, as we mentioned earlier, truly distinguished from the God who made it.
EVIL AS NOT GOOD AND SIN AS ABERRATION
Once we say that everything that exists is good because it was created by a good God out of nothing, it might seem difficult (perhaps impossible) to explain why and how there is so much that is not good.
Or we might conclude, given the depths of the world’s suffering, that God is not as powerful as we may have thought; perhaps God “cannot do everything.”
Or perhaps God is not altogether good, creating us with flaws that have to be navigated. The problem with any and all of these “solutions” to the problem of suffering is that they set aside the promise of creation—that God makes us and meets us, wholly good and perfectly present.
When sin enters the story, it is viewed as an aberration and adulteration, utterly inconsistent with what God has made, what God desires, and what God intends.
Augustine defines evil as “the absence of good.” Evil has no substance, he argues:
It was not created. It could not have been created, he thinks,
since everything that was created is good.
Evil, he thinks, is the antithesis of the good creation.
When we turn away from the reality that is good and turn toward the “not good,” we have turned toward the evil that Augustine identifies with the absence of good;
the absence of God; the antithesis of the overflowingly beautiful, gracious world of resources and possibilities that God proffers to us as a gift.
Liberation theologians have raised concerns about the Augustinian definition, pointing to incidences in history when understanding evil as “absence” has led to minimizing heinous, inhuman behaviors.
James Cone is among those who suggest that, while Augustine offers a rational understanding of evil that helps us make sense of evil’s origin in light of what we believe about the nature of God and creation, it fails in at least two ways.
First, it does not adequately address the anguish of the sufferer.
Second, it does not attend to the political structures that make for human suffering and that must be addressed and transformed, prophetically and with legislative changes that promote justice.
In my view, laying claim to the truth of creation’s goodness and understanding evil as the antithesis of all that God intends and desires readily funds our resistance to oppression with one proviso: that we do not convolute evil with sin.
This is critically important. If we understand evil to be “the absence of good” as that it is without substance, we must emphasize that sin is something very different.
Sin is not identical to evil. Rather, it is the distortion of the good that is quite definitely substantive.
When I sin, I in my substantive goodness have turned away from what I am, and the good world God has made, and turned toward what I, and my world, am not. When I sin, I am not evil, but I have turned toward evil—toward the nothingness that is not God.
When we ask for forgiveness, we are confessing behaviors that are substantive and that need to be renounced and corrected.
WHO IS GOD MAKING US INTO?
The Doctrines of Sin and Salvation
see ourselves as God sees us.
we glimpse that we are beloved, beautiful, and whole as those who are created and claimed by God, despite the fact
Notice that Paul does not think he is an evildoer, plain and simple. Rather, he testifies that he is someone who, in reality, wills to do the good.
to see ourselves as God sees us is to see precisely that the evil we do was not meant to be—we were created good and should, really, be able to act in accordance with who we are in Christ.
This realization that there is a disparity between how God sees us and how we actually live certainly gives way to lament and remorse about sinfulness. It also yields to a deep yearning for healing—
Salvation, in this understanding, is not about rescuing us from being bad, but restoring us to being the good people we were created to be.
salvation, then, is forgiveness of certain out-of-sync actualities—
Finally, what cannot be forgotten is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, who continues saving us by sanctifying
Salvation, I am thinking, is the ongoing process of perceiving, and living in continuity with, our redemption in Christ.
Paul suggests salvation is something we “work out . . . with fear and trembling.”
Kierkegaard, wanting to emphasize that holding faith is not always the easiest thing to do, would never simply call himself a Christian. Instead, emphasizing the character of salvation as ongoing, he liked to say that he was in process of becoming one.
Instead of resolving the discontinuity, however, we tend to instantiate it by trying to override our wretchedness (or at least by trying to cover it up).
The net result of this dynamic, too often, is that we find ourselves living as hypocrites—desperately trying to convince ourselves, and others, that we are the people we know we should be, but actually are not.
Most Christians don’t become hypocrites by trying to fake people out about who they are. Rather, they start out trying to be who they think they should be, but inevitably fail to be good enough.
Hypocrisy is something Jesus also has no patience for, comparing those he identifies as hypocrites with “whitewashed tombs,”
path out of hypocrisy—the path toward salvation—Jesus teaches, begins with the confession that how we live and act doesn’t begin to measure up to who we are in the eyes of God, in and through Jesus Christ.
In ecumenical circles, similarly, the challenge is often made to demonstrate “visible unity” to the world.11 Again, there is the acknowledgment that it is not enough to claim “they will know we are Christians by our love”12—we need, actually, to show the world we do love by way of loving acts.
The coming of heaven to earth is what salvation looks like when each of us is so attuned to who we are in Christ that we actually do what God wills we should do.
SALVATION AS FREEDOM
when he calls himself “wretched,” is the common experience we people of faith have of being not free—unable to be who we want ourselves to be. Martin Luther describes our predicament, in this regard, as “bondage of the will.”
One of the challenges we have in grasping how freedom frees us is that our cultural understanding of freedom is different than how we are defining it here, in relation to the spiritual disparity in which we find ourselves.
Salvation from such sin, by contrast, looks like us being able to choose in ways that are consistent with who God made us to be and who we want to be, in our actual lives.
Whatever redemption is, I believe it includes the healing both of the bondage of our wills and the oppression of some by others. Sometimes, theologians associate these two kinds of bondage with personal sin and corporate sin (or systemic sin), respectively.
The personal sins of individuals that shape corrupt institutions in which the lives of some are used up to enhance the lives of others.
The idea that God desires both personal sin and corporate sin to be redeemed is consistent with the biblical witness all the way through.
David’s appeal that the Lord “create . . . a clean heart, filled with right desires.”
And there are commands, throughout, to take care of those who have been impoverished by broken systems. “Establish justice,”
Amos tells us, for example, warning us that neglecting the “poor” and the “needy” will have dire consequences.
IS SALVATION REALLY NECESSARY, IF ALL ARE MET AND MADE BY GOD?
The understanding of salvation that is operative in this chapter and this book is not one founded in the idea that some are simply in and others are simply out, when it comes to the Kingdom of God. As has been suggested in prior chapters, the hope is that all have been met in the coming of the Word made flesh, and that all have been made good in the image of the triune God.
In relation to the incarnation and creation, then, all are accounted for. On the basis of this confession of God’s grace Barth is reported to have suggested to Christians that they “hope everyone makes it in the end and preach as though hell is real.”
A human being is no more authorized to declare that everyone makes it in the end than he or she is licensed to determine who is in and who is out of whatever constitutes God’s eternal Kingdom.
redemption of sin, however, is in the business of something more than issuing “fire insurance,” as I sometimes like to joke. In other words, it is not only—and
perhaps not even primarily—concerned with the matter of creating a way for people who deserve to go to hell to go to heaven instead.
Rather, it is God’s work of making it possible for people to be the beautiful creatures God made them to be, in fellowship with the triune God, by way of their brother, Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
God’s work of redemption saves us not only from something but also for something—life in God, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
SALVATION AND UNIVERSALISM
If all are, objectively speaking, met and made by God, doesn’t this mean all are, whether they know it or not, already “saved”?
There is a sense in which we who are saved by God no matter what are also not saved whenever we lose sight of who we are.
This does not mean that if we were to die in the moments of our forgetting we would go to hell. What it does mean is that we are less free in our daily life whenever we lose sight of God’s meeting and making of us.
Karl Barth explains it this way: Reality which does not become truth for us obviously cannot affect us, however supreme may be its ontological dignity. . . .
It will necessarily remain unattested on our side—a word which has no answer, a light which has no reflection. Unrecognized, the love of God in Jesus Christ cannot awaken and summon us to its attestation and therefore to a response of love.23
It is explained quite straightforwardly by Barth. What we decide, he explains, is not whether or not we have been met and made by God, but whether or not we will live our lives in light of the decision that has been made on our behalf.
While this life decision is really ours, Barth explains, “it . . . cannot precede but can only follow
Your love for this person, it is clear, will endure whether this person recognizes it and lives in relation to it or not.
But imagine what would happen if and when this person acknowledged it.
In one sense, nothing would be different (because the love you have would be the same love that was present even before the recognition).
At the same time, everything would be different (because the person would be transformed by the love extended to them, which would give you great joy).
Interestingly, this way of understanding salvation avoids buying into an easy universalism while at the same time eschewing any problematic tendency we might have to divide the world up into insiders and outsiders.
make a difference to our lives and the life of the world. To say, simply, that “everyone makes it in the end, so why worry, really, about the space between here and there” does a disservice not only to the legacy of Christendom but also to the transformative experiences of those who have “held faith” down through the ages and found that their conscious Christian convictions have shaped their very lives.
WHAT KEEPS US FROM BEING SAVED? SIN AND FINITUDE
If salvation is about syncing who we actually are (in our day-to-day, on the ground lives) with who we really are (as those created by God and beloved), what’s the big hold up?
Traditionally, the answer to this question has been: sin gets in the way. We don’t want to give up control, we hypothesize. We would rather be the gods of our own life than to recognize ourselves as those who are met and made by God, and therefore as mere creatures.
But saying “pride gets in the way” of our acknowledgment of who we are in relation to the God who has made and met us oversimplifies the condition from which we need to be redeemed.
The theologian Paul Tillich, along these lines, identifies sin with estrangement—the experience of feeling alienated from the source of all things, the “Ground of All Being” with which we desperately desire to feel connected.28
This troubles us since—face-to-face with the unlimited One—we realize death is not the only possibility. Somehow, it just doesn’t seem right to us that we should die. And so, we fight our creatureliness.
Tillich argues, along these same lines, that when we resist the freedom that comes with recognizing we are creatures who are met and made by God, we are actually resisting our finitude.
While the finitude itself is no sin, fighting it leads us to sinful behaviors.
Tillich calls this the sin of hubris, of sin concupiscence
Tillich notes, simply turning our backs on God altogether.
On some level, he suggests, we hope that turning away will get the infinite out of our line of vision so we don’t have to process our finitude, by contrast.
The sin of “turning away” looks the most innocuous but is actually the most serious of the three instances of sin, in Tillich’s conceptualization, given that it ignores our grounding in God.
What keeps us from living in light of being met and made by God, then, according to Tillich, are indeed the sins of hubris, concupiscence, and turning away that are manifestations of our resistance to being who we really are as God’s beloved creatures.
Because Tillich’s approach to the problem from which we need redemption focuses more on the condition of our sinfulness than on the particular sins rooted in it, his reflections on the human condition often resonate with groups of people who feel estranged, including those whose sins look quite different than pride, concupiscence, or unbelief.
For people who are black, Cone, Martin Luther King Jr., JoAnne Terrell, and other African American and African theologians suggest, the recognition of finitude and its corresponding mortality can be so overwhelming that there can be a kind of “giving up” that looks quite the opposite of pride, concupiscence, or turning away. Nelson Mandela commonly named this form of response to feelings of estrangement, when exhorting audiences comprised primarily of black persons in South Africa.
Asserted: “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” “We ask ourselves,” he would continue, still using Williamson’s words,
“Who am I to be brilliant, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.”
This idea that the sins that seem to stand in the way of our recognizing we are met and made by God can vary, depending on who we are and what demographic we come from, has also been noticed and developed by many feminist theologians.
Judith Plaskow, twenty years later, applied Saiving’s thesis to Tillich and Niebuhr, arguing that the theologies of these formative male theologians could be expanded to take the experiences of women into account, in teachings about sin and salvation.
In showing what this would look like, Saiving and Plaskow identified the sins they thought were more common to women as feminine sin.
think of themselves as less than they really are, rather than as more than they are.
What stands in the way of our living into our redemption, then, is whatever keeps us from recognizing the reality of who we are as those who have been met and made by God.
The bottom line is that the reason we have so much trouble recognizing that we are met and made, beloved and good, is because we—unlike God—are finite.
Our limitations, as creatures before God, are not readily accepted as good, which is why we respond either by trying to override them or by giving up.
This is what Jesus did, as the one who entered fully into our creaturely reality with us.
When, early in his ministry, the devil tried to tempt him to override his limitations by turning stones into bread, Jesus resisted the sins of pride and concupiscence.
What is the place of Christ’s actual work—his life, death, and resurrection? Is there a need for atonement, related to salvation?
SALVATION AND ATONEMENT37
People of faith have noted that this problem of wretchedness Paul describes, even as it is parsed out later by theologians such as Tillich, is impossible to conquer on our own.
Aquinas thinks we have the capacity to discern an intelligence behind the natural world; Wesley thinks we decide to reach out and take God’s gift of forgiveness.
Most explicitly, however, they argue that we need the help of God as it is extended to us in the acts of God in Jesus Christ. It is through his life, death, and resurrection, they believe, that atonement is made for our sins.
A major concern of those questioning atonement theory is the history of ways in which the cross has been used to justify or perpetuate abuse.
While this might seem like an extreme statement, its antecedents were recognizable all the way back in the twelfth century, when Peter Abélard complained about Anselm’s theory.
Trinity, there has never been a church council that has determined a standard of orthodoxy for understanding atonement theory.
The reference point is the cross itself, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in which it is situated.
Christ as Priest: Anselmian Atonement
According to Anselm, our sinfulness dishonored God. The God who is perfectly righteous and holy cannot look upon sin because to do so would be inconsistent with God’s righteous character.
a God of order who desires to restore the damage done by sin.
God can only turn away from sinners, and God will find a way to be reconciled to them. In order for God to enter back into relationship with us,
Anselm explains, the debt to God’s honor has to be “satisfied.” Since we, as sinners, are not capable of satisfying God’s honor, and since a human being has to pay the debt accrued as a consequence of human sin, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ.
Because Jesus takes the penalty of dishonor upon himself, as the fully human, sinless one, God’s honor is restored. Jesus is offered a reward for his sacrifice, a sacrifice he was not compelled to make, being sinless. But because Jesus is also fully divine, he does not need the reward. He offers the reward to us.
that Anselm’s understanding, now most commonly known as substitutionary atonement,
the eleventh century.
What seems to be the case is that, earlier in the church’s history, it was clearer to believers that God’s entrance into human existence was itself redemptive.
Notice that Gregory–and all those from the fourth through the eleventh centuries who appreciated his insight–understood salvation to have been accomplished by way of the Word become flesh (which includes, but is not limited to, the cross).
The need for satisfaction stems from the divine aseity or the divine freedom, Anselm held.
In other words: God becomes flesh because God’s very being demands it in order to be in relationship with us, not because God is following rules that compel God to do this.
Anselm takes very seriously God’s relationship to the created order, particularly to human beings.
The closeness of God to us is seen not only in God’s decision to enter into our reality in Jesus Christ, making amends for our sinfulness.
It is also seen in the fact that God is affected by us—so profoundly affected that God has to turn away; so affected that something has to be done to preserve God’s character.
Many are concerned that this model glorifies human suffering and so promotes both shame and the sin of self-deprecation.
For Abélard as well as for many who hold faith today, the idea that God would require death in order to forgive is antithetical to what we confess about God’s unconditional love and graceful, ongoing creation.
In fact, I also reject this proposition. I do not believe the Father required the death of the Son.
One further, and important, critique of Anselm is that he tends to reduce Jesus Christ’s atoning work to the substitutionary work on the cross.
If Christ is only our substitute, what happens to us? Was Christ’s only purpose in becoming human to die as the penalty for our sin? Did the incarnation, the teachings, the life
Christ as Prophet: Abélardian Atonement
Abélard was fair enough to present his own view, commonly known as the moral exemplar theory or, sometimes, representational theory.
According to Abélard, we are not saved primarily through Christ’s death on the cross, but through the example of Christ’s life, which includes his suffering and death on the cross.
In contrast to what he believed was a skewed representation of God by Anselm, Abélard founded his understanding of atonement on his belief that God is a God of love, and that the example of this love is Jesus Christ.
“By the faith which we hold concerning Christ, love is increased in us, by virtue of the conviction that God in Christ has united our human nature to himself and, by suffering the same nature, has demonstrated to us that perfection of love of which he himself says:
For Abélard, Jesus Christ is not just a nice example, a leader in a game of Simon Says whom we are called to emulate. For Abélard, Christ is the one who constrains us to love: the best friend, the parent, the mentor—
Abélard’s understanding is helpful insofar as it does not reduce the person and work of Jesus Christ to the event of the cross, but understands the atoning work of the cross to be efficacious only in the context of Jesus Christ’s entire life and ministry.
God in Jesus Christ has entered into existence with us, and in so doing has redeemed us. We are not replaced, as in the case of a solely substitutionary view. Instead, our place is held by Christ.
Similarly, an Abélardian reading would not attempt to make sense of Jesus’s cry of dereliction by understanding it as a necessary means to the end of paying the penalty for our sin.
Instead, a representational reading helps us to hear the cry as an affirmation that God really suffers with us, and so understands our suffering.
God loves us enough to meet us in the most heinous dimensions of estranged human existence with us, and this identification with us is itself redemptive, apart from anything Christ then does or doesn’t do for us.
Calvin asks: How has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us?
He doesn’t answer this question with “by dying on the cross” but “by the whole course of his obedience.”
The critique frequently made of Abélard is two fold:
First, those who have learned from Anselm’s view are concerned that Abélard does not take into adequate account the character of God.
Second, some critics wonder if Abélard has given much thought to the depraved character of human beings.
How can he be so sure that we are equipped to respond to the love demonstrated for us by Jesus Christ?
Someone who is simply “a good example” cannot redeem us, they argue, for our salvation then ultimately rests on our capacity to mold ourselves in to Jesus’s likeness, and we are not capable of doing this in and of ourselves. Human beings need more help than this, critics argue.
Christ as Victor: Christus Victor
Irenaeus (2nd c.) is credited with its earliest articulation, and the theory is later reflected in theologians including Luther (16th c.) and Wesley (19th c.).
C. S. Lewis.
According to the christus victor theory, God and the forces of Satan are in battle with one another. There is no question of who will ultimately win, christus victor proponents argue, and in this sense the battle is therefore not a real battle.
Christ was able to “overthrow Satan by means of [God’s] words and commandments.”
Nonetheless, christus victor clearly acknowledges that, while never tenable rivals to God, Satan and Satan’s demons have real power along the way to the coming of the Kingdom.
“Jesus opposes [the forces of evil] during his life, is apparently conquered by them in his death, but triumphs over them through his resurrection.”
God and Satan are at war because human beings sinned.
` In sinning, we succumbed to the power of Satan (the “fallen one”).
Christ came to release us from the bonds of Satan, and to bind Satan to sin.
Christ “carried off a glorious and perfect victory” by paying the ransom that was owed to Satan for our salvation.
Strength of the christus victor theory of atonement is that it is honest about naming the presence of evil in the world for what it is, being clear that it is not something that will simply go away without intervention.
the work of atonement is “ongoing.”
A strength of christus victor is that, in unabashedly naming sin, it can support dynamics of change.
Transformation can only occur if sin and/or oppression is identified; once we identify it, we can repent of it, disarm it, and work to put in place personal and institutional structures that are consistent with the salvation we claim.
Christus victor is often thought to compromise, however unintentionally, on God’s sovereignty: If Satan has power that needs to be undermined, and God must act in order to thwart the will of Satan, then God is not all-powerful, but only mostly powerful.
The benefits of christus victor have not been seriously considered in the modern period because we understand this theory of atonement to be too “dramatic” for conservative theological thinkers who thought it did not reflect a “clearly worked-out theological scheme” and was therefore unhelpful.
There is the concern that christus victor is too triumphalistic.
The victory of Christ and his followers has too often in history come at the expense of others, as in the case of the Crusades.
The victory of Christ and his followers is meaningless and oppressive in the face of heinous crimes
While liberation theologians often understand christus victor to open up the possibility for speaking and acting prophetically against injustice in the hands of the oppressed, they are concerned that it supports imperialism in the hands of the oppressor.
But I have suggested that we resist the urge to reduce our understanding of atonement to any one theory, believing, as Leanne Van Dyk puts it, that a “range of theories attempts to focus our attention, illuminate the truth, and point beyond themselves to God.”
Atonement theory, understood as grounded in the person of Jesus Christ and communicated by the Holy Spirit, enables us to glimpse the how of the reality that we abide in Christ, and he in us.
The mystery of God’s will is revealed to us in the atonement, in the person of Jesus Christ who encounters us by revealing who God is in his actions on our behalf.
Because he is one with the Father, we are one with God.
To understand Jesus Christ as “doing something for us” in the work of atonement is to overlook our salvation;
Substitutionary atonement, when seen in relationship to the representational view, argues that we are replaced on the cross precisely so that we can have a place in running the race that is before us.
When seen in relation to christus victor, substitutionary atonement becomes a prophetic claim that God died on that cross in our place so that we do not have to die for our sins or the sins of others. Christ is the victor who dies; we are the disciples who can therefore offer ourselves as living sacrifices.
Rather, salvation is living in and with the One who accomplishes it for us and with us, the One who continuously meets us and makes us by way of his life, death, and resurrection.
The God who has met us in creation and incarnation not only continues to make us anew, but promises to bless us all along the way, even as we struggle to interpret and negotiate the many ambiguities that characterize our world. How
Part Four GOD BLESSES US
WHERE IS OUR HOME?
The Doctrine of the Church
THE BLESSING OF THE SPIRIT;
THE BLESSINGS OF THE CHURCH
Where the Spirit is present in the context of a community of believers, there we find the church.
analogies I think of when I think of the church, the one that stands out is a bit dangerous: I think of church as “home.”
because the church more often than not falls short of being the safe and nurturing place it promises to be and that people hope it will be.
Some suggest that we should be lowering expectations for what church has to offer.
I vote for a different approach: calling the church “home”—even when the term doesn’t quite fit, descriptively—as a way of naming, and holding to account, what the church is called
Just as we do not always live and act as who we are in Christ, so the church too falls short of who it is and will be, as the bride lifted up, holy and without blemish, by the bridegroom, Christ.
Each carries something essential not only to what will happen in the service to follow, but to the identity and for the comfort of every person in the room.
Then she takes a big loaf of bread, breaks it in half, extends her arms to the people of God with half a loaf in each hand, and says—with a huge smile on her face—“Welcome home!”
THE CHURCH AS HOME
we feel sure, rightly or wrongly, that a move to a new building would mean the certain and sudden death of what we hold dear.
We also associate buildings with our desire to increase church membership, organizing
It is perhaps too often the case, however, that improvements in programming and staffing or efforts to reach out to those in need are sacrificed for the sake of buying bricks and mortar.
New church initiatives often name the problem with over-associating church with buildings.
Internet churches and other new church communities, for example, actively remember that the first communities of believers generally gathered in homes, pooling their talents, food, and other resources as they celebrated and shared the good news of Jesus Christ.
They don’t want to be bogged down by raising money for building projects or by paying off building debt, which they view as taking away from more important aspects of their ministry, such as caring for their membership and ministering to people outside the walls of their meeting space.
“Why this building, then?” I asked them.
“We’ve found,” they said, “that some people want to worship with others instead of home, by themselves, on their computers.
So, the church helps interested groups of people buy cheap buildings that people can go to worship together.
They sit together in the ‘Assembly Room’ and we project the service on a big screen.”
We visited the Assembly Room. It seated about six hundred. “How many people do you get every week?” I asked. “About 2,100,” they said. “Wow, that’s a lot!” I replied. And then I added, reflexively,
“You must be looking for a bigger building.” They got me on that one. “Oh—no ma’am,” they said. “We aren’t interested in bigger buildings. We’re interested in people.
THE CHURCH EXPANDED
both Calvin and Gutiérrez insist there are those who are not currently confessing “Jesus as Lord” who should still be considered part of the Christian community.
Calvin talks about the invisible church, along these lines, arguing that the invisible church includes those who are chosen by God but have not yet come to recognize this.
Gutiérrez argues, similarly, that the church is present wherever the Holy Spirit is at work.
When a person gives a cold cup of water to someone who is thirsty, the Spirit is present even if that person has not made a confession of faith. Gutiérrez calls the church in this broader sense the koinonia (meaning “fellowship”), in contrast to the ekklesia.
CHURCH, TECHNOLOGY, AND CHANGING UNDERSTANDINGS OF COMMUNITY
These days, notions of what constitutes church continue to be broadened by changing understandings of “community” in our globalized, connected, twenty-first-century world.
it is possible for the first time in history to talk and text for hours on end every day, send pictures, or even put out-of-state (or country) grandparents on Facetime so they can be present at their granddaughter’s fifth-grade awards ceremony.
whether we actually do use our technology to maintain and deepen relationships.
What kinds of promises can we honestly make about church that might lead folks to invest?
One arena in which different understandings of how to go about inviting others into the community of the church are showcased is in debates about whether entering into membership is still a valuable rite of passage into the community.
Often, they are told membership is a mark of commitment. But when they look at who seems most involved, there is not always a correlation between membership and involvement, or even membership and giving.
A Skyped meeting is not as effective as a face-to-face meeting, and when everyone is only half invested in the important deliberations going on in a conference call because they are surreptitiously typing emails or cleaning Cheerios out from under the couch cushions, it might possibly have been better to have no meeting at all.
THE CHURCH AND BODIES
“Can my avatar take communion?”17 is a newer question related to who is invited to the Table.
We bring our bodies to church to sing, pray, listen, see, eat. T
he sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper use the basic stuff needed for bodily existence: water, bread, wine. In churches people join their bodies together in marriage; into churches we carry the bodies of our beloved ones, hoping for resurrection.
That said, we do need to acknowledge that some people now go to church online.
One fifty(ish)-year-old pastor friend of mine recently shared that he himself is a member of a virtual church.
Something about living and breathing bodies, breaking bread together and stepping on each other’s toes.
The Lord’s Table is a locus, in church, where bodies are front and center.
There is a christological heresy that is relevant here. It is the aforementioned heresy of docetism—the idea that Jesus was divine, but not really and truly human.
To try not to chew the communion bread, as though it is not actually bread, is actually a way of denying the humanity of God in Jesus Christ.
It is, however inadvertently, a way of resisting the Christian confession that the Word was made flesh, that God is with us in the ordinary aspects of our days, and that our daily meals can actually facilitate our participation in Christ.
We tear off a big chunk of that bread—taking several bites, chewing and swallowing, remembering that Jesus Christ walked as a human being through history, died in body on the cross, and rose embodied from the grave.
And doing these things, the communion liturgy reminds us, leads to our hearts being lifted up by the power of the Holy Spirit at work through the shared meal.
The sacrament of baptism also deals intimately with bodies. It is a bath that washes away the dirt and stains (and in front of members of the community, who serve as witnesses) even as our new life in Christ is announced.
THE CHURCH AS ONE COMMUNITY AMONG MANY
For better and for worse, technologies make it possible for us to avoid leaving one community for another, and to continue developing communities even of people who have never seen each other face-to-face, and perhaps don’t even aspire ever to have such a meeting.
CHURCH AS COMMUNITY OF BELIEVERS AND SEEKERS
Perhaps we should understand the church not only as a community of believers, but also as a community of faithful seekers.
WHAT MAKES CHURCH
This is not the first time in history we have struggled to figure out what constitutes “the church,” even if our current challenges are shaped, in unprecedented ways, by access to transportation, ubiquitous cell phones, and social media.
Four marks of the church, as they were confessed in the Nicene Creed, because they were concerned that the Roman church of the day was invoking them in ways that detracted from recognizing the church as a concrete entity that exists in this world.
(1) one, (2) holy, (3) catholic (“universal”), and (4) apostolic, but it is seen and experienced “visibly” in this world,
Calvin says, wherever and whenever “the Word is proclaimed and the sacraments rightly administered.” evidence—they are participating in the real thing, “true religion,”27 the body of Christ.
The church is, they thought, a flesh-and-blood real-world community of struggling, hopeful people who confess belief in Jesus Christ, who repent of their sins, who together come together where:
Where God Is Worshipped
The church is where God is regularly worshipped in the context of Christian community.
Worship takes place in the church, and the church is also present wherever worship takes place.
Where Sins Are Confessed and Forgiven
The church is where sins are confessed and the forgiveness of God is declared.
It is common practice to include a prayer of confession and assurance of pardon (or declaration of forgiveness) in the earlier parts of the worship service. This
A benefit of confessing sins at the beginning of the worship service is that confessors who have been reminded they have been justified in Christ will continue in worship as those who have been reoriented: they can see themselves, again, as God sees them.
Jesus is clear that the burden of forgiveness, in the context of the church, should not lie on the person who has been harmed, but rather on the community as a whole.
Forgiveness, as he talks about it in the Gospels, is more of a dynamic process than a punctiliar action
Where the Word Is Proclaimed
The church is where the Word of God is proclaimed. For Christians who come from “active way” or kataphatic40 traditions, the sermon
Where There Is Confirmation and Intercession
The church is where our faith is strengthened and we are upheld in prayer. In the context of the community, the Holy Spirit “confirms” in our hearts and minds that we are the children of God, so that we can live our lives secure in that knowledge.42
Where We Are Bathed
The church is where we are bathed. We are bathed by the water of baptism, in which our old selves are drowned and out of which we emerge to new life in Christ.
Where We Are Fed
The church is where we are fed with Christ’s body and blood.
I do think the Table is meant for believers, specifically. When Jesus told the disciples to “do this in remembrance of me,” he seemed to be assuming that those gathered around the Table would have a vested interest in who he is and his saving work.
Where We Are Comforted and Exhorted
The church is where we are both comforted and exhorted.
When we are sick or aggrieved we are supported in prayer.
be anointed with oil and experience the laying on of hands.
As those who are “forgiven, healed, and made whole,”50 we are charged to live as the children of God we are, obeying God’s laws freely and serving one another in love.
Where We Work and Hope
The church is where we work and hope in freedom, remembering that all of our efforts are provisional.
Where We Are Charged and Blessed
The church is the place where we are charged and blessed, sent forth to share the benefits we have received with the world that God so loves.
Often it is trinitarian in structure: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us both now and forever more.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE GOD’S CHILDREN?
The Doctrine of the Christian Life
Barth thought a question that should be “addressed to . . . every theologian” is: “How are things with your heart?”
“every Christian has to figure out for him or herself what Christianity is all about, what Christianity stands for in the world.”
It is because Barth and his colleagues decided to be Christians; because they acted mindfully, intentionally, and habitually in relation to this decision, that there was a Barmen Declaration, a confessing church movement, and a neo-orthodox renewal of the church.
blesses us by shaping in us an awareness of God’s presence, salvation, and gifts.
To live the Christian life is to be so transformed by awareness of the reality in which we participate that our gratitude spills over into faithful actions, contributing to the transformation of the world.
Sometimes I imagine the challenge of Christian life in relation to the metaphor of a swimming pool (which for me is reminiscent of a baptismal font).
If the water in the pool represents the reality of God’s grace-full presence and salvation, in relation to us,
the question is: Why do we spend so much time off to the side of the pool instead of swimming in the water? How do we jump back in, surface, and begin to swim?
JUMP? THE RISK OF HOLDING FAITH
As we discussed in chapter 6, discipleship requires we risk putting ourselves
Jesus is not going to let Nicodemus—or us—get away with hiding behind astonished questions.
He wants Nicodemus to get closer to the mystery of God’s grace; to dive into it; to revel in that which he cannot manage, that which he cannot track.
And Nicodemus—as I imagine it—moves from not jumping in because he is afraid of the chaos, to not jumping in because he is suddenly offended.
You’re telling me, he might well have said to Jesus, you’re telling me that my way to seeing the Kingdom of God is you? You—specifically?
Kierkegaard uses the startling language of “offense” to describe our reaction to God. He might say it is our offense that most often keeps us from jumping into the water of grace.
To insinuate that the omnipotent, omnipresent, immutable God who created the universe can be known in a singular event, in a particular person, is scandalous.
if it really is the case that God became flesh because God so loved the world, this means that we matter to God. We are loved by God.
Rather, faith itself is a form of grace. As Karl Barth put it, our belief in Jesus Christ is, actually, a kind of surplus grace—constitutive of the gift itself.17
SPLASH! THE COST OF HOLDING FAITH
Grace is not cheap for God, and it is not cheap for us. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands our life, our soul, our all.”
It’s hard to imagine a more solid jump than Ruth’s pledge in relation to Naomi in the book of Ruth. “Where you go, I will go,” Ruth says. “Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.”
I wonder if she woke up the next morning, replaying her speech to Naomi with just a touch of regret.
Could she possibly have thought to herself, Rats! Well—now I’ve really gone and done it. There’s nowhere to go but into that water. Why did I have to be so . . . well . . . definitive?
Ruth seemed well aware that grace, though free, was never cheap. The costs of her commitment were many: she risked never getting married again, which made her both economically and physically vulnerable.
She risked living out her life as a stranger in a strange land, as a Moabite living in Judah. And, she risked the unpleasantness of living her life with a “Naomi turned Mara.” Who wants to share their days with a bitter mother-in-law
Our ambition leads us away from the edge of the pool, away from the risk, toward drier and more manageable terrain. We are actually standing over in the picnic area, over there—next to Orpah (Naomi’s other daughter-in-law, who chooses to turn back and go home to her people).
We may think we respect Ruth’s commitments, but really, we are doing so only in a hypothetical sense. In actuality, Orpah is our model; Orpah is clearly better at minimizing loss and managing long-term investments.
He wants us to give up is claiming our sinfulness as our primary identity. He wants us to think about sin more as an aberration than as a given.
He wants us to take seriously the fact that transformation entails the cost of dying to sin and the promise of being made alive again in Jesus Christ. He
Who are we, anyway, to even presume we can be holy and blameless? We might ask ourselves this, feeling very pious, even as we hit the water. Surely, one can be wet and still hold on to at least some sins.
“Be not conformed to this world,”
And it is not only the case that people don’t think of themselves as saints; they also don’t want to. Like I said, the suspicion is that sainthood does not come with enough accessories—what if all you get are one of those thin monk’s robes with a cincture?!
How dare we assume we are Ruth when we are not. How dare we assume we are being somehow transformed when the water has hardly been disturbed, when no sacrifices have been made, when no cost is in evidence.
To splash into the water of grace is to let go of such hypocrisy and be renewed with a right spirit. It is to move closer to having a faithfull answer to the essential question, How are things with your heart?
SURFACE: THE PROMISE OF FAITH
The son is thinking of his relationship to his father in terms of fair transactions, the father in terms of the sharing of life. The son is operating in accordance with the “order of justice,” the father in accordance with the “order of grace.”
It is, rather, to believe God will accomplish what is utterly impossible, and that we will have essential roles to play in the divine accomplishing.
Just remember, we might imagine God saying to us elder children. Remember that you are my child; we live and work together; everything I have
be theocentric in our reading of salvation history is not to sideline ourselves in pious recognition that it is God, and not us, who accomplishes God’s purposes.
To buy into an either/or, in this matter, is to be thinking in a transactional, rather than a participatory, manner.
In contrast to this, the promise and miracle of grace is that we who can do nothing in and of ourselves can do all things in Jesus Christ who strengthens us.
This is the promise we are charged to lay claim to, even in the midst of all of our wretchedness.
And simultaneously she also recognizes she is an essential, creative contributor to the divin
God sees value in doling out chores.
God believes we, like Mary, have something essential to offer to the work of salvation. Even more significantly, God desires that we participate in the divine life and work for the same reason God entered the world in Jesus Christ and fills the world with the Spirit: God wants to be actively with us, and wants us to be actively with God.
SWIM! THE PRACTICE OF HOLDING FAITH
Maybe one reason we fall into the trap of begrudgingly meeting obligations is because we are spending out of our own personal bank account, rather than from the superabundant resources God shares with us. I probably don’t have to tell you that burnout, when it comes to matters of faith, is a big problem.
Barth says we are “always mistaken” when we think there is “no other way” for us to be than stressed out, no other approach we can take than to “work tensely.”
We could apply every one of the fabulous suggestions we come up with for living the Christian life and still miss out on grace.
The trick to staying in the pool isn’t coming up with the right method, or even with the right metaphor.
It is not to put aside the word response and come up with some other word, althoughdoing so might well be more theologically accurate.
What staying in the pool is about, rather, is living into our only true identity; seeing ourselves as God sees us; knowing ourselves as beloved children before our sovereign God.
We live and work, as Christian disciples who know they are beloved, before the God who holds the waters of the cosmos in the hollow of God’s hand and calls each and every one of us by name.
We act not out of obligation to the other, but because we are for and with them, even as God, in Christ, is for and with us.
the love of Christ’s disciples abound and overflow, that the grace of God in which we swim pour through and from we who know and want to share—ever more deeply—what matters most.
poverty of the Western world is a spiritual poverty, not the economic poverty Paul is usually talking about.
We work very hard, we are overextended and stressed, and we have an inflated sense of self-importance, all because we’ve lost sight of who we are and what life’s about.
We struggle with our self-created paucity of time, our self-created need to gain ever more wealth,
Christians who preach about how God takes the side of the poor and marginalized then drive off in their fancy cars to their clearly privileged lives---.
to recognize our complicity in the power structures that be, if there is to be any hope for change.
Maybe part of the problem is that we’re thinking in zero-sum quantities again—in transactional ways that get us stuck, rather than in gracefull ways that open us to the resources of God.
I don’t even know I’m doing them. God desires that my service to others springs from who I am. Overflows from who I am, in fact, as a child of God swimming in the water of grace.
Part Five GOD SENDS US
WHERE ARE WE HEADED?
The Doctrine of Christian Hope
Consider what Christian hope looks like
WHO IS HOPE FOR?
Christian hope is, similarly, not only for individuals, though it is experienced, in one way or another, in the lives of every disciple.
Christian hope is the hope of the whole church, and even beyond: it is the hope of the entire world.
Mentors listen and testify to the ways in which God has worked even in and through the difficulties of their lives, making a way where there was no way.
Parents learn and then tell their children stories about how God has acted in history to save and to claim unlikely individuals, families, communities, and nations.
Chronos (created, chronological time) gives way to kairos (eternity breaking into chronological time).
common experience in this world, and among people of faith, is hopelessness.
Hopelessness is, unfortunately, often quite understandable, given the tragedies in our lives and the life of the world.
The last thing we need to be doing on days like today (which are certainly too numerous) is trying to overwhelm grief and frustration with upbeat, religiousy-sounding aphorisms that, however well-intentioned, seem geared, primarily, to managing everyone’s despair so the economies of our lives together don’t suddenly come to a screeching halt.
This, in contrast to what might really help: meeting people with the strength of God’s promises in ways that empower them to stomp their feet and pray once again—
Thy Kingdom come, already!—recommiting to doing the will of God that will help bring the Kingdom to fruition.
People of faith, then, are not sent by God to be the world’s cheerleaders. And yet to walk around morosely, as though the fate of the world is solely up to us, and we are failing in our task, is also problematic.
What we are sent out to share are not our honest opinions, our authentic feelings, our life experiences, or our best practices—as important as all of these things are.
We are sent to share Christ, who is God with us no matter what.
CHRISTIAN HOPE IN THE PRESENT
eschatology. “Eschatology” means, literally, “words about the end.”
here, focusing on Christian hope for this world, is premised in God’s outlandish promise to be with us no matter what. Even when appearances seem to argue to the contrary, we have not been left behind.
the interface of the “now” and the “not yet.”
So important is the idea that eschatology must have something to do with our real struggles that, when I lecture on this doctrine in the classroom or in the church, I hand out index cards before starting and ask participants to write “What do I fear?” on one side of the card, and “Whatdo I hope for?” on the other side.
Then I ask them to write their responses. Often, I collect the cards and read everyone’s fears, and then everyone’s hopes (anonymously, of course). I always say, before I start the lecture that follows, that however we think of the doctrine of eschatology, it better have something to do with our real-life fears and hopes.
The end of earthly life does not mean the end of all life.
Christ rose, and we will rise again with him.
CHRISTIAN DOCTRINES: INFUSED WITH HOPE
Revelation: We know the unknowable God.
Incarnation: God is with us and for us in Jesus Christ.
Trinity: God’s love for us is true to God who is love.
Creation: The gifts of life are good and to be enjoyed.
Providence: Creation is ongoing; God enlivens every creature in every place at every moment.
Humanity: We are created in the image of God.
Sin: Sin is an aberration; finitude is not a sin.
Salvation: We are forgiven; we can live in cognizance of grace.
Holy Spirit: God intercedes for us, empowers us, and gifts us with faith.
Church: We imagine God’s Kingdom and claim it for the world.
Sacraments: God blesses us through ordinary means.
Resurrection: Death does not have the final word. Ascension: We participate in God’s life and work.
HOPE AND THE CROSS
the one who entered into life with us when he was born to Mary in Bethlehem and held nothing back from us when he died on the cross at Golgotha drew us into the very life of the triune God by rising from the dead and ascending into heaven.
Jesus himself tried to comfort his disciples with reassurances that he would “come again” and “take them to himself” so that they would never again be apart.
And he wanted the disciples to know, even before this “coming again,” that he had them in mind. He was “preparing a place for them,” he told them, planning for reunion.
The hope we have that is oriented around bodily resurrection is the hope that astonished us when the “Word became flesh,”
On the contrary, to confess bodily resurrection is to insist, as Jesus did throughout his ministry, that bodies and souls are inextricable, and that bodies always matter.
The reality is, though, that the exhortation to “just hang on” for a couple of days is not all that useful on Friday night, when Sunday-morning resurrection cannot yet be seen.
Knowing what the Kingdom of God looks like can deepen our experience of the sufferings of this world, so dissonant are they with what has been promised.
Contemporary theologian Jürgen Moltmann has made this a major emphasis of his life’s work.
In The Crucified God, for example, he explores how the cross offers hope because it shows us not only that God suffers with us, but that suffering is included in the very life of the triune God in and through the ascended, crucified one, Jesus Christ.
THE RESURRECTION AND THE ASCENSION
Theologically, resurrection and ascension are inextricably intertwined.
ascension of Christ emphasizes, again, that the incarnation is not just something Jesus Christ does, but who he actually is—for all of eternity.
“Is it true you think Jesus started out in heaven, then came down to earth, and then sort of just ‘floated up’ again?”
Instead, he exits in glory, making two promises as he goes: first, that the disciples will be baptized by the Holy Spirit soon, and second, that he will return—well, sometime.
THE ASCENSION AND CHRISTIAN HOPE
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he assures the disciples, in John 14. “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
“As you . . . are in me and I am in you,” he prays, “may they also be in us.” “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,” he insists. And finally: “Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am.”27
own kenosis (self-emptying).
THE RAISING OF CHRIST AND THE COMING OF THE KINGDOM
HOPE AND IMAGINATION
While we often resist imagining something different because we don’t really want things to change, I think it is even more often the case that we resist imagining because we are afraid.
This is because to be a Christian is to be constantly imagining something altogether different than how we are, and how this world is. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for God’s Kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Scripture invites us to imagine a world—the New Jerusalem!—in which every tear is wiped away from every eye.30
I remember, once, when I thought God was using me to lift a church out of its cowardly self-improvement mentality and into living in recognition of the new heaven and new earth to which Scripture bears witness.
Consider our forebear John Calvin, for example. Or Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Martin Luther King Jr., or Rosemary Radford Ruether.
It’s hard to imagine that any of these people of faith would have signed that drop slip the student handed me. And I’m betting they would have kept at those church folks, and kept at those high schoolers, far more than I did.
Calvin did know how we are. He knew, as a person of hope, that who we are is actually different from how we act, at least most of the time.
He believed human beings can change, and he believed we are called to implement change in this world. Contrary to popular belief, he had a high view of human nature. He loved to look out at this majestic world that God has created and meditate with wonderment on the fact that the God who made all dearly loves each and every creature.
To courageously hope that dreams will be realized does not come naturally. Hope must be fed, or it will surely die. And it is fed, precisely, by courageously watching for the One who will return and preparing to live in the new heaven and the new earth that God is in the process of creating.
HOPE AS “PLAYING TOWARD” THE KINGDOM
I was changed, for a time, into someone who remembers how to find my way into hope for this world.
WHAT ARE WE CALLED TO DO?
The Doctrine of Christian Vocation
In a 1954 Christmas sermon1 preached to the prisoners at Basel, Karl Barth warns us not to miss “the hour of this fire right here and now.”
Rather, it has a positive connotation—it is the fire of life. Barth quotes the Swiss writer Jeremias Gotthelf, who points out that “life is not a light,” because “a light can be kindled again.” Rather, “life is a fire given by God to burn on earth, just once and never more.”
But to take either of these approaches is to forget we are already members of God’s household; inhabitants of the Kingdom of God; musicians who have ways of hearing the music, even when it is not playing.
My beginning answer is that we need to do a better job of creating the space and time to imagine God’s Kingdom,
To stand up for what we believe, we need be ready to play what is set before us.3 And to be ready starts neither with boosting our qualifications nor rushing headlong in,
MAKING GOD’S DESIRE OURS
We are impatient for the Kingdom to come not because we have any right to be but because God has promised.
At best, we—in and of ourselves—can make a small difference. We can “practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty”4 that might in some small way touch the lives of others, but we will know better than to try to attempt to transform things at their very core.
Building on our discussion of “hope and imagination” in chapter 9, I suggest that one path to the kind of deep participation in the life of God that gives way to the doing of God’s will is imagining God’s Kingdom.
In the context of our imagining the Kingdom God desires, I believe, the Holy Spirit forms us into doers of God’s will.
I realize that talk of “imagination” will raise some suspicions. First, we might understandably say, doesn’t imagination concern itself with the “not real”?
In short, we are worried that “imagining” the Kingdom of God will lead to the creation of idols.
What we are envisioning is not the most fabulous kingdom that would be possible if this world granted us more resources and certain superpowers, but the Kingdom that is not of this world, that is qualitatively different from this world, that is of the God who is totaliter aliter (“totally other”) than this world. We are, in fact, imagining that which is beyond anything we can imagine,
Calvin, I believe, had precisely this kind of imaginin