Dear Publishers

Dear publishers,

Please print more pocket-sized theology.

20170522_065301Sure, I see the argument: why print pock-sized books when I could carry thousands on my smart phone (Kindles seem so passé now don’t they?). But I hate reading on my phone! The experience couldn’t be more sterile. Yes I’m probably the exception, I know this dear publishers, but I have no interest in digital reading unless I’m sitting next to a pool and my kids’ raucous splashing my dampen the pages. My hands want a finely bound little book of theology to slip in and out of my pocket, or from the corner of my briefcase. Little cracks of time populate my days and a few lines from Augustine could inspire, or a finely tuned quip from Jenson may set my mind reflecting.

Before this letter goes into the bin, consider how Penguin bound Augustine’s classic in a stylish, beautiful cover, or the many Fathers of the Church made accessible by St. Vladimir’s press, like St. Gregory’s theological poetry, On God and Man, or Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule. My little copy of Pastoral Rule never crowded the coffee mugs at the small Starbucks table where I discussed Gregory’s sage advice with a young pastor, burned out on church-marketing and sexy church-growth strategies. And I can’t help mentioning Wiley’s gift of Pallasmaa’s classic essay The Eyes of the Skin in small format (even though its not theology). Thank you.

Please, print more theology that fits in my pocket, where an app or text or email alert won’t compete on the same screen for my attention in those little cracks in my day where I find myself in some in-between moment. Give me some little book that will lead me to pray, to remind me of God’s goodness through the voice of my brothers and sisters in faith, and to point my eyes back to Scripture’s witness of the victorious Christ.

Happy Ascension Day,

Kent

On Shame (part 2)

I continue thinking about shame since my last post. A few more posts on the topic will trickle out, I think, over the next few weeks. Don’t expect anything comprehensive, or even closely knitted together. I’m just going to ruminate on it and bring to bear some different angles that seem relevant.

My last post ended with a comment about mortification and vivification. I said that a shame-based portrait of discipleship is “like talking about the Christian life in terms of ‘mortification’ and ‘vivification’ but without the ‘vivification.’ All death, no resurrection.” I realize the terms aren’t in much use. It’s a shame really, because they name basic realities of the Christian that bear quite importantly on the experience of shame (which I am trying to think towards here).

Here’s John Webster from my book, Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life.

By mortification is meant the discipline practice in which renewed creatures, reconciled to God by Christ’s meritorious death and moved by the Holy Spirit, repudiate, resist, and do away with the remnants of the old ‘earthly’ nature which has been disqualified but which nevertheless persists ‘in’ us (Col. 3:5). By vivification I mean those habits of life in which renewed creatures make alive and empowered by the Spirit amplify their new nature, actively disclosing, confirming, and exercising it. Mortification and vivification are simultaneous, not sequential. Mortification is not an initial stage which at some point in this life is left behind, for our mixed state will persist until paradise. Vivification, however, has material priority, because mortification is a practice of negation, opposing old habits of life, traces of which remain in the present but have no future, having been condemned and terminated by God. Mortification is not a permanent, essential practice of the regenerate nature but an interim necessity, and once its goal of clearing away the diseased remainders of the old nature is reached, it will no longer be required. Vivification, by contrast, is the implementation of the new nature and stretches out to perfection. In vivification we begin to perform the new nature which will endure and so complete and resolve itself that there will be no necessity for mortification (133).

Webster immediately clarifies. Mortification is not directed at on our “created nature” – as if simply being human is under fire by the Spirit. Rather, it’s

an assault on the sin which opposes created nature’s regeneration. … And so mortification is not hatred of embodied life but opposition to death-dealing vice, its purpose being not nature’s destruction but the ordering and forming of regenerate conduct. It is not [and here Webster quotes Augustine] ‘hostile persecution’ but ‘healthy chastening’ which intends the recovery and flourishing of nature (133).

Mortification is not an assault on embodied human life.

It makes me wonder: could a dimension of Christian-shame be a weak theology of creation? I mean, if we struggle down deep with being creaturely rather than being spiritual (the old Gnostic heresy), then could it be that we unwittingly but disastrously confuse our sinfulness with our creatureliness, and thereby confuse the object of mortification with our humanity? We end up imagining that the Spirit’s holy-making work in our lives is really after the destruction of our embodied humanity—our having-been-made bodily creatures—rather than the destruction of the sin “that so easily entangles” (Heb. 12:1).

Shame masquerading as sanctification which actually targets our embodiment. That’s not easy to shake off.

On Shame

I met with a student of mine a few days ago who talked to me about shame. She lamented that much of her faith history was in communities that (as she experienced it) emphasized shame. The effect was a lingering sense of her utter inadequacy and condemnation.

Now, a sense of one’s inadequacy regarding salvation is not a bad thing at all, and she knows that (see Ephesians 2). We are not saved on account of the adequacy of what we do, but wholly on account of the adequacy of what God does for us in Jesus the Messiah, as it is brought to life in us through the Holy Spirit. God comes to us with life from the inexpressible sufficiency of his divine life. The super-abundant adequacy of the divine life overmatches our inadequacy. Our sin is no match for his life.

She knows it. Her struggle is more a matter of this: as she sees it, once saved she still doesn’t amount to much.

So I was delighted to hear that she’s been finding a fresh vision for discipleship, one less centered on shame, from one of my favorite theologians: Rowan Williams. After reading his new book, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, my student (who is fast becoming a friend) said a new way forward opened up in front of her. She specifically mentioned an image Williams uses in the first chapter. Birdwatcher

Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The master is going to speak or show something; reality is about to open up when you are in the Master’s company, and so your awareness…is a little bit like that of a birdwatcher. The experienced birdwatcher, sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knows that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view (4-5).

Beautiful. It makes me wonder: could it be that a shame-based sense of our relation to God gives us the sense that we shouldn’t expect God to show up, surprise us, overwhelm us with delight?  When the Christian life centers on shame, why should we expect God to show up for anything other than condemnation? It’s like talking about the Christian life in terms of “mortification” and “vivification” but without the “vivification.” All death, no resurrection. It’s a shame. No, it’s tragedy, and maybe even heresy.

Father, lead us to know our own worth as we discover our lives in you and only in you.

What is theology on about? A response from J.I. Packer

I am not a systematic blogger. I  blog about whatever is going on at the time. I’ve tried series, but they don’t suit me. So during the semester, I blog about classes and teaching. On breaks from teaching, I tend to write about whatever research sits before me. And since I’m collecting and editing selections for my anthology this summer…well, expect to see much on that over the next couple months.

This morning had me working on J.I. Packer. There are few more thoughtful and articulate examples of Protestant Evangelicalism in the twentieth century (nor many more fluent in the Christian tradition). Though it won’t appear in the anthology, his brief summary of theology’s subject matter is beautiful. For Packer, the subject of theology sets the terms for how the theologian carries out her work. But when wrongly conceived, a host of dangers lurk at the ready.

The proper subject-matter of systematic theology is God actively relating in and through all created things to human beings; God, about whom those biblically revealed truths teach us, and to whom they point us; God, who lives, loves, rules, speaks, and saves sinners; God, who calls us who study him to relate to him through penitence and faith and worship as we study, so that our thinking about him becomes an exercise of homage to him.

From this basis (if one accepts it) it follows that the proper state of mind for us as we come to synthesize the exegeted teaching of Scripture will be one not of detachment but of commitment, whereby we bring to our theologizing the attitude not of a critic but of a disciple; not of one who merely observes God, but of one who actively worships him.

Then we shall be in less danger of speculative extrapolations that go beyond Scripture, which it is almost impossible to keep out of theologies that the detached intellect…puts together. We shall be in less danger of forgetting the transcendent mystery of God’s being and action, and of putting him in a box constructed out of our own concepts which the detached intellect, longing to master that which it studies, is very prone to do. We shall be in less danger of the irreverence of treating God as if he were an impersonal object below us, frozen fast by us for the purposes of our study, and of failing to remember that he is the great personal Subject, far above us, apart from whose ongoing life we should not exist at all. And we shall be shielded from the further irreverence of allowing ourselves to grade God’s work in connection with the sovereign mysteries of predestination and evil, and to conclude that if we ourselves were God we could do a better job. ‘Your thoughts of God are too human,’ said Luther to Erasmus. He might have said, your theology has too little worship in it; whichever he had said, the point would have been the same.

In short, we are called to make our study of theology a devotional discipline, a verifying in experience of Aquinas’ beautiful remark that theology is taught by God, teaches God, and takes us to God. So may it be, for all of us (“An Introduction to Systematic Spirituality,” in Serving the People of God, p. 315. Breaks inserted).

Not long ago, Steve posted a nice review of a recently published biography of Packer. Read it here.

Cyril of Alexandria on the Christian life

I am working this summer on my next book project: an anthology. The collection is focused on the Christian life and will include selections from across the Christian tradition, starting with the earliest post-apostolic Fathers to the present. I am collaborating on this project with two super-talented editors, and as I see it starting to come together I am so pleased! (Watch a short video about the book here).

This morning was fascinating. I worked on the selection from Cyril of Alexandria at Concordia Theological Seminary (Just down the road from me. A great library, really beautiful!). From Cyril’s many works I chose a selection from his commentary on the Gospel of John. I began with Pusey’s translation from the 19th century which was, let’s say, more than a little wooden. Thankfully the recent translation from David Maxwell is superb. Here’s a short outtake from the selection that will appear in the anthology:

st-cyril-of-alexandriaThe Son, by his authority, gives what belongs to him alone by nature and sets it forth as a common possession, making this a sort of image of the love he has for humanity and for the world. We who bore the image of the earthly man could not escape corruption unless the call to sonship placed in us the splendor of the image of the heavenly man [1 Cor. 15:49]. We became participants in him through the Spirit. We were sealed into his likeness, and we ascend to the archetypal form of the image according to which Holy Scripture says we were also made. Once we recover the ancient beauty of our nature in this way and are refashioned in relation to the divine nature, we will be superior to the evils that befell us because of transgression. Therefore, we rise up to an honor above our nature because of Christ […]

[T]hose who rise to divine sonship through faith in Christ are baptized not into anything originate but into the holy Trinity itself through the Word who is the mediator. He joins what is human to himself through the flesh that was united to him, and he is joined by nature to the Father since he is by nature God. In this way, the slaves ascend to sonship through participation in the true Son since they are called and so to speak raised to the honor that is in the Son by nature. Therefore, we who received the new birth through the Spirit by faith are called born of God, and that is what we are.

Notice what Cyril does. In order to ground the Christian life he traces its origin back behind Christ’s atoning work to his “nature” as God the Son, consubstantial with the Father. The life which the Son offers to us is his to give because he shares it with the Father by nature. By “nature” Cyril means that the Son shares in the same stuff that constitutes the Father as God. They are both God by “substance,” or by nature (it took the church centuries to find adequate words for this). We are creatures and therefore not God by nature. That is key for Cyril. As creatures we are fundamentally needy, dependent on another for life. We are saved only because we share God’s life by grace, through adoption in the Son. What we have in the Son is the very Life of God, ours through adoption.

Protestant Evangelicals have often stressed the atoning work of the Son nearly to the exclusion of the Son’s origin in the Godhead (thanks to our revivalist heritage). The resulting portrait of the Christian life typically hangs on the doctrine of justification, or more tenuously on sanctification in the Spirit. Cyril, however, ably reminds us that a strong theology of the Christian life requires grounding in a strong Christology and doctrine of the Trinity.

“Dear Pastor, you are not a business person…” Sincerely, St. Jerome

How does a servant of the church measure his or her success?

Every night the pastor lays their head on the pillow and measures the success of their day according to some criteria. What will those criteria be? The same criteria and standards are the measures by which the pastor marks the progress of those under their charge – other pastors or volunteers. Those standards also guide their daily work: in what should I devote my time and according to what methods should I do so?

Far too often I see pastors finding those standards and criteria in the world of business, the market economy. To the pastor who looks there, St. Jerome (AD347 – 420) would say this: “Pastor, you are not a business person! You must not let the standards and practices of the market economy set the terms for your success. Nor should you let the logic of marketing, sales, and distribution set the terms for where you and your partners in ministry devote your time, or the methods you apply in doing so.”

Consider the following selection from Jerome’s letter to Nepotian (Letter 52. AD394). Nepotian was once a soldier, but he left it for ministry in the church. Jerome wants to ensure that Nepotian does not look to his former career in order to find the standards and criteria for his vocation in the church. Jerome is so intent that Nepotian hears his plea that he shifts the formatting of his prose as he says, “Again and yet again admonish you…” Its an effective way of grabbing Nepotian’s attention before his main point.

Jerome5. A clergyman, then, as he serves Christ’s church, must first understand what his name means; and then, when he realizes this, must endeavor to be that which he is called. For since the Greek word κλῆρος means “lot,” or “inheritance,” the clergy are so called either because they are the lot of the Lord, or else because the Lord Himself is their lot and portion. Now, he who in his own person is the Lord’s portion, or has the Lord for his portion, must so bear himself as to possess the Lord and to be possessed by Him. He who possesses the Lord, and who says with the prophet, “The Lord is my portion,” can hold to nothing beside the Lord. For if he hold to something beside the Lord, the Lord will not be his portion. Suppose, for instance, that he holds to gold or silver, or possessions or inlaid furniture; with such portions as these the Lord will not deign to be his portion. I, if I am the portion of the Lord, and the line of His heritage, receive no portion among the remaining tribes; but, like the Priest and the Levite, I live on the tithe, and serving the altar, am supported by its offerings. Having food and raiment, I shall be content with these, and as a disciple of the Cross shall share its poverty. I beseech you, therefore, and

Again and yet again admonish you;

do not look to your military experience for a standard of clerical obligation. Under Christ’s banner seek for no worldly gain, lest having more than when you first became a clergyman, you hear men say, to your shame, “Their portion shall not profit them.” Welcome poor men and strangers to your homely board, that with them Christ may be your guest (Letter 52. Emphasis mine).

Jerome’s worry was specifically over worldly gain, money. He was writing three generations after the Edict of Milan (AD313). Now that Christianity was a tolerated religion in the Roman Empire, the profession of the clergy was being swamped by expectations and standards coming from outside the church and alien to the Gospel.

Is our situation different today?

Green Idolatry

Indiana morningI have often said that living in Colorado ruined me for everywhere else. I mean that it’s just so shockingly beautiful that everywhere else pales in comparison. I fell in love with Colorado in junior high, every spring break skiing Summit County. And as a college student I spent my summers guiding mountaineering trips across Colorado and California. Every chance I had I got to the wildest places I could find!

Given my love for wild places, I was immediately interested when I read Norman Wirzba’s warning about “green idolatry”:

It is tempting to think that genuine desire or affection is realized when we become worshipers of nature. But this is not so. To make the trek to beautiful vistas (often at considerable expense) runs the risk of a “green idolatry” in which mountains or lakes or species are commodified to fulfill an aesthetic desire. Too often the nature we seek in a “wilderness experience” is made to fulfill expectations about beauty. That places are beautiful is not the problem. But when we desire our relationship to nature to be mediated by the expectation that only places deemed pretty or spectacular are worthy of our attention, then we do witness an idolatry that condemns much of the world to neglect or even disparagement. What we often fail to realize is that our worship of nature’s beauty, especially our designations of certain kinds of landscapes or creatures as beautiful, is also fundamentally a reduction of the world to expectations that we bring to it. In this reduction great stretches are abandoned by us as unworthy and thus unlovable” (From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World, p. 58).

Have I fully engaged the beauty of Indiana? Here in the flat places of the Midwest, have I looked at the earth in the same way I did in Colorado? Nope. Sure, out in the morning for a long run when the mist is rising I praise God, but the wild places startle me – catch me up short – in a different way.

But Wirzba’s diagnosis has made me pause, and I think I will look at the flat places differently. And I think I will look at me differently too.