Transfigurations: A Poem and an Painting

Earlier this week I posted some thought-provoking words from theologians about Jesus’s Transfiguration. Their words have helped me to grapple with the text at hand. Now, late in the week, I have been reflecting with a poem and a painting as I try to compose a sermon worthy of this moment in Christ’s life (Matthew 17:1-13).

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Chalcedonianism without reserve

A Review of The Word Made Flesh by Ian McFarland (WJK, 2019): Part 1

This book is one of the most engaging theology books I’ve read in years. And I mean engaging in a very broad sense. The book is theologically stimulating. It is clearly written. It is creative and even humorous. All the while, McFarland keeps a careful eye on his purpose, drawing the reader into a conversation with church tradition, exegesis, and scientific literature, in order to dogmatically honor, while seeking to understand, Christ as the Word made flesh. 

Ian McFarland is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Theology at Emory’s Candler School of Theology. The Word Made Flesh follows his recent volume on creation, From Nothing.

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The Truth of God?

“Accurate God-talk is Jesus-talk. And God-talk that is not in some very direct sense Jesus-talk is probably not God-talk.”

– Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics, p. 17


For Douglas Campbell, Karl Barth is the theologian who does not need to be named. While conceding that Barth didn’t get everything right, Campbell suggests “that an accurate account of Paul reads him in quite a Barthian way primarily because Barth was in many respects a faithful interpreter of Paul” (p. 2). This should come as no surprise, given that the title of Campbell’s book echoes the title of Barth’s magnum opus, Church Dogmatics.

But what does Campbell mean by reading Paul in a Barthian way? The start of an answer to this question quickly arrives as we move into the first chapter, simply titled “Jesus.”

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The Story of Job and the Divine Image

Every so often in my theology courses I use an Orthodox catechism called The Living God. It is beautiful and rich and a very refreshing alternative to what often passes for theology (which is too often colorless, didactic, and utterly bland).

In class yesterday we read and discussed its treatment of the creation of humankind in the image of God. The catechism divides teaching on the divine image into two chapters. The first chapter makes the standard moves, addressing the creation and fall of God’s covenant partners. The second chapter, however, takes an altogether unexpected turn. It presents the book of Job as a way to Christologically imagine the restoration of the divine Book of Jobimage through the Incarnation. The reading of Job offered in the catechism serves as a theological and exegetical bridge between the topics of Creation and Fall with  Restoration (which occupies the next chapter).

The move to Job is unexpected and brilliant and fascinating all at once! The reading of Job it offers doesn’t maintain that Messianic themes were in the mind of Job’s author or its audience. That is one sort of Christological reading. Here find another sort: “the Christian understanding of the story of Job, of the just servant unjustly persecuted, offers us a glimpse of the coming of the suffering and victorious Servant who will return humanity to its former beauty” (Vol. 1:15). It’s a lively instance of Christological reading, and it generates wonderful conversations with my students about biblical interpretation as well as theological themes related to the divine image, sin, and the Incarnation.

Here is an excerpt from the end of chapter 2, “From Despair to Hope: Job.”

The story of job serves to renew hope within us. Even though God’s image in man has been spoiled by the sin of Adam and Eve, by the sin of Cain, and by the sins of each one of us, Job allows us to hope for the coming of One—just and suffering, patient and triumphant—who will resist with courage and perseverance the assaults of the Evil One and will triumph over him, thereby restoring in mankind the divine presence which had been lost through sin and reestablishing in us the divine image in the fullness of its beauty. To do this, God sends among us the very Model according to which He had originally created us. Just as a faded print can be restored by reapplying the original stamp [the “faded print” analogy unmistakably echoes Athanasius’ On the Incarnation] so the Son of God, who reflects the glory of God the Father (Heb. 1:3), can enter human nature by clothing Himself with it as with a garment, and thereby can create a new Adam, a perfect Man, a radiant Image of God. This occurs by what theologians call the Incarnation (Vol. 1:19).

 

Time and Scripture

Guest post: Zen Hess

The freedom to read what I want as my semester at Duke winds down is a welcome relief! I have been mulling over Robert Jenson’s essay in The Art of Reading Scripture (2003). His argument explicitly raises questions about time, Christology and biblical interpretation. But it also had me asking questions about worship and Advent. Here is what I mean.

Jenson poses the question, “Is it not absurd to think of the Word as in any sense incarnate before the flesh existed, before Jesus was born?” The answer to this question has serious implications for how we interpret Scripture, specifically the Old Testament. One answer, supposed to be the right one Theotokosby many interpreters in modernity, is that it is, in fact, absurd. Supposing we might “find Jesus in the Old Testament” is to superimpose a foreign element onto the historical text. We are, however, in good company if we think that such a statement is not entirely true.

Believing that the Word preexists the Incarnation means that we may rightly find Christ’s voice in the Pentateuchal, the Poetic, and the Prophetic writings that are the Old Testament. “If the Word of the Lord,” Jenson writes, “came to Second Isaiah and made him a prophet was Jesus Christ, then the vision of Christ that the Church has derived from this prophet, of a ‘man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,’ is not a mere allowable trope but is in fact a product of Christ’s own testimony to his own character, given by the prophet.”

Jenson’s proposal requires us to reimagine how we understand time. Continue reading

Punished Twice Over?

Having just characterized the two books For Calvinism and Against Calvinism as helpful introductions to the divergent perspectives on the doctrines of grace, I’ll add a caveat: one possible weakness in these volumes is that Horton is given more space for positive articulation and less for polemical jabs at Arminianism while Olson is given more space for polemical jabs and less for constructive exposition.

Perhaps, then, one more attempt to identify a problem in Olson’s case for Arminianism is permissible, this time with respect to the doctrine of the atonement.  Olson naturally opposes the notion of particular redemption and then argues that general redemption or ‘unlimited atonement’ is compatible with the penal, substitutionary dimension of Christ’s death.  He offers an illustration:

Just one day after his inauguration, President Jimmy Carter…guaranteed a full pardon for all who resisted the draft during the Vietnam War by fleeing from the US into Canada or other countries.  The moment he signed the executive order, every single draft exile was free to come home with the legal guarantee that he would not be prosecuted….Even though there was a blanket amnesty and pardon, however, many draft exiles chose to stay in Canada or other countries to which they fled.  Some died without ever availing themselves of the opportunity to be home with family and friends again.  The costly pardon did them no good because it had to be subjectively appropriated in order to be objectively enjoyed.  Put another way, although the pardon was objectively theirs, in order to benefit from it they had to subjectively accept it.  Many did not (Against Calvinism, p. 149).

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Lament and Celebration as Fitting Practices of Christian Pedagogy

I was invited to offer the meditation one morning last week at the CCCU New Faculty Institute. I took 1 John 1:1-4 as our text, and after briefly reflecting on it I developed my remarks toward the following question, “What does the Incarnation have to do with teaching and learning that is distinctly Christian?” What I am posting here (for brevity) is the final third of my remarks without the  discussion of 1 John and other New Testament texts that set up the theological vantage point of the Incarnation

“What does the incarnation have to do with teaching and learning that is distinctly Christian?” If John so closely links the physical reality of Jesus’ bodily existence to the shape of the Christian life, then we might extend the question to the arena of Christian teaching and learning. I don’t mean teaching and learning that might take up Christian topics or that which aims toward salvation – surely these would have much to do with the incarnation. Rather, I am interesting in teaching and learning, regardless of its subject or field of study, that seeks to conform itself to the logic of the incarnation. At the center of the Christian witness we proclaim that God took on human flesh–not the illusion of human flesh–in order to redeem human existence.  How is distinctly Christian teaching and learning informed and directed by this reality that we confess is the beginning of God’s restoration of the world?

Let me suggest one way that I believe the incarnation can inform our vocation as Christian educators. In order to redeem creation, God sent his Son, born of a woman in order that he might restore and heal everything that makes us human. I suspect that this should aim our educational practices, regardless of the subject, toward the whole person– intellect, heart, body. Said differently: the doctrine of the incarnation directs Christian teaching and learning to be concerned with the flourishing of the whole person. I am sure many of us have thought about this before, but perhaps not from this vantage point

If God cared so much for his good creation that he would take it on in order to redeem it, we too should be concerned with the whole person in all of its complexity and beauty.

FITTING PRACTICES OF CHRISTIAN PEDAGOGY

The incarnation might take us one step further and spur us to think about practices that are appropriate for a pedagogy which is self-consciously informed by the incarnation. Let me offer two: Continue reading

‘Jesus Said Nothing about…’

I don’t have any hard facts on when this tack became plausible or on how pervasive it is (no doubt the bifurcation of Jesus and Paul is somehow a factor), but it seems lately that the claim that Jesus himself did not overtly express concern about a particular spiritual or ethical issue in the Gospels constitutes an argument to the effect that Christian believers need not concern themselves with that issue.  This can be (and has been) used in the case of homosexuality, for example: Jesus apparently did not feel the need to address the matter; therefore (so the logic runs), Christian believers are not obliged to take a hard line on whether such conduct is sinful.

Whether the issue at hand is homosexuality or something else, there are at least two significant problems with this approach to dealing with hot-button spiritual and ethical quandaries in our day.  First, it proceeds on a warping of the analogy of Scripture, or the commitment to allowing clearer passages of Scripture to help in interpreting more difficult ones.  The analogy of Scripture is useful when one text genuinely boggles the mind of even the most careful reader and other relevant texts can be invoked to establish parameters within which the difficult text should be understood.  However, in the case of things like homosexuality, the importance of well-ordered doctrinal formulation, the importance of church polity (all things about which, allegedly, Jesus was not terribly concerned), there are texts that come at these topics in a reasonably straightforward fashion (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 6:3; 2 Tim. 4:3 ; Titus 1:9; 2:1; Jude 3; Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Heb. 13:17; Jas. 5:14; 1 Pet. 5:1-5).  Moreover, instead of employing particularly lucid texts in those cases to help in wrestling with difficult passages, the ‘Jesus said nothing about…’ argument actually attempts to use mere silence as the lens through which to view passages concerning homosexuality, etc.  In other words, a move with some resemblance to the use of the analogia Scripturae actually lacks both of the conditions for using the analogy: unclear texts and clearer ones that shed light on those that are unclear.

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The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Proposal

The question regarding a subjective or objective rendering of pistis Christou has been plagued by an overemphasis on the ability of grammar and linguistics to answer theological questions. Deep exegesis is needed, to be sure, but no number of studies on how Paul tends to use genitive constructions can give us insight into his other usages – that simply is not how human beings use language. The broader theological questions have tended to be ignored, but fortunately, a theologian has taken up the question, and in this post I will outline his argument.

R. Michael Allen, in his volume The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Account (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, 2009) argues for a subjective reading of pistis Christou. Allen focuses his attention on the necessary Christological implications of this kind of reading, arguing for important theological import into Reformed theology specifically. To do so, Allen navigates a critique of Aquinas’ understanding of Jesus’ beatific knowledge (thereby excluding faith for the incarnate One), works alongside Barth and develops his constructive proposal within the broad contours of Reformed theology. Allen invokes Morna Hooker to highlight the general concerns with a subjective reading:

(1) ‘a concern lest this translation undermines the basic Reformation emphasis on faith’; (2) ‘the assumption that faith is an appropriate action for the believer, but is inappropriate for Christ himself’; (3) ‘dislike of the principle of imitatio Christi‘ (25). Continue reading

Incarnation & Bioethics: the vindication of finitude

I am reading a really fine collection of essays by Brent Waters, This Mortal Flesh: Incarnation and Bioethics. Waters’ project is straightforward, and ambitious: “to employ and explicate the doctrine of the incarnation in examining a range of selected bioethical issues.” In other words, he wants to investigate what it might look like to allow the doctrine of the incarnation to impact and even (heaven forbid) shape our thinking about mortal life, finitude, embodiment, and the counter-narratives of posthumanism.

In taking on and redeeming human flesh, Christ vindicates our embodied-ness; it is a counter-argument to the narratives of posthumanism in which finitude is simply a barrier to be overcome and mastered. With our imaginations shaped by the incarnation, we are free to embrace createdness (our finitude) and, as Barth said, to praise God for it as his good gift to us (CD, III.4). Take the following excerpts from chapter 6 on late modern medicine and posthumanism for example:

[W]hat Christians believe about the Word made flesh presumably shapes their normative convictions regarding the purpose and practice of medicine. Moreover, it is a timely doctrine to revisit, given medicine’s growing predilection for turning its attention away from the care of patients in favor of transforming them into beings capable of transcending their embodied, and therefore finite, limitations (p. 115).

And how would the Incarnation (birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ) shape a Christian imagination regarding this shift?

It is the risen and exalted Christ through which the good and the eternal delineates and redeems the necessary and the temporal. It is this eschatological hope the enables Christians to consent to finite limitations, for through the gift of the Spirit they have received the freedom to obey the constraints of their finitude, because these limitations have already been vindicated, redeemed, and taken up into the eternal life of God (p. 128).

I am impressed by just how theological Waters is committed to be throughout these pieces on biotechnology, reproductive medicine, genomics, stem cell research, cloning, mortality, and euthanasia. I am presently teaching a course in theological bioethics, and Mortal Flesh is proving an excellent resource for my students as we work to craft a theological imagination able to reason well about bioethical issues.

Coming back to Torrance: a review of Incarnation

I was reading around in preparation for teaching on Christology last week and ended up spending time in T.F. Torrance’s collected lectures published as Incarnation:The Person and Life of Christ (Paternoster). Every time I come back to Torrance I am reminded just how significant a theologian he was.  His work is shot through with careful attention to the Scriptures, passion for the Gospel, and fluid clarity characteristic of a seasoned lecturer.

Take the following passage on Christ’s assumption of fallen flesh:

When the Word became flesh, he became all that we are in our opposition to God in our bondage under law – that is the amazing act of gracious condescension in the incarnation, that God the Son should assume our flesh, should enter a human existence under divine judgement, enter in the situation where the psalmist cried Eli, Eli lama sabachthani, so that the Word or Son of God himself gave out the same cry when overwhelmed with the divine judgement upon our flesh (61).

Incarnation comprises Torrance’s lectures on Christology and Soteriology delivered in his classes on Christian dogmatics at New College during the years 1952-1978. Torrance had gathered his notes during the years 2001 and 2002, but before they could be edited for publication he suffered the stroke that brough both his scholarly career to an end and the process of bringing these lectures to print. Thankfully for the editorial work of Robert Walker we, together with Torrance’s students who heard them first hand, can benefit from his immense learning, insight, and strength of faith.

The volume makes at least two contributions. First, it offers the most systematic and complete presentation of Torrance’s thought available. While he had hoped to do so, he had never produced a dogmatics. Second, it provides a fine introduction to Torrance’s theology that will surely open the way for readers to mine the depths of earlier publications. If you have read any of Torrance’s other works, then you know that for all its liveliness and depth, it is not light going; it is challenging – immensely rewarding to be sure – but challenging. One hopes these published lectures would give readers encouragement to engage Torrance’s other works, which undoubtedly will reward.

If they are anything like me, readers of Torrance’s lectures just may find a sense of home, a resonance with the Gospel long-proclaimed in the Church but rarely heard clearly resounding in the academy.

The stark actuality of Christ’s humanity, his flesh and blood and bone, guarantees to us that we have God among us. If that humanity were in any sense unreal, God would be unreal for us in him. The full measure of Christ’s humanity is the full measure of God’s reality for us, God’s actuality to us, in fact the measure of God’s love for us. If Christ is not man, then God has not reached us, but has stopped short of our humanity – then God does not love us to the uttermost, for his love has stopped short of coming all the way to where we are, and becoming one of us in order to save us. But Christ’s humanity means that God’s love is now flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, really one of us and with us (185).

Amen indeed.

Thomas Aquinas – Theologian of the Christian Life

When Kyle and I began working together on a theology of the Christian life project, Nicholas Healy’s edition to Ashgate’s Great Theologians series shot to the top of my list: Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian Life (2003; many thanks to Ashgate for a review copy).  I was not disappointed.

healythomas-aquinasHealy’s Thomas Aquinas is a concise and highly accessible introduction to Thomas’ theology, surveying his historical context and development, reception history, and the major doctrines of the Christian faith in Thomas’ Summa Theologiae (henceforth ST). Though a good introduction, likely its most noteworthy contribution is the proposal for a particular kind of reading of ST that makes transparent the evangelical, pastoral and theocentric character of Thomas’ premodern theology. Healy wants to recover a reading of Thomas in which his theological method, his hermeneutics and metaphysics, his conception of the Christian doctrine and practice and pedagogy, as well as the material claims of his theology, are seen to be guided by the principles and norms that ‘reflect the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ’ (p. 23).

The book unfolds in six chapters beginning with an historical overview of Thomas’ life and career followed by subsequent chapters addressing Thomas’ Dominicanism (specifically its Christocentric orientation and emphasize on obedience to Christ), doctrine of God, Christology, and conception of the Christian life in light of its ground in the Trinity and in the work of Jesus Christ.

The early material related to Thomas’ identity as a Dominican is actually quite significant for grasping Healy’s interpretative proposals. To be a Dominican was to view the Christian life as a ‘radical’ life, Continue reading

Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth

Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Baker Academic, 2008), 320 pp; £15.00/ $32.00 [Review copy courtesy of Baker Academic]

It is easy to forget just how good a reader of nineteenth-century theology orthodox-and-modernBruce McCormack really is. Given the stature and boldness of his proposal regarding Jesus Christ as the subject of election (and the many implications that follow from it), the other many facets of his work have, of late, tended to be darkened by its shadow. Interestingly, McCormack’s renown has come about, chiefly, by his identification as the reader primarius of Karl Barth’s theological development, particularly as this development is situated within its surrounding historical context. In fact, without indulging too much in haliolatry, I think it would be safe to say, that if you want to get to grips with Barth, that is, if you want answers to the kinds of questions Barth was preoccupied with, one of the voices you should be listening to is that of Bruce McCormack.

While the entire collection of essays brims over with the kind of meticulous research and able marshalling of the sources one has come to expect from McCormack, it is in the first of the four sections that the reader is given a clear and firm reminder of why reading McCormack so compelling and, indeed, necessary. The motivation for some readers to get to the juicy material (and by juicy, I mean the material found under the title ‘Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology’) is naturally understandable but in so doing one bypasses over 100 pages of important stuff. Because a substantial part of McCormack’s project is devoted to offering an ‘orthodox’ profile of Barth, time has to be given to an analysis of those factors that facilitate such a position. As McCormack explains, ‘…what Barth was doing, in the end, was seeking to understand what it means to be orthodox under the conditions of modernity‘ (17). Continue reading

John Webster on taking Dogmatic Delight in the Gospel

The best evangelical theological work emerges from the delight in the Christian gospel, for the gospel announces a reality which is in itself luminous, persuasive, and infinitely satisfying. That reality is Jesus Christ as he gives himself to be an object for creaturely knowledge, love, and praise. To think evangelically about this one is to think in his presence, under the instruction of his Word and Spirit, and in the fellowship of the saints. And it is to do so with cheerful confidence that his own witness to himself if unimaginably more potent than any theological attempts to run to his defense.

Christology responds to the self-communicative presence of its object in the twofold work of exegesis and dogmatics…Exegesis is served by dogmatics, whose task is to look for systematic connections between the constituent parts of the Christian gospel, and to attempt their orderly and well-proportioned exposition. In particular, dogmatics can help to prevent the distortions of perspective which can be introduced into an account of the faith by, for example, pressure from polemical concerns or excessive regard for extra-theological norms (‘Jesus Christ’ in The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology‘ pp. 60-1).