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.

John Webster: A Remembrance

John WebsterI was very sad to learn late last night that John Webster, Professor of Divinity at St. Andrews, died suddenly yesterday morning. You can find a fine summary of John’s theology by Fred Sanders here and a eulogy by Stephen Holmes here. The internet will be full of tributes in days to come, but I want to offer a short remembrance.

John was the chair of the Divinity department when I completed my PhD at the University of Aberdeen. He was not my supervisor, but he was always available for a conversation. We had many (a testament to his generosity). I remember one in particular. It was so telling of John’s approach to theology. We were discussing God’s providence and the manner of his interaction with the world. At one point John leans back, puts his hand on his forehead and thoughtfully says, “In this matter I think we must give our attention first to God’s revealed character, and only then look to theories of causation. Character first, then causation.”

And that was John’s whole approach to theology. Whatever else it’s about, it is first and foremost about God – and principally about God’s life in himself. Hearing last night about John’s death was especially shocking because I had spent the day reading his recently published God Without Measure (it was like spending a day with him). There he writes,

Christian theology is a work of regenerate intelligence, awakened and illuminated by divine instruction to consider a twofold subject. This object is, first, God in himself in the unsurpassable perfection of his inner being and work as Father, Son and Spirit and in his outer operations, and, second and by derivation, all other things relative to him” (Vol. 1:3).

God first, then everything else in light of God. Whatever else we might say about God’s interaction with the world (his outer works), the theologian must first – diligently and cheerfully – give her attention to God’s life in himself. For John this was a corrective to so much that goes wrong in Christian thought, not least of which the migration of theology away from the praise of God. So quickly we slip from the register of doxology into speculation. But when we train our attention again and again back onto God the distance shortens between the work of sanctified reason and praise. John explains,

If Christian dogmatics wishes to offer a corrective, it can only  be by recalling itself to its proper calling, which is the praise of God by crafting concepts to turn the mind to the divine splendour. But deeply important as they are, concepts are only serviceable as the instruments of spiritual apprehension” (Vol. 1:27).

The spiritual apprehension the theologian seeks comes in this life as faith, not sight (Heb. 11:1). Following Aquinas (so often a voice in John’s recent work) he wrote, “Theology is oriented chiefly to invisible things, ‘things that are unseen’ (2 Cor. 4:18)” (Vol. 1:6). This is as it should be, for faith is the particular form of seeing fitting for the Christian life. But it will not always be so. In glory we will stand in the presence of God and share in his life. This was John’s hope and it is mine. As I grieve John’s death I praise God in the same breath that what he saw by faith he now has by sight.

Lord Jesus Christ, may your name be praised through the legacy of John’s work and the sweet remembrance of his friendship.

A Good Friday Sermon by John Webster

Since Christmas I have been slowly reading a collection of John Webster’s sermons, The Grace of Truth. It includes twenty six homilies given between 1999 and 2005. I have been I long-time admirer of John’s work and had the privilege of studying at Aberdeen, so I scooped this volume up as soon as it appeared. I was not disappointed; here is a first rate Protestant theologian at work: careful attention to the text, wise theological reasoning, and all the while the lived existence of the Christian church kept in view.

The following sermon was preached on Good Friday at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, in April 2001. The sermon was titled “The Triumph of Divine Resolve,” and its text was Isaiah 53:6, 10.

We end these thoughts on Holy Week where we began: with the central truth that what has taken johnwebster2place in the week that has passed, and what has taken place supremely at the event of the crucifixion is the outworking of the will of God. To the participants and bystanders, no doubt, everything seemed very far from that, just another muddle in a place inflamed with strife. And to the followers of Jesus, the little rag-tag caravan of men and women who found themselves attached to him, it was nothing short of disaster. Yet Isaiah speaks of the putting to death of the Lord’s servant as God’s will – as the outworking of the eternal purpose of God, as no accident but rather the placed where we are to learn to see God’s resolve, undeflected, undefeated, utterly effective. How can this be so? What is this divine resolve which is set before us here, in the affliction and grief of the servant of God?

It is the eternal resolve to be our reconciler. What is enacted in this miserable little drama is God’s plan and purpose to live in fellowship with us – God’s will that he will be our God, and that we will be his people. Fellowship with God is what human beings are for. That is, we flourish as human beings if we live in free and joyful and humble relation to God. To be human is to be in relation to God; and that relation to God is not a sort of added extra, something to supplement our lives: it is the core of being human; it is the way in which we are properly alive. We are alive and truly human as we live in and from that fellowship.

For this fellowship God makes us. But at the core of Scripture’s presentation of this fellowship is the devastating fact that it has broken down: the life-giving bond between God and his human creatures has been smashed to pieces; we have chosen to try and live outside fellowship, and so estranged ourselves from God. Fellowship is replaced by alienation, God’s friendship with God’s wrath. Isaiah puts it thus: “we have turned – every one – to his own way” (53:6). That is, there has been a great turning in human life, not a turning towards God but a contrary turn, a swerve away from God and towards ourselves, a veering away from fellowship and towards a way of living which is of our own making. We chose what Isaiah calls “our own way.” […] Continue reading

“I believe”: A few thoughts on confession & creeds

Nicene-Creed.croppedI invited students to think with me last week about the nature of the confession “I believe” and the relationship this might hold to the ecumenical creeds and confessions of the Church. 

Students read selections of New Testament proto-creeds and excerpts from Origen, Karl Rahner, Georges Florovsky, and John Webster. It all made for vigorous discussion about the various ways we can conceive the purpose and role of confessions in the church’s ongoing life. Consider the following two excerpts, one from Rahner and the other from Webster, and let me know what you think: What is the ongoing role of the creeds in the life of the church – if there is one?

Rahner first:   

[T]he effective mission of the church in the face of modern disbelief likewise requires a testimony to the Christian message in which this message really becomes intelligible for people today … This message has to be able to express the essentials briefly for busy people today, and to express it again and again … [H]owever much [the Apostles Creed] will always be a permanent and binding norm of faith, nevertheless it cannot simply perform the function of a basic summary of faith today in an adequate way because it does not appeal directly enough to our contemporary intellectual and spiritual situation (Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, p. 449. Emphasis mine).

Set this next to Webster’s and you immediately see stark differences: Continue reading

The “Promise” of Systematic Theology

‘Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father j20webster201_black20and20whitewho is in heaven’ (Matt. 16:17). Christian systematic theology takes place in the wake of that breathtaking dominical announcement. Yet it remains an earthly, flesh and blood enterprise, far indeed from the theology of the blessed, communicated to the perfected saints by the permanent intellectual light of the presence of God through the mediation of the Son. It is the rational work of the children of Adam who are only slowly learning what it is to be the children of God. This relativizes systematic theology in the  present condition of creaturely infirmity after the Fall; yet it is accompanied by a promise of divine wisdom, already given and to be given again, by which creatures can be conducted from ignorance and unhappiness to knowledge and bliss. If systematic theology is to survive in a culture which has been deprived of a sense that rational creatures have a celestial final cause and which cannot envisage contemplation as a mode of science, it will find itself turning with some urgency to the divine promise.

John Webster, “Principles of Systematic Theology” in International Journal of Systematic Theology 11/1 (January 2009): 71.

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).

Finally in paperback – “Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation”

John Webster, Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pb, 238pp. + ix. $43.00.

John Webster’s detailed analysis of the ethical realities of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation, has been on the market for some time but at an extremely high price (not surprising for Cambridge). Happily, it has finally been published in paperback and the masses (like me) can afford a copy.

Even if you have little interest in Karl Barth’s theology, this is a fantastic piece of theological exposition, a first rate example of careful theological reasoning.

‘Barth’s image of the human agent is not of a race against temporal webster.jpgcontingency, in which we have somehow to shape ourselves by unconditional creativity or establish the meaning of the moral situation by seizing hold of the present and making it our own. Much more is Barth’s image that of the agent’s entry into a given form, of cheerful, unpossessive acknowledgment of determinacy and limitedness, there to find space for freedom and flourishing and for the modest ‘little steps’ which correspond to God’s command’ (76).