The Dative Self: Philippians 1:12-21

Reflecting on the Pauline passages that warrant Kierkegaard’s “edifying negativity,” Philip Ziegler ruminates (in a footnote) on the idea of the “dative self.” He writes,

“I am minded to think that it should be possible to develop an account of Christian life conceived on the basis of the idea of the ‘dative self,’ i.e. from an account of how things come to appear when the human self is consistently understood on the grounds of its being displaced into the dative case by the divine subject and its agency (Christ for us, Christ in me, etc.).”

Ziegler is right about this. The Christian life is rightly understood in the dative case, with the Trinity as the sole subject. In Greek, as you may know, the dative case may function in three general ways: the true dative, locative dative, and the instrumental dative. Taking all three in hand, Ziegler’s suggestion may yield a threefold mantra summarizing Christian life as the “dative self,” with God as the subject:

  1. True Dative — God to me.
  2. Locative Dative — God in me.
  3. Instrumental — God through me.
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Time, Death, and Relationship

Time, Death, and Relationship

Just a few days ago, Jessie (my wife) and I were talking about what happens when someone dies. (Nothing like a light conversation just before bed, right?) There is a tension in Scripture on this point. “The dead cannot sing praises to the LORD,” the Psalmist declares, “for they have gone into the silence of the grave.” This seems pretty clear. At least until the Spirit gives John a glimpse of heaven, where the dead from the Great Tribulation who are crying out praises to God, waving palm branches. What should we do with this tension?

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A Punishment from God?

Is COVID-19 a punishment?

The question comes around as often as a new disease or tragedy makes its way into the headlines. “Is this a judgment from God?” No surprise, then, that I am hearing it again from folks worried that COVID-19 is a plague sent by God to judge an unbelieving world. 

Answering the question is not so simple since the biblical witness is itself not simple. Some passages in both testaments of the Bible reveal that God has used disaster—wrought by natural events and human agents—to judge individuals and nations. Yet, other passages, especially the Gospels, reveal God as the One who heals the sick, raises the dead, and turns the other cheek against enemies. This doesn’t give us a clear, once for all, way for understanding God’s responsibility or role in the spread of disease.

What are we to do? Hundreds of books have been written about this. All I want to do in this post is provide a short, Christ-centered reflection on the question. 


In Deuteronomy 28, God promises to curse those who are unfaithful, revealing that God is free to use diseases as judgment. But, in Galatians 3, Christ takes those curses upon himself. This seems to lead us to assume that, whenever disaster strikes, God is with us and for us, rather than apart from us and against us.

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Thinking about Transfiguration

Epiphany’s gradual illumination leads ultimately to the story of Christ’s Transfiguration. I will preach from Matthew 17 this Sunday. During my study yesterday, I felt no sure direction. The best thing I’ve got–which I like more this morning than I did yesterday afternoon–is the repetition of “Behold!” as the first response humans must have when God’s glory appears. What else could we do but behold?

(It’s worth noting that in the pew Bible we use, NIV1984, the word behold never appears as such. The KJV makes it explicit all three times, the NASB two of the three. I think it’s repetition is at least worth seeing, or should I say beholding?)

In any case, I turned to some trusted companions to see whether their beholding might open something up for me. Maybe they will help you, too. I am also sure there is a Mary Oliver poem worthy of inclusion, but I don’t have her book with me. I’ll add it if I find it.

God bless you as you prepare!

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What does “God is Love” mean? A Short Reflection

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.

1 John 4:16

What does “God is love” mean? Ian McFarland frames this question by reminding us that Scripture does, in fact, say God is other things—spirit, light, etc. He raises another concern by noting that humans “are before they love.” Is God’s love similar? If not, what is distinct about God’s love?

Like an ancient commentator, McFarland responds by observing a small thing in the Gospel of John’s epic opening hymn about the Word who was with God. Like a ghost note that catches the hearer’s ear, that word “with” captures McFarland’s eye. “Significantly,” he observes, 

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Inspiration and Inebriation

A picture of Augustine.
St. Augustine,

Have you ever thought about why there are six stone pots in the story of Christ turning water into wine? Or have you ever wondered about why two or three “measures” of water could fit into them? Me neither.

Thank God Augustine did. His interpretation of the story of Christ at the wedding in Cana is playful, imaginative exegesis. As he preaches on this story, he observes the six stone jars. He reads them as echoing the six dispensations of prophecy. Once we understand Christ in those prophecies, he says, “what you read [in the prophecies] not only has a taste, but even inebriates you, transporting the mind from the body, so that forgetting the things that are past, you reach forward to the things that are before you.” His interaction with the two to three measures of water that can fit in the pots leads to a deeply relational presentation of the Trinity. Sometimes we name the Trinity as Father, Son, and Spirit, he says. Thus, three measures. In other instances, like later in John’s gospel, we hear that the Father and the Son are one. When this is the case, the Spirit is assumed  to be present and is, perhaps, the charity or love which makes the two one. And, so, two measures by appearance are three in reality. There is nothing—no detail, no word—without meaning, without life in this story.

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God in Himself: An Interview with Steven Duby

God in Himself.DubySteve Duby is a contributor to this blog and recently published his second book, God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology (IVPAcademic, 2019). I was asked several months ago to endorse the book, and without a moment’s hesitation I agreed. But, alas, the manuscript languished in my inbox until the semester wrapped up and I could clear some time.

Having now read it, and happily written my endorsement, I struggle to express the impression the book made upon me. It is stunning. Here is what I wrote.

This rich and rewarding study demonstrates how the contemplation of God himself, theologia, is not some idle speculation—a distraction from the Christian life or descent into abstraction—but is in fact a spiritual exercise that fuels our communion with God and affirms the shocking nearness of God to us in Jesus Christ. God in Himself is a courageously scriptural work of theology, for Steve Duby dares to let Scripture lead where some have supposed that only metaphysics will take us: to gaze upon the resplendently complete life of the triune God.

God in Himself is at once beautiful and rigorous (in the best sense). Beautiful in the sense that Steve is a great writer. His prose carries you along as the argument unfolds through his intuitive structure and organization. It is rigorous in the sense that Steve fulfills the very difficult task of doing Christian theology in the classic tradition. By “classic tradition” I mean this: Steve is attentive to the life of faith, centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ, trained on Scripture, and he situates his theological work squarely within the Great Tradition of orthodox Christian reflection about the life of God. Beautiful and rigorous.

Let me say one last thing before I interview Steve. God in Himself is dedicated to a region of Christian theology we have far too little being written about today: God. Yes, I mean that. I don’t believe enough theology trains itself specifically on God. Continue reading

Givenness and Revelation

“There is revelation not because paths have been made straight, the valleys filled, the hills made low, and everything straightened that was winding (Lk. 3:4, quoting Is. 40:3-5), as just so many preliminary conditions to be filled before God can manifest himself. No: there is Revelation precisely while these paths remain twisted—or even so as to show they are.”

Jean-Luc Marion, Givenness and Revelation, p. 59

Slowly, I am wading through a dense little book called Givenness and Revelation by Jean-Luc Marion (Oxford University Press, 2016). Marion is delightfully and unashamedly verbose. He expects of the reader a solid working knowledge of phenomenology and Aquinas, so I’ve put Google to work defining terms. I feel like I’m always several steps behind. So I read, and read again.

Despite my shortcomings, I have found myself scribbling notes, underlining phrases, and putting exclamation points next to striking sentences. The quote above received two exclamation points.  Continue reading

What kind of theologian is a pastor?

For about a month this spring we (Kent and Zen) got together over lunch and wrestled with that question by discussing the book, The Pastor-Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision by Heistand and Wilson (Zondervan 2015). We come at the topic from slightly different angles, a college professor and a pastor respectively, but we both long for pastoral ministry that is theologically rich and pastorally wise. I (Kent) help train young theologians to envision their ministry along those lines, and Zen is trying to live it out in his congregation. So, wPastor Theologianhat kind of theologian is a pastor?

Our conversations were rich and the book was rewarding, though it left us with some questions and a few critiques. We’re going to interact with the book in the form of a dialogue.

Zen: I remember reading Stanley Hauerwas’s essay “The How of Theology and Ministry” for the first time during my years at Duke. In that essay, Hauerwas gives a brief history of the fragmentation of theology from ministry. I was neck deep in academia and maintained a snooty disinterest in working in a parish. Hauerwas’s essay forced me to reconsider what I thought theology was and, more importantly, for whom it was practiced.

Now I’m a pastor. (God’s ways are higher than our ways!) Reading The Pastor Theologian gave me an opportunity to think about the fracture of theology from ministry again. This time, however, I read it with a deep interest in finding some way to help heal the fracture.

So what can I, as pastor for one hundred people in Huntington, Indiana, do to work toward healing? Continue reading

Learning to Introduce the Trinity

“Isn’t God awesome? I mean, God is three and one!” Imagine, if you can, hearing someone say that for the first time. Wouldn’t it strike you as odd? It isn’t immediately clear why that is awesome. In truth, the person hearing it for the first time probably isn’t very impressed, because they’re not at all sure why it matters and less sure of how it works. The person might be tempted to ask “How is it so?”

Don’t answer that question. Not yet. Continue reading

Ascension Thursday: Salvador Dali and Karl Barth

As an intern at Anchor Community Church (United Brethren), I have the opportunity to plan an Ascension Thursday service. This is something new for this community and, quite honestly, for me. Several things make this a tricky service to plan. Some of them are practical: the church never gathers on Thursday evenings. Others are theological: many of the congregants aren’t sure why the ascension matters. I have a few ideas to draw folks to the service and a few others to help them leave praising God for presiding as the Church’s heavenly priest.

One way that I hope to do this is to encourage the church to see the bizarreness of the ascension. This, I hope, will not leave them confused, but help them to experience the wild reality that Christ’s ascension, similar to the incarnation, unites creatureliness within the divine mystery. To do this, we will reflect together on Salvador Dali’s The Ascension of Christ (see below).

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Who is the Christian Theologian: Part 3

In the first two posts of this series, I have tried to think about who can do theology and the importance, for a Christian theologian, of knowing God through the faith community. In this post, I argue that a Christian theologian is “called” to the task of doing theology.

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Who is the Christian Theologian: Part 2

In yesterday’s post, the first of this series, I suggested that anybody — whether holy or horrible — can say a theologically true statement. All theology done by humankind (or Balaam’s donkey) is “secondhand” because it is only ever responsive to the “firsthand” theology that is done by God. We do our “secondhand” theology thanks to God’s self-revelation.

This post begins to describe the Christian theologian as a specific kind of person. Yes, anyone can say a theologically true statement; but only a certain kind of person is a Christian theologian. What makes them different? Why should they be different? Read on and weigh in with your own opinions in the comments.

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Who is the Christian Theologian: Part 1

Summer tiiiime and the livins easy. We are on the other side of July now, but summer (in Nashville) is still alive and well: the Olympics are just starting up and iced coffee is just as refreshing as it was back on July 4th! I have had the gift of taking the summer off — save my “house hubby” duties — from work. A great deal of my time has been committed to reading, and applying for jobs. But, I haven’t eked out the quantity of writing that I would have liked. That being said, I have decided to revisit a paper I wrote for a class during my time at Duke. The paper attempts to describe “the Christian theologian.” It was a bit longer than the average blog post ought to be and, in any case, I am unsatisfied with some of my own conclusions. So, in an effort to continue thinking, I will be posting it, bit by bit, and revising it along the way. Please do feel welcome to disagree and help me to clarify my thoughts. I take myself to be a Christian theologian, so if I go astray here, then I am mistaken in who I think I ought to be!

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