No, not that Joseph

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“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. His mother Mary was engaged to marry Joseph, but before they married, she learned she was pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because Mary’s husband, Joseph, was a good man, he did not want to disgrace her in public, so he planned to divorce her secretly. After Joseph considered these things, an angel of the Lord came to him in a dream. The angel said, ‘Joseph, descendant of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the baby in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins’.” (Matthew 1:18-25)

As I read the birth narratives from the comfort of my living room I’m struggling with the possibility that we may so sanitize this story we end up imagining something that never really happened. This doesn’t shock us the way it would a first century Jewish reader. This is especially true of Joseph. Take his wanting to divorce Mary “quietly” upon learning of her being pregnant “because he was a righteous man.” That would come across as scandalous to Jewish readers. Divorce in Joseph’s day was a “public” event. There was no quiet way to go about it. And a “righteous man” would presumably do what the Law of Moses (Leviticus 20:10) specified in this case, namely, expose Mary’s (obviously) adulterous behavior to public judgment and have her stoned. Not a story swept clean of the agonizing mess of faith.

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This Joseph

What else is Joseph “considering” in v. 20? But he’s caught in the drama of the unprecedented, the drama of God doing the unimaginable. And he doesn’t have the advantage of having been previously visited by an angel to prepare him for what’s to come. No, he learns of Mary’s pregnancy from Mary, who no doubt relayed the details of Gabriel’s visit. But though Mary has Gabriel’s word to go on, Joseph has only Mary’s word. It’s only “after he had considered” these things (some read “while he considered” but the point is the same) that Joseph is then visited in a dream (only a dream?) by an angel who tells him, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” What’s that tell you? It tells me that Joseph was afraid to take Mary as his wife, that he had decided to divorce Mary and move on with his life. Had Joseph in fact decided to go through with the marriage, he would hardly need an angel to tell him not to be afraid to do so.

These are all real people with real lives trying to figure faith out in unprecedented circumstances. They’re not actors playing rehearsed roles on a stage. What Joseph’s struggle tells me is that faith isn’t a superpower that gets downloaded into us from heaven when we do everything right. Faith is a gutsy, risky, heart-wrenching and messy path to take. And when we honestly struggle but still incline to take the next exit ramp off of faith’s demanding route, God is able to reassure us and strengthen our faith if our wills and hearts are truly his. In this case the outcome was the birth of God, and that gives me a whole new appreciation for Joseph.

Prayer: I’m humbled, God, that you choose real people to partner with you in unprecedented ways. Help me give my mundane life to you in the risky adventure of faith.

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Mary, mother of us all

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Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55):

“With all my heart I praise the Lord,
I am glad because of God my Savior.
He cares for me his humble servant.
From now on all people will say God has blessed me.
God All-Powerful has done great things for me; his name is holy.
He always shows mercy to everyone who worships him.
The Lord has used his powerful arm to scatter those who are proud.
He drags strong rulers from their thrones
and puts humble people in places of power.
God gives the hungry good things to eat
and sends the rich away with nothing.
He helps his servant Israel and is always merciful to his people.
The Lord made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his family forever.”

We Protestants don’t generally talk much about Mary. That’s unfortunate. But Luke’s telling of Jesus’ story has wonderful power to reverse this tendency. Take Luke 1. Here we have what is traditionally known as Mary’s Magnificat (Latin for “My soul magnifies”). Explore the content and ponder its themes: God as Savior, God’s knowledge of our inmost thoughts, his preference for the humble over the proud rulers of the day, and God as the Promise-Keeping God. There is much here to learn about God.

But there’s also something amazing here to learn about Mary, a poor, young, Jewish girl with no formal education, no public influence, and no social advantages. It’s impossible to over-stress how insignificant her existence was in the larger scheme of things 2,000 years ago. And yet that whole scheme of things hangs on her. She has such a profound understanding of God, an almost unparalleled trust, and a keen perspective on Israel’s destiny and calling. All this in someone in her particular social position? Astounding. The only other biblical figure of comparable faith who comes to mind is Abraham. And if Abraham is the ‘Father’ of our faith in terms of his example, surely Mary is the ‘Mother’ of our faith given the risk she in faith took was no less consequential for the Christian story than the risk Abraham in faith took in offering Isaac.

Any one of us — you, I, or any of the people in our lives — can trust as deeply in God as did Mary. She didn’t have this rare faith preinstalled in her from the womb to give her a natural advantage over the rest of us. She is the rest of us. And there are blessings awaiting you and others on the other side of some risk of faith God is inviting you to take. What’s holding you back? Take the leap! Trust that your feet will land on the solid but unseen God who calls you. Remember that Christmas came because someone, in this case a humble, poor, socially marginalized girl, surrendered her ‘yes’ to the risky venture of believing God for something unprecedented, something the entire world dismissed as impossible.

Prayer: God, give me grace to offer you my ‘yes’, to take the risky venture of faith in what seems unimaginable, to trust you whatever other voices say. You’re the miracle-working God.

Have a ‘wonder’ full Christmas

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Lord, when the wise men came from far
Sidney Godolphin (1610–1643)

Lord, when the wise men came from far,
Led to thy cradle by a star,
Then did the shepherds too rejoice,
Instructed by thy Angel’s voice:
Blest were the wise men in their skill
And shepherds in their harmless will.

Wise men in tracing Nature’s laws
Ascend unto the highest cause;
Shepherds with humble fearfulness
Walk safely, though their light be less:
Though wise men better know the way
It seems no honest heart can stray.

There is no merit in the wise
But love (the shepherds’ sacrifice);
Wise men, all ways of knowledge past,
To the shepherds’ wonder come at last:
To know can only wonder breed,
And not to know is wonder’s seed.

A wise man at the altar bows
And offers up his studied vows,
And is received—may not the tears,
Which springs too from a shepherd’s fears,
And sighs upon his frailty spent,
Though not distinct, be eloquent?

‘Tis true, the object sanctifies
All passions which within us rise,
But since no creature comprehends
The cause of causes, end of ends,
He who himself vouchsafes to know
Best pleases his Creator so.

When, then, our sorrows we apply,
To our own wants and poverty,
When we look up in all distress
And our own misery confess,
Sending both thanks and prayers above—
Then, though we do not know, we love.

A cry of dereliction?

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Jesus’ questioning cry “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (MK 15.24|MT 27:47) is known in theological circles as the ‘Cry of Dereliction’ (of abandonment, rejection, or forsakenness). For now let’s call it ‘the Cry’. But frankly, to call the Cross the Father’s dereliction of his Son is already to have interpreted the Cross in a way (not only) we think not possible.

I ran across a post by Barth scholar Darren Sumner (from 2012) that considers the Cry. Sumner considers (but rejects) the possibility that Jesus is not rejected by the Father but that the Cry is an allusion to Ps 22 (which, by the way, doesn’t describe divine abandonment but reassurance in suffering). But I don’t want to engage Sumner’s post or the reasons for preferring a reference to Ps 22 here (though I’m convinced that’s what is behind Jesus’ words). I’m more interested in the comments section of Summer’s post. Among those comments you’ll find two responses, one by Nick Norelli. (His linked name there takes you to his blog, not to his comment on Summer’s post.) Do take advantage of reading Norelli’s response on Sumner’s post though. I’m tempted to reproduce the whole thing here, but it’s a blog post in itself.

After Norelli’s response, consider the response by a certain PD there in the comments section. Short and sweet, but good. I never picked up on the passage (John 16.31-33) he cites regarding the impossibility of thinking the Father actually rejects Jesus on the Cross:

“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

That pretty much rules out the divine abandonment view. Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (v. 33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in upcoming afflictions as a consequence of his having overcome the world. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father is with us in ours.

I’ve also been reflecting on Heb. 12.1-3, a passage I’m convinced makes the divine abandonment view of the Cry impossible:

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

Now, juxtapose this description of Jesus’ experience of the Cross with the Cry. What do you sense?

The Cry is interpreted by many as describing the Father’s rejection of his Son. But the author of Hebrews believes Jesus “endured the Cross for the joy set before him.” What can it mean to say he “endured” the Cross? Clearly it can’t mean he “survived” the Cross. Why not? Because Jesus obviously didn’t survive the Cross. He died on it. So “enduring” the Cross has to mean something other than “surviving” it, something other than not dying on it. But if not survival, then what? (Never mind the additional comment in Heb 12 that Jesus “despised the shame” of being crucified, hardly a perspective one who believes himself a derelict rejected by God would be in a position to embrace.)

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“Enduring” can only describe some persisting feature of Jesus’ conscious experience which the Cross could not wrest from him or define away, some unsurrendered belief the truth of which constitutes the saving power of the Cross as such. What can this be but Jesus’ confident and unfailing belief regarding his deepest sense of identity and purpose and the sustained conviction that he would again celebrate the joy of its truth—the truth of who he was and why he came?

The “endurance” in question is thus the enduring belief in his identity as the Father’s Son and his mission as sent by the Father contrary to a world from which every evidence of the Father’s love and faithfulness had vanished. It meant maintaining that belief and defining his sufferings “from within a framework of meaning” the Cross could not deconstruct. To not endure the Cross would have meant allowing the Cross to define him out of his identity and purpose. It would have meant his believing about himself what those who crucified him believed about the crucified—that he was utterly forsaken of God. We suggest that it is Jesus’ enduring perspective on himself as beloved Son, as suffering purposefully in obedience to his Father and not as abandoned by him, in precisely those circumstances Jews believed were evidence of God’s having cursed him, that renders his suffering a saving act.

Tom Oord and the logic of contingent being

41ogX8m9AuL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Hi friends. Hope everybody had a wonderful Thanksgiving. And we wish a blessed Christmas season to all. Let me first say that Dwayne and I hope to resume blogging on a limited scale after the first of the year. We’ll describe then what that will look like and how our interests may be changing.

For now I’d like to share some very brief thoughts on Tom Oord’s (or TJ as he’s sometimes called, which will have to do for us since we already have a Tom here!) new book The Uncontrolling Love of God. Reviews are showing up. More are forthcoming. I hope to engage it after the holidays as well. Roger Olson briefly expresses questions and concerns here, but it’s something TJ says in his response to Roger that I’d like to think aloud on for a moment.

Let me begin by saying that though we don’t know each other extremely well, I do consider TJ to be a friend and I respect his passion for God and his academic work. It is as friends that we have disagreed. TJ has done more than anyone I know to promote, as he calls it, “open and relational theologies,” and that emphasis has brought people who never would have been in conversation into conversation. I think that’s a good thing and TJ is to be credited with that. I particularly appreciate his kind demeanor and conversational style.

So, to begin. I know TJ grants the fundamental distinction between God as metaphysically necessary and all else as contingent. God alone is self-sufficient; he alone accounts for his existence. All created entities are sustained in their being by God, i.e., none are self-sustaining. I think our main differences with TJ begin here, in what we see as a failure on his part to appreciate the implications of this distinction. If we explore that at length, it’ll have to be later. For now, I want just to comment on a particular statement TJ makes in his response to Roger, namely, the claim that “God never acts as a sufficient cause.” I don’t think TJ can consistently maintain this, given his agreement on the metaphysical contingency of created entities, and I think it’s rather obvious why.

I’m not speaking here of the process that creation takes via its capacities for self-determination to realize this or that possibility. We’re logically antecedent to that, at a place where the logic of ‘uncreated’ vs ‘created’, of metaphysically necessary vs metaphysically contingent, being comes into view. And it seems to us that here TJ has to grant divine sufficient causation (or modify aspects of his cosmology). Now, it may be that what God sustains are the creature’s limited capacities or dispositions for some measured self-determination, leaving the movement from particular possibilities to actualities contingent upon created dispositions whose exercise is not a foregone conclusion of divine will or knowledge. We have no issue with that. And surely we must also say that the being of created entities possesses its own integrity—i.e., creation truly exists as other than God, and whatever constitutes the integrity of created reality per se is not violated by God since that integrity is God-given and is the creature’s reality as such. This integrity is the product of God’s creative act. But unless TJ wants to suggest that created entities are self-sufficient for their existence as such, he seems committed at this level to concede that God acts as sufficient cause. Whatever God’s providential actions within creation may be with respect to particular outcomes, God must still be viewed as sufficiently sustaining the very capacities of created particulars. Even if those particulars determine themselves within a limited scope, they do not share in determining their existence as such. We contingent creatures are not self-sustaining, and so not causes of our existing per se. Existence is given, and that giveness entails the sufficiency of the divine act of creating as an act of giving being to beings.

I don’t mean here to propose occasionalism, rather only that the logic of uncreated (necessary) vs created (contingent) being itself requires the former to be the sufficient cause of the ‘being’ or ‘existence’ of the latter. This goes without saying. Creature’s do not create themselves, nor can they be said to sustain their own existence. If this much is so, then it’s not the case, as TJ says, that God “can never act as a sufficient cause.” On the contrary, if created entities are metaphysically contingent, their continued existence as such is by definition contingent upon some other act which sufficiently accounts for their existing at all. And only God, the one self-sufficient act of being (which is what it means to say God alone exists necessarily, something TJ concedes), can be that which is always acting within created entities, the sufficient cause of all that exists but is not self-existent. To appreciate what it means to say God is the self-existent ground and act which ‘gives being to beings’ and that no contingent thing can participate in being the cause of its own existence, is, we think, to touch upon that which makes much of TJ’s project so objectionable.

Now, TJ may reply by agreeing that, sure, on this level God sufficiently accounts for the existence per se of created entities. That reply will take the conversation in a particular direction (which will have to wait till next year). But I suspect that TJ will reply by persisting in his view that God can never be the sufficient cause of anything because (on TJ’s view) there’s always some contingent world that God acts with to bring about new worlds, i.e., TJ posits an infinite series of distinct worlds each created out of the previous, so God never stands in a sufficient relationship to whatever exists contingently. No matter how far back you go, there’s always a turtle underneath the turtle you’re on and so no moment in the series for God to relate sufficiently to anything. This takes the conversation in a slightly different direction (which also will have to wait until next year as well).

Merry Christmas!