From Nothing—Part 4

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I earlier shared three passages (as Parts 1, 2, and 3) from the Intro to Lutheran theologian Ian McFarland’s From Nothing: A Theology of Creation. I was later happy to run across this passage in which he seems to argue that mortality (entropy/decay) is a God-given feature of an evolving world. It’s a minority position, but one I find preferable to the majority position (the majority position being that entropy and decay are evils that result from a primordial fall).

And yet part of the ambiguity surrounding the human experience of creatures’ diversity is bound up with the fact that the multiplication of creatures is coupled with (and from a purely biological perspective, needed to compensate for) their regular destruction; rather than persisting in the capacious environments that God provides, living creatures, whether considered as individuals or as classes, die, so that, for example, only a small fraction of the terrestrial species that have existed in the half-billion years since the emergence of multicellular life survive today. Yet this fact in itself need not be viewed as inconsistent with creation’s goodness. Although death has most often been viewed in Christian tradition as a punishment for Adam’s transgression, Genesis 3:19, 22 (cf. 6:3) may also be read as teaching that humans (and by extension, other earth creatures) naturally return to the dust from which they were taken unless some other factor intervenes (see Gen. 2:7, 17 Ps. 103:13-16; Eccl. 3:19-20). Certainly there is nothing inconsistent with the goodness of creation that the “place” occupied by every creature should have temporal as well as spatial boundaries, entailing a limited life span no less than limited bodily dimensions; indeed, such temporal limits actually enhance the capaciousness of creation, since two creatures can occupy the same space if they do so at different times. Death can certainly be experienced as a violation of life and so as a curse, but Scripture also can speak of a kind of death that is a life’s natural conclusion, in which an individual dies “old and full of days’ (Gen. 35;29; 1Chr. 29:28: Job 42;17; cf. gen. 25;8; Isa. 65:20). Insofar as extinction of a species is the analogue to the death of an individual creature, one might equally conceive of classes of creatures—trilobites or dinosaurs, say, both of which thrived for tens of millions of years before becoming extinct—as having experience this sort of death. In this way we can understand death as temporal finitude, as a means by which the fullness of creation is arranged along a temporal axis as well as within contemporary physical spaces….

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Why do I think mortality (entropy/decay) are not evil consequences of a primeval fall but the way creation was given by God from the get-go? From a previous post:

For the rather simple reason that there is (for us) no coming into the fullness of being which is not a coming into to the truth of being, and part of our truth is our absolute contingency, gratuity, and dependency upon God. This entails, of necessity, embracing the truth of the nothingness out of which God calls us into being. This is a truth we cannot comprehend apart from an experience of mortality. So, mortality is the possibility of our relating the truth of our finitude to the immortal God, and this is the truth we must come to terms with en route to fully participating in the grace of eternal life. So to the extent it is true that we are nothing in ourselves – mortality is a grace, however temporary a mode of being it was meant to be. Mortality becomes death “the enemy” when we choose to misrelate despairingly to our finitude and to respond to it by turning our attention and energies to securing a meaningful existence this side of the Void.

Christ the Heart of Creation

heart of creationI have my eye on Rowan Williams’ new book Christ the Heart of Creation (2018) to purchase when it reaches the top of my to-read list and as soon as my allowance permits. From the table of contents it looks to be like a published (expanded?) version of his 2016 Hulsean Lectures “Christ and the Logic of Creation” which, it seems, you can listen to, and download, in their entirety here.

So looking forward to these!

God’s judgment: “Peace be with you!”

desente-aux-enfersFantastic passage from Raymund Schwager (Jesus in the Drama of Salvation: Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption). Schwager (Swiss Jesuite) and Girard carried on a rich and now published correspondence discussing the theological implications of Girard’s anthropology. Schwager was the first to attempt to integrate these implication with orthodox Christian claims. In this passage he contemplates the Father’s activity in Christ’s condemnation.

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The way to approach the inner problematic of the resurrection, arising from the consideration of Jesus’ fate, was succinctly expressed in the first epistle of Peter: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; he suffered, but did not threaten; but he handed himself over to the righteous judge” (1Pet. 2:23). The action of the Father at Easter is to be understood as a judgment by which he takes up a position in the conflict between the claim of Jesus and the verdict of his opponents. This statement is central and at the same time liable to misinterpretation, as it could suggest a return to traditional conceptions of judgment and thereby to a distorting horizon of interpretation. In order correctly to understand the judging activity of the heavenly Father at Easter, we must first of all remind ourselves that Jesus in his proclamation of judgment took back nothing from his message of the goodness of God, but rather uncovered the possibility which threatened that people would close themselves off absolutely. Further, we must consider that Jesus, faced with a violent death, gave himself completely for the opponents of God’s kingdom, who had closed themselves off. In the resurrection brought about by the Father it is consequently not enough to see merely a verdict for his Son and against those who opposed him. Certainly, this view is correct, as Jesus’ opponents are convicted as sinners. But the verdict of the heavenly Father is above all a decision for the Son who gave himself up to death for his opponents. It is therefore, when considered more deeply, also a verdict in favor of sinners. The opponents of the kingdom of God, closing themselves off, had the way to salvation once more opened for them by the Son, who allowed himself to be drawn into their darkness and distance from God. Although they had already turned their backs, as far as they were concerned, the self-giving of the Son got around this hardening of hearts once more, insofar as he allowed himself to be made the victim of their self-condemnation.

The saving dimension of the Easter message, and the revelation of God contained in it, can be clarified from yet another angle. In the parable of the wicked winegrowers (Mark 12:1-12 and parallels) a lord is presented who at first acts with unfathomable goodness, in that, after the rejection and killing of several servants, he even risks his own son. This goodness however comes to an end, for after the murder of his beloved son it is transformed into retribution, and the violent winegrowers are in their turn killed. But the heavenly Father in his Easter “judgment” acted differently from the master of the vineyard in the parable. Even the murder of his son did not provoke in him a reaction of vengeful retribution, but he sent the risen one back with the message “Peace be with you!” (Luke 24:36; see also John 20:19, 26) to those disciples who at the critical moment had allowed themselves to be drawn into the camp of the opponents of the kingdom of God. The judge’s verdict at Easter was consequently not only a retrospective confirmation of the message of Jesus, but it also contained a completely new element, namely, forgiveness for those who had rejected the offer of pure forgiveness itself and persecuted the Son. Through the Easter message of peace there came about a redoubling of that readiness to forgive expressed in the message of the basileia, a pardon for the earlier nonacceptance of pardon. It could be summed up in that saying from the Old Testament, which, taken together with the parable of the wicked wine-growers and seen in the light of Easter, says something quite new and can serve as the hermeneutical key to the Gospels: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was accomplished by the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Mark 12:10). The miracle of Good Friday and of Easter once again embraces those people who hardened their hearts and made their decision against the Son. A rightly understood doctrine of the atoning death is therefore, even when seen from the viewpoint of Easter, not in opposition to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. On the contrary, it is precisely the peace of Easter which shows how the Father of Jesus willingly forgives, even in the face of people’s hardened hearts.

Finally, from this perspective it is also understandable why the heavenly Father “held back” in his Easter judgment and why he did not powerfully authenticate his Son before the whole world. Jesus made the claim, by his proclamation and by his lived decision not to meet the violence of his opponents on their own level, that God’s action is not identical with action on this earth which brings immediate victory. He was not able himself to prove this claim, since it led him by an inner logic to earthly defeat. But even the Father was unable to endorse him in a graphic way, since a demonstrative, public intervention in favor of the Son would have worked precisely against his message. The action of God and a historical, public victory would have appeared once again as identical values, and the way of surrender to death would have shown itself to be merely a passing episode. This style of endorsement would have contradicted what was to be endorsed. Rather, what was needed was a sign which on the one hand made explicit the unrestricted divine “yes” to Jesus and on the other hand was “reserved,” so that it was not tantamount to a public victory. Both demands were met by the appearances of the risen one before the women and his disciples. What from the historical-critical viewpoint may be felt to be unsatisfying shows itself to be most appropriate at the level of the inner coherence of content. Thus it emerges once more that the cryptic presuppositions of the historical-critical method do not match the reality which came to expression for the first time in the fate of Jesus.

Scripture’s truth exposes Scripture’s falsehoods

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Reading through Galatians this week, I paused over Paul’s familiar words:

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Gal 3.10-14)

Paul contrasts two claims which Scripture itself makes with respect to how the ‘life’ which God intends for us is achieved. On the one hand no one can rely upon the law for this life because (v. 11) “the righteous will live by faith” (or “the one who is righteous by faith will live”). Paul is quoting Hab. 2.4. This is the truth of the gospel reflected in the OT and exemplified in Abraham’s experience.

Paul then contrasts this with a different claim which, he argues, shows that “the law is not based on faith” (v. 12). Note the “on the contrary” which establishes the contrary nature ‘faith’ and ‘law’ as incompatible modes of relating to God and enjoying ‘life’. This reference comes from Lev 18:5, which Paul quotes: “the person who does these things [viz., observances of the law] shall live by them.” Paul understands this to be a false promise of life through the law, which is why he believes it shows “the law is not based on faith,” viz., it promises life to those who “do these things.” But as Paul demonstrates, Lev. 18.5 contradicts Hab. 2.4. The promise of life God made to Abraham is possessed and enjoyed by faith (Hab. 2.4), not by law (Lev. 18.5). The Mosaic law, Paul insists, is not “based on faith.”

What’s interesting here is Paul bringing together what he feels are contradictory Scriptural (i.e., biblical) claims about ‘law’ and ‘life’. It is Hebrew Scripture (Lev. 18.5) that promises life to those who keep the law, and it is also Hebrew Scripture (Abraham’s life and Hab 2.4) which elsewhere promises life to those who believe. Paul agrees with the latter against the former. He thus depends on Scripture (where it confirms the truth of the gospel) to disagree with Scripture (where it does not conform to the truth of the gospel). It will be disturbing news to some that any claim by Scripture can be false in this sense. But Paul’s argument here clearly proceeds on such grounds.

To clarify, I’m not attempting to define faith, life, law, or justification here. I’m merely observing the structure of Paul’s argument. In whatever sense he contemplates the law, Paul feels it is not “based on faith” because it promises life through faithful observance. And whatever Paul might understand faith to be (the believer’s faith or Jesus’ faithfulness), it is still the case that this is contrasted with law. All I’m pointing out here is that the structure of Paul’s argument includes Paul using Scripture’s truth (Hab. 2.4 and Abraham’s experience) to expose what he feels is some falsehood in Scripture (Lev. 18.5’s promise of life through the law).

This passage includes still another Scriptural claim we can be confident is false, namely, the claim that “whoever hangs on a tree is cursed [by God]” (v. 13 and Deut. 21.23). That is Israel’s false belief, but how can God demonstrate it to be false? He demonstrates it false by giving himself to it, by hanging on a tree without being cursed. But why believe Jesus was not cursed on the Cross? Because that is the meaning of the Cross in light of God’s raising him from the dead. The Cross is our verdict wrought upon Jesus. The resurrection is God’s contradicting verdict. Christ “becomes a curse” for us in the sense that he is treated by us in all the ways we identify with being cursed by God, not because we’re right in believing God to curse the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.

No, not that Dr. Who

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You’ll never guess who wrote this:

But consider even this, whether God can be said to foreknow and predestine in respect to those who are not yet in existence, or in respect to those who indeed exist but are not yet “conformed to the image of his Son,” and it is then more suitable to speak of foreknowledge than in the case where what is not yet in existence is about to happen. For in this it is more a question of choice than of the foreknowledge of the Creator. For where will the foreknowledge appear since what is future depends on the decision of the agent?

The author agrees that we can meaningfully talk about God’s knowledge of his overall choice and determination to execute his will in and through Christ – a kind of providential determination of the shape of creation’s movements vis-à-vis its final end (from, in, through and for Christ). We can also meaningfully talk about foreknowledge, this author suggests, more specifically with respect to the shape and form which the individual lives of religious believers take in conformity to Christ. These are ways of apprehending/knowing creation that are not essentially at odds with what we’ve described as ‘open theism’ or the ‘open future’ in its generic form (i.e., minus the excess baggage many attempt to pile on-board). But this author then asks: How can we meaningfully talk of God foreknowing the specific choices of people who don’t even exist?

Any guesses about who might have written this? He’s a popular, well-published Christian philosopher-theologian nobody associates with open theism.

“There are no women on my theology bookshelf…”

I’m thinking about limiting my devotional and theological reading during 2019 to women.

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Last year on Twitter, someone wrote to me “there are no women on my theology bookshelf. Who should I read?”.

I followed up with a blog list, and was pleased to discover that without even looking up from my screen I could easily think of well over a hundred female theologians, ecclesiastical historians, biblical scholars, sociologists of religion, and others who figure on the theological landscape. More names appeared when I actually looked at my own bookshelf.

Replies flooded in through the comments, adding many more names of women authors – both academic and devotional, theoretical and practical, in every area of the theological landscape. Now the academic year is about to begin again, one or two people have mentioned the post again as a resource – so, incomplete though it is, here is the updated blog post with names added from the comments section.

10897776_469733266514841_7639664988515007378_nWhen people ask about “women…

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My God, My God, why does this keep coming up?

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My interest in Jesus’ so-called Cry of Dereliction borders on the obsessive. I apologize. But I do think how one imagines the Father-Son relation at this moment has a great deal to do with how we imagine and relate to God. Jesus apparently thought so:

“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.” (Jn 16.31-33)

Jesus explicitly offers his own upcoming suffering as grounds upon which he wants the disciples to understand how they will know his peace in their own afflictions. How the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how God will be with them in their suffering. There’s no room in this for penal aspirations to weave their dark magic.

A year ago I ran across some thoughts about the Cross by R. C. Sproul:

…the Father had imputed to [Jesus] every sin of every one of his people…the most intense, dense concentration of evil ever experienced on this planet was exhibited. Jesus was the ultimate obscenity. So what happened? God is too holy to look at sin. He could not bear to look at that concentrated monumental condensation of evil, so he averted his eyes from his Son. The light of his countenance was turned off. All blessedness was removed from his Son, whom he loved, and in its place was the full measure of the divine curse… It was as if there was a cry from heaven, as if Jesus heard the words “God damn you,” because that’s what it meant to be cursed and under the anathema of the Father… [and] every person who has not been covered by the righteousness of Christ draws every breath under the curse of God.

I followed this quote back then with the words “Finally Sproul and Greg [Boyd] agree on something.” That got me in a bit of hot water with some friends. I clarified then, but having run into Sproul’s comments again recently, I thought I’d bring the comparison up here – since Sproul and Greg sharing so fundamental a view would surprise fans of both.

True, Greg has very deep and genuine pastoral sensibilities for people. He wouldn’t express himself as Sproul does (viz., the Father saying “God damn you!” to Jesus). But I’m not comparing their sentiments. I’m comparing only the structure and logic of the exchange that defines the “curse-wrath-abandonment” paradigm for each. On that score they agree. God “makes Jesus to become sin” (2Cor 5) and Jesus becomes “cursed” (Gal 3) for us, two key passages repeatedly used by Greg to structure his understanding of how Christ saves us. And this “curse” is God’s just wrath-as-withdrawal/abandonment. Greg and Sproul would disagree about election, God’s universal love, God as essential love, and many other things. But the basic structure of the exchange that defines atonement seems to me the same in each:

– Jesus “becomes sin” on the Cross (2Cor 5) and is “cursed” (Gal 3.13)
– In such a cursed state, Jesus suffers God’s wrath, that wrath being the Father’s withdrawal of filial intimacy, bringing Christ into an experience of the despair (as ‘godforsakenness’) we deserve.

Note too that the godforsakeness which Jesus suffers is not due to anything human beings do to him. It is due to the Father’s withdrawal. This is the key similarity between Sproul and Greg – it is what transpires between Father and Son which saves us. And because the divine filiation is infinitely valuable, God’s suffering its loss in that moment is infinite. Like I said, finally Sproul and Greg agree on something.