Hidden with Christ in God

blog-featured-image-iam-1_1I reconnected with with a friend and colleague in missions who works in the Middle East with Muslims. We haven’t spoken for a decade. I asked him what sort of response to Christ he’s seen from Muslims in his country during that time period. Last I knew there were maybe two dozen Muslims who had come to faith in Christ. He said that today they’re working with 5,000 small groups of such believers. I was astounded. He added that in the last fifteen months eleven of their number have been killed on account of their faith, two having been killed this last week. All of a sudden I realized that I don’t really have any problems. I sit comfortably in the United States contemplating life from the security of my home and office while many others know faith only as a life-threatening choice.

I moved on prayerfully after that conversation but haven’t gotten this amazing explosion of faith in the Muslim world out of my head, and these 5,000 groups are a small part of a much bigger story from the Muslim world which you won’t hear about on the evening news. As I contemplate the cost which faith presents to so many in the world today, I come back to three passages around which I revolve like a satellite, kept in obit by the gravitational pull of their truth.

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2.20)
There’s a difference, someone said, between ‘seeing the Cross from where you are’ and ‘seeing where you are from the Cross’. In the first case, I’m not crucified with Christ. How could I be? I’m ‘here’ observing Christ living, dying, and rising ‘over there’. I observe the Cross from a distance. And at a distance it cannot be my death, my crucifixion. I might love Christ. I might believe that what I see on ‘that Cross over there’ achieves my salvation. I have faith in it. And I don’t doubt that God knows how to honor sincere but incomplete faith wherever he finds it.

We all start here in our faith journeys. But eventually we’re meant to adopt a new perspective as we draw closer, closing the distance between ‘seeing the Cross from where we are’ and ‘seeing things from the Cross’. At some point you move from that location to seeing the world from within the event of the Cross. I think the failure to travel this distance is part of what accounts for dysfunctional penal views of the Cross. As long as the Cross is Christ suffering what I don’t have to suffer, I observe the Cross from a distance and that distances is viewed to be my salvation. In this case I can’t join with Christ in that suffering. I can’t cross the distance to make it my death. Problem is – it is my death and I am meant to participate in it. Salvation isn’t the distance, it’s the collapsing of the distance.

“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3.2-3)

It might seem at first that “setting you mind on things above” means contemplating those things “from where we are below” and thus is born ‘the distance’ that defines a two-storied worldview. Whatever the “above” is, it’s not where I am. It’s above where I am. For me to set my mind on the above, I have to leave behind, in a manner of speaking, the “below” where I actually live my life. But too many things Paul says make it clear that he didn’t think of that sort of distance between us and Christ. Whence the distance if we are “hidden with Christ in God? If I’m hidden with Christ in God, then my everyday mundane life is hidden with Christ in God. “Below” is only a mistaken way of perceiving the ‘here and now’, falsely identifying it as separated somehow from God. Setting your mind on “things above” is not to escape the ‘here and now’ in our minds. It is to uncover the ‘here and now’ through contemplation into the ‘above’, to remove the distance. We can be anywhere and be “set on things above” because the above things are everywhere and the trust of all things.

“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8.15)
Who cries “Abba, Father!”? Only the Son. And we are given his cry as our own. We are given his own identity for our own. Now we relate to God, to ourselves, and to the world from within the cry that defines God the Son. The power of the gospel to heal and transform us is its power to include us within the Son’s own identity, a cry which cannot be deconstructed or undone by any severity of pain or suffering. It has already endured death and rose on the other side.

The myth of ‘divine withdrawal’

crucifixionWhy the gruesome picture? Because sometimes theology gets in the way.

I continue to contemplate the crucifixion. Where was God? What was he up to? What was his part in this? What happened there that day which God gives to faith to perceive that so radically transforms the world? God-talk these days is full of references to ‘divine withdrawal’, and to the Cross as the quintessential manifestation of divine withdrawal. I’d like to reflect here a bit upon that idea.

• If we understand God to be inseparably present from creation (as its creator and sustainer), then talk of God “withdrawing” can only be a figurative expression for the phenomenological aspects of our suffering. We experience ourselves and the world in ways we explain by removing God from the scene. If God were “here,” here would be different that it is, so God must “really” be somewhere else; he must have withdrawn himself.

• But it cannot literally be the case that God withdraws himself absolutely, metaphysically speaking, such that the created things he withdraws from continue to exist in a state wholly vacated by God. Not even hell – whatever that is – can be construed as so absolute an absence of God. Consider, nothing created has created itself, nor can it sustain its own existence. Creation remains, at every level of its being, inseparable from God who is creatively present actively sustaining it and knowing what he sustains.

• Consider too that God isn’t a ‘composite’ being, i.e., he isn’t composed of parts more fundamental to him than his actual triune life. He isn’t the achievement or product of a series of divine events which combine over time to produce God’s triune fullness as its effect. “All that God is” is “everywhere God is,” and that’s everywhere without conceivable exception. God is fully all he is everywhere he is, and that means immeasurable and inseparable intimacy with created things. Any notion of divine withdrawal has to be understood as a kind of presence to things as the most intimate act of their being, even when we suffer, even as we do the evil we do. Divine withdrawal, properly understood, is a ‘mode of presence’ not of ‘absence’, a way of being with and sustaining us, not a way of being without us or moving away from us.

• The Cross cannot, then, be understood as contradicting this fundamental sense in which God is fully present, always and everywhere, creatively at work in sustaining the world. Everything God does, including dying, reveals this much to faith. The Cross manifests God’s triune fullness within every narrative of divine withdrawal (even biblical ones), but the Cross is not itself a narrative of withdrawal. It is a narrative of approach, of nearness, of presence. It is where God, in the full simplicity of triune love, insists upon being with us, thus judging (viz., rendering) all narratives of divine withdrawal to be myths and fabrications of despair and dereliction. The ‘Cry of Dereliction’ (as theologians have named it) is not that cry Jesus utters on the Cross (“My God, My God! Why?”) The true cry of dereliction is ours: “Crucify him!” There’s the despair and dereliction. Dereliction put Jesus on the Cross. Sanity is what we crucified. The dereliction is heard in a thousand other cries – cries that give up altogether, but also cries that scream their despair all the louder. Much of our despairing dereliction gets published as Christian theology.

• To speak of God ‘witdrawing, then, is to describe the suffering and despair of a life that refuses to welcome the truth of God’s presence. But that refusal does not thereby affirm some other truth – namely, a truth of divine absence. It is rather the pain of our taking the myth of divine absence to be true. But happily God needn’t suffer the pain of falsely believing such a myth in order to free us from it.

Imitating God

maximusI was reading Justin Coyle’s opening remarks for Syndicate’s symposium on Paul Blowers’ book Maximus. Coyle writes:

Chapter 8 treats of Maximus on eros – God’s and ours. There he maps Maximus’ “dialectics of desire” to show that eros stands as the beating heart of the theo-drama. Its players enact the drama by learning to imitate God’s eros for them, principally in virtue and liturgical formation. (Emphasis mine)

When I read the description of Maximus’s view of the drama of creation as “learning to imitate God’s eros,” I couldn’t help but think of Girard’s work in mimetic theory. Girard views mimesis (the ‘imitation’, and thus the ‘interdividuality’, of desire and identity) as the irreducible essence of human consciousness and culture and the occasion for human renesinfulness in all its competitive selfishness and violence. Many pick up on Girard’s theories as they relate to negative mimesis (viz., how the mimetic/imitative constitution of human consciousness and relations accounts for violence and sinfulness). Fewer appreciate Girard’s thoughts on positive mimesis (viz., the mimetic formation of human character and culture in the image of its divine source mediated through faith in Christ; cf. 1Cor 11.1; Eph 5.1).

Nothing extraordinary perhaps – just a possible confirmation of Girard’s insights from Maximus.

If you can’t join Christ on the Cross, you’ve got the wrong Cross

12724940_1720132754866853_78842786_nI’m in the middle of James Alison’s Knowing Jesus and hope soon to put together some thoughts on 1Cor 2.2 where Paul resolves to “know nothing except Christ and him crucified.” In the meantime, because I’ve been discussing a good deal about whether, and if so how, the Cross can be the “center” (the hermeneutical center of faith as it engages Scripture), I want to offer a thought on the general tendency to make the Cross (at least a certain vision of the Cross) the place where Christ suffers the godforsakenness we justly deserve because of our sin. The more I think about this, the less sense it makes. I don’t doubt there is a Cross “because” of our sins, and I don’t doubt that Christ suffers “for” us. I agree also that the Cross defines or shapes faith. But that means it shapes a movement toward an end or telos. But the Cross can’t be that end, not if Christ is risen. I think it would be extremely helpful to think through these questions in terms of ‘ends’ rather than of ‘centers’. Perhaps that needs to become an additional part of our series What is the Bible? But for now, ask yourself what the ‘end’ or ‘telos’ of creation is. Where’s it going? What divine reality fulfills it? I suggest that while the Cross defines the shape of the journey, it isn’t the end of the journey, and it would be worth exploring whether we ought to make that end the hermeneutical center of our faith and not any means by which we reach the end, however necessary those means may be.

Since I’m doing a poor job of articulating this, let me offer a couple of thoughts on Phil 3 and try to describe what I mean by making the Cross as means relative to ends achieved beyond resurrection. I’m not negating the revelatory value of the Cross or its value as a demonstration of love. I’m suggesting it’s not the center of the center. Phil 3.8-11 (vv. 10f here):

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and to participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

a_light_in_the_darkness_by_abenteuerzeit-d5dlskcI’ll offer CWG as the backdrop for my thought here since it proposes an understanding of the Cross as a kind of suffering we can’t participate in because it is God suffering godforsakenness as the consequence of our sinful choices. Without question this is not a suffering we can participate in. It is suffering we’re saved from. Yet we see Paul wanting to “participate in Christ’s sufferings” and to “become like Christ in his death” (even to “fill up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings,” Col 1.24).  These are curious things to say indeed if Paul believes the Cross is God suffering in our stead the godforsakenness we deserve.

I suggest that at the very least

…we understand the Cross not as a kind of suffering from which we are excluded (because it is a godforsakenness we are saved from) but as a kind of suffering and death we are saved in or through.

This difference in perspective is the kind of small difference between competing orientations that end up worlds apart the farther down the road one tracks their implications. I don’t think Paul could be any more explicit: the Cross isn’t the Incarnate God dying instead of us (however legitimately talk of ‘substitution’ expresses a perspective on an aspect of what’s happening), it is the God-Man dying ahead of us — showing us how to die, how life is found in the worst the world can do to us, and also how to suffer redemptively as a victim of the world’s violence. But all this precludes the Cross’s being the place where Father, Son and Spirit are estranged from one another. On the contrary, it’s where all estranging narratives, including narratives of the Cross as estrangement, are exposed as false and impotent precisely because they do not offer us a ‘way’, a suffering, we can participate in, a death to which we can conform. If Paul hopes to attain the resurrection on account of “becoming like Christ in his death” through “participating in his sufferings,” then Christ’s death can’t be the place where Father, Son and Spirit suffer godforsakenness in our stead.

This thought is found outside of Paul as well. Hebrews 13.13f:

Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Again, here the Cross represents sufferings we follow Christ into, “bearing the disgrace he bore,” hardly something we rejoice in being saved from. Mere verses prior to the call to follow Christ by bearing the disgrace he bore “outside the city” (a reference to the only ‘abandonment’ in view, viz., the abandonment of us by the world) we find this encouragement which precedes and introduces the whole passage:

Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”

The Cross is where these words are proved true, not the one time they fail to be so. This is a Cross we can follow, suffering we can participate in, a death we can conform to, and in conforming to his death, a resurrection we can attain.

Brief thoughts on penal substitution

IMG_5205edited-720x380Dwayne recently shared a Tom Wright piece with me in which Wright addresses the shades of meaning and confusion over ‘penal substitution’. While Wright considers it an obvious misappropriation of the concepts ‘penal’ and ‘substitution’ to understand them as imagining Jesus to come between God and humanity to save the later from the former by placating the anger of the former, he doesn’t want to reject biblical talk of divine wrath and judgment and Christ’s role in expressing and addressing such judgment. Write says:

The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates – yes, hates, and hates implacably – anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.

There’s a prevailing difference in definitions that plagues disagreements over penal substitution. There are those who define “penal” as merely punitive and thus excluding any wider redemptive intention. A ‘penal’ act is a ‘punitive’ act – pure and simple – a ‘getting even with’ which as such is incompatible with acts that are redemptive and healing in their intention. But not everybody defines ‘penal’ that way. Those who take a wider view on what ‘penal’ might mean (as expressive of loving intentions) seem to say that God’s response to or judgment of evil is ‘penal’ in the sense that it is designed to expose evil as evil, to render its truth plain(er) through bringing persons into an experience of evil as evil, but the purpose of the act does not terminate in this exposition. It terminates in the redemption of those caught in the grip of evil. So then, God wills that those who reject him experience what that rejection is like. I can’t disagree with this, so long as one understands this is the natural and necessary consequence of God’s willing himself as our highest good. To desire something else for those who reject him would be less than loving of God.

But there’s a fine line between this and other statements that posit a competition between ‘love’ and ‘judgment’, and even Wright appears to locate ‘wrath’ and ‘love’ on contrary but inseparable poles of a divine reality, a reality that is ‘now doing this’ (which we call loving a person) and ‘now doing that’ (which we call judging a person). This distinction can be as problematic as reducing judgment to merely punitive terms. Perhaps the line between the two is the difference between organic/natural judgment (like the Orthodox espouse) and imagining God to take more positive actions that are willed by him “in addition to” or “over and against” willing the highest good of those judged. In other words, if ‘penal’ and ‘substitution’ compete with the highest good of those judged, then we have problems. But the terms may, as terms, if carefully qualified, express the truth of God pursuing the highest good of a fallen world. ‘Substitution’ may simply describe the Cross in the sense that Christ volunteers to “step into” (taking our place in) our scapegoating mechanism, substituting himself for us in that violence in a representative mode, not so that God can do to Jesus what God in his holiness must do to sinners (which is how I’m reading Wright and Greg), but so that God can endure our doing to him what we do to other innocent victims, and thereby demonstrate how unlike he is from our concepts of justice and peace. (Brad Jersak, though, prefers “identification” to “substitution” and this may better express the truth of what happens on the Cross.)

This love enduring our violence is God’s judgment upon (his estimate, verdict, or opinion of) evil. Where any mind perceives a measure of the depth of God’s abiding, loving beatitude and peace, it comes into an experience of judgment. Its privation is revealed or exposed. It suffers that revelation, but it suffers nothing other than God in and as the undiminished delight that values and loves the world and whose delight is the highest good of creatures. In judging sin, God takes no action ‘in addition to’ his loving us, no positive judgment that is a counterpart to his actually loving us (even if that judgment is inseparable from God’s love as south pole is contrary to but inseparable from the north pole). I think a big part of Wright’s and Greg’s problem here is that they mistakenly view the sheer, undisturbed delight of triune love to be indifferent to evil if all it is is delight. They imagine God has to suffer some internal diminishment (Wright’s “hatred”) over and against divine beatitude or else God is “indifferent” to evil. But perhaps they assume this because that’s how they feel about evil – i.e., joy and delight are not motivation enough to oppose evil and act in the world for its healing and salvation. One has to be disturbed out of the complacency of happiness and act because one “hates” the wrong one acts to correct.

This is wrongheaded in our view. While Wright rightly objects to crude, competitive notions of justice and love that get expressed in versions of ‘penal substitution’ which view Jesus as saving us from God by placating his rage, he (and Boyd with him, I think) doesn’t entirely escape a competitive polarizing of ‘wrath’ and ‘love’ when he suggests that God must be thought of as “hating, yes hating” evil. Exactly what kind of change would that entail in God over and against his loving people and being the life which is the end of all things? Why cannot an undisturbed peace and beatitude be its own motivation to pursue the highest good of all things? And why cannot this beatitude itself be experienced as painful torture for those who don’t love it? Just think of how miserable an angry person is around happy people precisely because they’re happy.

Happy people don’t help miserable people by hating their misery. They help them by being happy.

Certainly God cannot will our highest good in him and do nothing to address our violence or save us from its privating consequences. Wright admits to directing his criticism against viewing God as “indifferent” to sin and evil. The problem with Wright’s criticism is that he feels divine indifference is only avoided if God “hates” something, if he is prompted to act through feeling something relative to evil over and against being the infinite beatitude and peace which is his being and existence to begin with. Beatitude and peace aren’t enough. This bring to mind comments I earlier made on the question of divine motivation and indifference in the face of a violent/sinful world:

I agree that acting in love to relieve the suffering of another must be motivated and that such acts are in response to the suffering of others. But surely it’s possible to conceive of a personal satisfaction/happiness which need not be diminished by the suffering of others before it can benevolently intend their well-being and act on their behalf, or additionally, that sympathy means one’s own happiness is diminished to a degree proportionate to the misery of those who suffer. The motivation of such beatitude would be a self-motivating fullness which need not be prodded into action either by the inconvenience of a diminished sense of well-being brought on by the lack of well-being in the world or by the prospect of increasing one’s aesthetic value by addition. A present fullness may be its own motivation to pursue the well-being of others as an expression of its own completeness.

Am I suggesting God is, in some sense, indifferent to evil? Yes. But everybody who thinks God exists necessarily has to concede this much. God is ontologically indifferent to evil if it’s the case that evil is a privatio boni (privation of the good), indifferent to evil in the sense ‘being’ is indifferent to ‘non-being’. But this indifference is not a self-absorbed lack of passion or concern for the well-being of others. It just is the well-being of others. But it is not indifferent in the sense that it fails on any level to be and to pursue the highest well-being of all things in him.

Can “penal” and “substitution” be helpfully employed at all? My own feeling is it would require more qualification than its worth. Wright feels that if the phrase is not used, however qualified, we end up embracing an “indifferent” God. That seems hardly the case to me. But I think in the end it’s unhelpful to try to move a conversation forward by reducing positions to particular labels.

Face to face with Greg


Many thanks to Greg Boyd for taking time to respond (his Part 1 and Part 2) to my comments (Parts 1-4) reviewing aspects of his new Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG). I went on to post some relevant follow-ups as well:

● How Jesus viewed his cross
● My God, My God, how have we misinterpreted you?
● Saved by joy

Our blog here occupies a very quiet place on the edge of the edge of the blogging world, so it’s nice to have Greg engage me over at ReKnew in a response to my review. I know he’s busy and I appreciate the effort. Several of my comments (together with, I suspect, the prolonged nature of our objection to key aspects of Greg’s theology) seem to have gotten under Greg’s skin. Maybe not, but if they have, then I hope I can bring some clarity to our differences. I won’t take up each point in his responses, but there are a few points I should comment on for clarity’s sake.

First–that I attack Greg’s integrity.
Greg senses that I’ve leveled an ad hominem attack on him by questioning his integrity regarding his use of (his) Trinity & Process (T&P) in support of claims he makes in CWG when the supporting arguments in T&P are positions Greg no longer himself holds. I believe I said this seemed to be an issue of academic integrity, and I went on to explain that what I had in mind was what I understood to be a standard of good scholarship, namely, that when a recognized scholar departs significantly from his own published work, some account/defense of the reasons for the change in mind is expected. I haven’t suggested Greg knowingly plotted to deceive readers. I’m just saying that there’s a level of explanation missing from Greg’s ongoing work relative to his earlier work in T&P that I understand to be a part of good scholarship. It is a bit surprising also to hear someone of Greg’s recognition admit that it wouldn’t matter what the philosophical arguments were in support of older positions he no longer holds because utter philosophical nonsense would be “a small price to pay.” Do I criticize this? Well, yes. I don’t mean thereby to attack Greg’s faith, character or sincerity. It’s just my understanding of a canon of scholarship that includes managing one’s intellectual journey a bit differently. If I’m wrong about what makes for good, responsible scholarship, more’s the pity.

I do take it to be a given (well-documented here) that Greg’s present views are incompatible with convictions at the core of T&P – namely, the abiding nature of God’s essential triune ‘experience’. If Greg really thinks there’s no significant change in his thought relative to this core and he’s not interested in arguments to the contrary, well, so be it. But if he is ever interested in batting those questions about, I’d be happy to pitch him a few.


Second—not defining ‘violence’.
Regarding Greg’s not defining ‘violence’, he decided against it. I get that. My point in bringing it up was that much of the ongoing conversation (pro and con) regarding CWG turns precisely on what one thinks goes into making a thought, intention, or act ‘violent’. It would surely help if Greg (and others) would be explicit. Take Bruxy Cavey, for example. At a recent Woodland Hills Church CWG Q&A session, Greg was somewhat surprised when Bruxy (disagreeing with Greg’s view that Peter used his irrevocable God-given spiritual powers to kill Ananias and Sapphira [Acts 5]) said he thought God took Ananias and Sapphira out of the equation and that this was in God’s perspective a right, wise, and loving thing to do. The interesting point is that Bruxy and Greg are equally committed to ascribing zero violence to God. So the only reason Bruxy can see God’s taking Ananias and Sapphira out of the equation as wise and loving and Greg not see it this way is because the two of them define ‘violence’ differently. The difference won’t show up in genocidal passages (which sort of passage Greg suggests to me was one reason why he chose not to define violence), but it will and does show up in other controversial passages (like Ananias & Sapphira) that are central to Greg’s thesis. As it so happens, in recently attempting to get people to be explicit about what really constitutes ‘violence’, I was surprised to discover little general interest in the question and little agreement over what constitutes an act’s ‘violence’. I think this is pretty significant.

Third—making a certain view of the Cross the ‘exclusive’ center.
Greg points out that I’m wrong about saying he suggests the Cross “exclusively” defines the hermeneutical center. Fair enough. But I didn’t mean to suggest that Greg takes no notice of the incarnation or the resurrection as definitive of the Cross. I was referring to Greg’s positing a choice between taking the Cross over the life of Christ as the defining center. I’m referring, of course, to Greg’s own arguments for why the entire life of Christ (considered as a whole) cannot successfully be considered the center because it’s too broad a center and it involves too many disagreements. The Cross, Greg argues, is a narrower and more agreed upon thematic center. It’s that particular choice I was speaking to. That is – our options are exclusively binary – either Christ-centered (taking the entire Christ-event as the center) or Crucicentric (taking the Cross as the center). I didn’t suggest Greg doesn’t integrate everything outside the Cross, I was only commenting on his reasons for why the Cross, and not the entirety of Christ’s life, be the center.

Fourth—not evaluating the lengthy case Greg makes for his understanding of the Cross.
Greg chides me a bit for not evaluating the lengthy case he makes for his particular understanding of the Cross (as opposed to focusing on the Cry of Dereliction as a tiny aspect of the Cross). I confess I’m baffled by this. I actually have commented on the principles of divine accommodation, spiritual warfare (basically agreeing with the reality of creaturely choice and the nature of created opposition to God, but stopping short of making Satan a functional demiurge), and semi-autonomous power. But most reviewers focus criticism on what they find most objectionable, and that’s what I did.

It seems to me that if one places the Cross at the center of one’s theology, what one believes the Cross to be defines that center. True, Greg says a great many things at length about the implications of the Cross, but it seemed clear to me as I read CWG that the Cross understood as God’s own experience of godforsakenness and self-estrangement was the center of gravity around which the rest of the work revolves. I focused on this aspect because, though Greg didn’t spend hundreds of pages on it, by the very nature of its relevance, ‘divine abandonment’ constitutes the center of the center. Yes, of course the Cross is also an ‘accommodation’ to our fallenness. Yes, it’s also ‘warfare’. But the divine act in/on the Cross which makes its accommodating act an engagement with the fallen powers (which I don’t disagree the Cross is) is precisely the divine abandonment that Greg posits. It’s this reading of the Cross that I focused my objections on because that’s what I find objectionable.

Now, in his response to me Greg seems to be suggesting that viewing the Father’s abandonment of the Son is a minor and negotiable point because it receives only a fragment of CWG’s 1,400 pages. If this is the case then many of us are truly dumbfounded, for we assumed Greg’s view of the divine abandonment “behind the scenes” which defines the Cross was indeed central to his thesis. Now it seems Greg is acknowledging that how he interprets the Cry of Dereliction isn’t definitive of the Cross that defines the center. If that be the case, then – forgive me Greg – this really is a poorly written book, because nobody reading vol. 2 would think that the divine abandonment which Greg defines as the truth of what’s going on “behind the scenes” is for Greg a negotiable, non-essential aspect of the cruciform thesis. It’s not always about volume, i.e., how many pages one spends discussing a question. It’s where you’re standing in relation to the whole when you say what you say, even it’s a fragment of the whole.

If I was the only one who thought any of this, I would never have reviewed CWG to begin with, but it was the overwhelming push back on precisely this aspect of the book that encouraged me to express my own thoughts too.

facetoface2Fifth—on the ‘intrinsic’ nature of the consequences of our choices.
Then there’s the issue of the intrinsic nature of the consequences of our choices. Greg argues that Jesus suffers the death consequences intrinsic to our sinful choices. Now, I question the very notion that Christ can suffer any intrinsic consequences of our sinful choices, especially if, as Greg says, those consequences are ‘organic’ to the choice. If organic to the choice, then – I say – organic to the chooser. Indeed, it’s undeniable that the despair and godforsakenness Greg holds to be intrinsic to our sinful choices are already invariably experienced by those who make those choices.

Greg apparently questions this line of reasoning (if I’m following him) and offers a strange defense of the transferability of the intrinsic consequences of one person’s choices onto another subject. Here’s the analogy: Joe gets drunk and passes out on some train tracks. Bill steps in to pull Joe away from an oncoming train. Joe is saved but Bill gets stuck and is killed by the train. In Greg’s view, Bill experiences the consequences that were ‘intrinsic’ to Joe’s choices. But this seems mistaken. Getting struck by a train is not intrinsic to the choice to get drunk; nor is getting struck by a train intrinsic to passing out drunk on train tracks. But, one might reason, Bill gets struck by a train only because Joe was there drunk and in the way of an oncoming train, so surely Bill suffers ‘what Joe would have suffered’ had Bill left Joe on the tracks. Not exactly, but let’s go with that. Even so, this is not to transfer to Bill what is ‘intrinsic’ to Joe’s choice. On the contrary, Bill experiences the consequences intrinsic to his choice, namely, to risk his safety to saving Joe. But that risk is not intrinsic to Joe’s decision to get drunk.

This brings up my comments that Greg’s view appears to me to maintain a penal-substitutionary flavor or orientation, a point about which Greg expresses some disappointment in my reading of him. My reasons for reading Greg this way are documented here and elsewhere by others who have reviewed CWG. No need to repeat all the points. I’ll just say a few things to clarify. First, I could of course be reading Greg wrong, but I’m not the only one to see CWG as offering a version of penal-substitutionary atonement. Virtually all those involved in recent online conversations pick up the same penal assumptions at work. Secondly, Greg feels that since God doesn’t transfer our actual guilt onto Jesus and doesn’t emotionally vent rage upon Jesus, and since Greg doesn’t articulate what does go on in the Cross in forensic terms, he’s clear of any penal associations. However, transfer of guilt and feelings of rage are not an essential, defining aspect of a penal model of atonement.

It would be interesting to pursue this more, but I’ll close this point by saying, thirdly, that another reason the force of Greg’s response to me on this point is surprising is that elsewhere online recently, Greg asked those of us in the room to clarify why we were all objecting to his book on the grounds that it offers a non-Girardian, penal view of the Cross. I responded to him in precisely the terms I’ve done on this post, saying:

Of course, as you say, the Father turns Jesus ‘over to the crowds’ (i.e. surrenders Jesus to human violence). Everybody agrees on that much. But that’s not “all [you’re] saying.” You’re saying that in addition to our abandoning Jesus, the Father himself abandons Jesus and the pain of the latter abandonment is what does the saving work. But there’s no logical connect between God’s turning Jesus over to be abandoned by the world and God’s abandoning Jesus. Why must such abandonment occur? The intrinsic death consequences to all sin. But this just is PSA. You have a softer articulation of it because you emphasize the love that motivates it and you also don’t limit it to the elect. But it’s still the same exchange. Why *must* there be satisfaction of the so-called intrinsic consequences of sin? What is forgiveness after all? Why cannot God welcome us home without suffering his own antithetical negation? You already grant that God forgives us entirely apart from such abandonment. So follow the logic of that through – what kind of love is capable of ‘forgiving’ us without suffering self-inflicted self-negation but is not capable of being present with us in transforming ways without such negation?

To which Greg responded (to me and the group):

Oh, okay. For the first time I think I may see how you construe my view as PSA. I have been utterly baffled up to this point. I’ll have to think about this some more and I suspect it will need [a] separate post to address, but I suspect the problem comes from different understandings of “abandonment” and why Jesus had to die.

Ya think? My point exactly, which is why I’m confused over why Greg in his ReKnew response now seems at all surprised or bothered by my describing his position as reducible to penal-substitutionary assumptions. He had already agreed to understanding why I and others were reading him that way.

Seventh—regarding whether God’s experience of himself is “reduced” to godforsakenness.
I expressed my objection to Greg’s view of the Father forsaking the Son, and of the divine persons being “estranged from one another,” in terms of Greg “reducing” God to godforsakenness. Greg objected to the word “reduce” here and insists he doesn’t reduce God to godforsakenness, and he wonders why I would think he holds such a position. To clarify, I didn’t say Greg reduces God simpliciter to godforsakenness. I said Greg reduces God’s triune “experience of himself” to godforsakenness and self-estrangement. We’re only talking about God’s “experience.” Why? Because Greg is the one who makes the distinction (vol. 2, chapter on divine withdrawal) between God’s essential unity of being (or “existence”) as such and God’s “experience” of his own unity. And Greg builds his view of divine abandonment on the premise that God has no experience of his essential triune being that transcends the world. In existential terms (terms Greg introduces to accommodate the compatibility of godforsakenness with God’s essential unity), God is reduced to the pain of godforsakenness, i.e., there is no transcendent experience Father and Son enjoy that is not affected by the Cross. That’s what I mean by “reduced to.”

I appreciate and admire many things about Greg. None of my comments was meant to impugn his character, his love for God, or his passion for people. I’m only interested in the content of his views, particularly his Christology, in relation to his Trinitarian arguments in T&P (Trinity & Process), and I encourage Greg to consider integrating T&P into his present views in a serious, more thoughtful way. That would be an interesting read!

(If there are any worries about the picture opening this post, it’s a picture of two boxers going toe to toe – just in case anyone thought it was Greg and I.)

Saved by joy


Sometimes questions arise that enable us to see the meaning of theological claims with practical clarity. I’ve always sought to pursue this practical-existential side of things, believing that the meaning of our claims is, in the end, just the difference they make to how we appropriate their truth in all the transforming ways that we give the name “salvation” to. It was this level of appropriation or integration which, if I’m not mistaken, most informed the early Christological debates that produced the Nicene and following ecumenical expressions of faith. How does this or that theological claim (whether it’s made by Arius, or Nestorius, or Barth, Moltmann, Boyd or whomever) explain, inform, and empower the particular experience of worship and personal transformation in Christ which the early generations of believers gave the name ‘the Faith’ to? This is at least one level, an existential stage, upon which we can put theological claims to the test.

Greg earlier asked me in the comments section of a recent post, what I made of of 1Cor 5:21 (God made him who knew no sin to “be sin” for us) and Gal 3.13 (Christ “became our curse”). Greg takes these as evidence of a particular understanding of atonement (i.e., what actually is happening in the Cross and how it does the saving work of freeing and transforming us). The logic behind such a view is a certain entailment between choice and consequence. As Greg argues it, Jesus has to experience the “death consequences” of our sinful choices (which consequences are the despair of godforsakenness). These consequences must be experienced because they’re “intrinsic” to the sinful choices we make. But it makes little sense to say that experiencing the existential despair of godforsakenness is “intrinsic” to my choices and argue that someone other than me can experience those consequences on my behalf.

kafka_comic_400On the contrary, if the consequence of existential despair is “intrinsic” to one’s choices (and I agree it is), it has to be experienced by the subject of those choices, not an innocent, scapegoated subject. This is where Greg’s view of atonement shows the essential penal weave to the fabric of its logic. Against this logic it should be acknowledged that those who sin already know the despair their choices result in, for no choosing of one’s way through life outside one’s truest identity in Christ is going to result in anything but despair. So the consequences that are intrinsic to our choices are invariably experienced – by us who make those choices. As Kierkegaard said, “The most common form of despair is not being who you are” (in Christ). One is saved, then, from the “death consequences” of his sinful choices by making different choices, but there’s no saving merit in someone who knows who he truly is (i.e., Christ) suffering the despair of being confused about who he is – as if that’s going to restore us who don’t know who we are to our truest identity in Christ. On the contrary, Christ shows us who we are by enjoying who he is on the inside of the pain, rejection, and violence we fabricate false identities to deal with. Christ saves us from the despair of not knowing who we are as loved by God in a fallen world by himself becoming who we are meant to be, loved by God, in that fallen world. That – not the tragic passibilism of a shattered divine consciousness – unlocks the door.

As I earlier suggested, Christ’s “being made sin by God” (1Cor 5.21) can hardly be thought to represent any transformation of God the Son into sin substantially, since sin is not a quantifiable ‘stuff’ that can move from the guilty to the innocent. We ought to understand this, rather, as Christ’s having stepped into our scapegoating violence. Christ is “made sin by God” in the sense that God turns Jesus over to the violent, scapegoating mechanisms in which we identify the innocent victim with our sin. Gal 3.13 makes the same claim. Christ’s “becoming a curse” for us is equivalent to Christ’s being treated by us in all the ways we identify with having been cursed by God.

What’s this have to do with the practical-existential challenge of integrating particular beliefs and models into our lives in transforming and saving ways? Some (Greg included, as he’s made clear) struggle with integrating into their lives in saving and transforming ways any vision of God that doesn’t have God giving up his happiness (beatitude) by identifying with our particular despair. Knowing this comforts and frees an enslaved mind. 1Cor 5 and Gal 3 represent for Greg the Pauline perspective on the divine abandonment to godforsakenness that frees and heals us. But as I’ve been laying out in this and other recent posts, the logic doesn’t work.

How might this older, more traditional understanding of the Cross be appropriated practically-existentially? The short version is – we’re saved from sin and death by God’s life manifest in resurrection and from despair by God’ abiding beatitude. I can only describe it in terms of being on one side and then the other of the truth of our created finitude, testified to consistently by the experience of generations of Christian believers and ascetics.

First – stepping into the Void on its created side as embracing the truth of finitude. There’s no final perfection of our happiness and truest identity that is not cognizant of the truth that we are created, and that the truth of being created is the truth of finitude, of our nothingness apart from God’s gracious creative act. We are painted into being. And this is experienced on the front end as an experience of the Void. Apart from an experience of our created finitude in terms of the Void, we can only continue attempting to establish a meaning and significance for ourselves that is over-and-against God and not a participation of finitude in the undiminished infinite beauty, goodness, and truth that God is. If we balk and complain about being nothing and want our existential healing to be purchased at the expense of God’s own existential fullness and not convertible with that fullness, we are only refusing to come to terms with the truth of our finitude.

Second – stepping through the Void on its divine side as participating in God’s life. The first step through the void of one’s finitude and nothingness into personal existence on the other side is a step into a life of participation. When you no longer view your existence as a product of your own, you also realize you can’t view your own meaning and significance as your own accomplishment. You see, too, that meaning and value are, like being itself, God-given, and enjoyed through participation in God’s life, and you’re OK with this. In fact, you celebrate it because it opens up vistas of existential fullness.


If the first existential moment is “I am nothing,” the second is “I, not I, but Christ am everything.” Here “I, not I, but Christ” (having become a single, indivisible substantive) replaces “I.” There is no longer any “I” that can be spoken without speaking “Christ.” Descartes’ “I” doesn’t survive the Void. It gets crushed under the weight of creation contemplated independently, seeking first to establish itself as free, and only then to relate itself to God.

God is the only value, meaning, and personal identity on the other side of the Void. The diversity of created values and beauties exist, truly exist, as participations in God, the highest value and truest good. What do I mean by participation? I mean the asymmetrical relational unity of the true ‘Cry’ (not that of abandonment, but that of Sonship: Rom 8.15). We are given, via the Spirit, the Son’s very own cry of filial identity: “Abba, Father.” Because one is ‘given’ it and possesses it as a son/daughter “in the Son,” one participates in it. This is where one experiences – not studies, not agrees to the truth of, but becomes an embodiment of “all things are ‘from’ and ‘through’ and ‘to’ God” (Rom 11.36). The flip side of this truth is that God is ‘from’ and ‘through’ and ‘to’ nothing.

The bad news is there is no “cross” on the divine side of the Void, within the fullness of the divine life that becomes our life – no scapegoating violence manufacturing even a moment of negation within its infinitude, no privation of the true, the good and the beautiful, no falsifying abandonment or forsakenness to darken the divine consciousness. There is most certainly a kenotic giving-and-receiving of all one is to the other, but this is God’s delight and beatitude. The good news is that this is true in the darkest of circumstances and upon every cross.