Saturday, 30 September 2006

Podcast: Bob Dylan, "I Believe in You"

One of Bob Dylan’s great gospel songs is “I Believe in You” (1979). Here, Dylan depicts faith as a fundamental paradox, a great Nevertheless – we believe in spite of all the apparent reasons not to believe:

   I believe in you when winter turn to summer,
   I believe in you when white turn to black...


For those of you who enjoy the sound of Bob Dylan’s voice, here’s a rare (unofficial) version of “I Believe in You,” recorded live in Avignon, France, on 25 July 1981. You can listen to it here in mp3, or you can get the podcast feed here.

Friday, 29 September 2006

Theology for beginners (17): Church

Summary: The Christian community is united as it gathers around the risen Lord and participates in his life; and the life of the community is expressed in the plurality of the Spirit’s gifts.

The Christian community is gathered by the Spirit around the risen Lord. Through the Spirit, the community lives by its participation in the risen life of Jesus.

The community’s participation in the life of Jesus is enacted right from the start, in the bath of baptism. Here, through the power of the Spirit, an individual is plunged down into the depths, united with Jesus in his lowliness, before being raised up into the new life of Jesus’ resurrection. The Christian life begins with this dramatic enactment of participation in the life of Jesus.

As members of the Christian community gather together, they continue to enact their participation in Jesus’ life by speaking – by telling the story of Jesus as the community’s own story, as a story that narrates the truth and meaning of every person’s life. Such gospel-speaking stands at the heart of everything the community is and does – whenever the community gathers, it gathers in order to hear and to tell the story of Jesus.

The most concrete and most dramatic form of gospel-speaking is the eucharistic meal. In this simple meal of bread and wine, the community gives thanks to God and celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus. This celebration is not only a memorial that looks back to the past – it is above all a participation in the life of Jesus, and thus a participation in the life of God’s kingdom which approaches from the future. It is through this meal that the community is concretely and physically gathered. As they eat from one loaf and drink from one cup, individual members of the community participate in Jesus himself, and so also in one another. Here, the whole dynamic life of the community is realised and expressed. Here, the community exists not merely as an assembled group of individuals, but as a single, coherent event of joyful fellowship.

Jesus himself had announced that God’s kingdom would be a great banquet, a meal of celebration at the end of history. And in each eucharistic meal, the community anticipates this final banquet, this ultimate celebration that awaits all creation as its goal and destiny. In the meal of the community, then, the world receives an anticipatory glimpse of the true meaning and context of all reality – a glimpse of the kingdom of God!

At particular times and in particular places, the community thus gathers together around the risen Jesus, celebrating his death and resurrection with thanksgiving. Wherever a particular congregation assembles in this way, the community as a whole is present. Particular congregations are not merely isolated parts of the whole community – rather, each congregation is itself the whole community gathering around Jesus through the Spirit in a particular location.

The Spirit who gathers the community is, of course, the same Spirit who is at work in all creation. And just as the Spirit brings forth difference and diversity in the created world, so too in the community the Spirit brings forth life in tremendous plurality and diversity. Such diversity is perhaps the most striking characteristic of the Christian community. And this should not be viewed as a threat to the community’s life or unity – rather, the unified life of the community consists precisely in its harmonious coherence-in-plurality, just as the unity God himself is a tri-unity, a unified plurality. The community is unified in its irreducible diversity and multiplicity. The Spirit makes the community one – not by eliminating differences and imposing uniformity, but by accentuating these differences even more sharply, in order to bring the community’s plurality together in joyful harmony, just as the different voices in a choir are gathered up into one harmonious sound.

The unity of the Christian community is thus the Spirit himself, the Spirit of life who indwells the whole community and each individual member as they gather around the one risen Lord. It is the unique power of the Spirit to be able to indwell all individuals without for a moment undermining any of their particularities or differences – indeed, it is through the indwelling of the Spirit that each person’s individuality is most fully realised.

Further, the Spirit is at work in the community as the giver of gifts. Each individual member of the community receives gifts from the Spirit, gifts which enable each member to serve the whole community and to carry out the community’s mission in the world. Such gifts are not merely natural abilities or talents. They are specific empowerments for self-giving service. Properly speaking, these gifts are not even distinct from the giver – for when the Spirit gives us his gifts, he is giving us himself as the life-giving power to love and to serve.

The gifts of the Spirit are the special characteristic of the entire life of the community within each particular congregation. The gifts are not reserved only for a special spiritual or clerical elite – all members of the community participate in these gifts, and the gifts themselves depend solely on the lordship of the risen and ascended Jesus, who freely distributes these gifts through the Spirit. Thus within the community, diverse forms of ministry and service all cohere together for the sake of the community’s single calling: to celebrate and communicate the reality of the risen Jesus, and thus to prepare all people everywhere for the coming of God’s kingdom.

The life of the community is expressed, then, in a rich plurality of gifts. And within each particular congregation, the Spirit gifts certain individual men or women with the ability to bring focus and harmony to the gifts of the whole community. Such persons are “ordained” by the community in correspondence to the Spirit’s gift. The role of the ordained person is not to exercise power or control over the community, but to exercise the humble service of hospitality – to ensure that all members of the congregation feel “at home” with themselves, with others, and with God. This hospitality means making room for each individual with his or her own distinct gifts. It means nurturing an environment of mutual giving and receiving, so that all members of the community can enjoy sharing their own gifts and benefiting from the gifts of others.

Above all, though, the role of the ordained person is to enact the hospitality of Jesus himself – by welcoming people into the community through baptism, by telling Jesus’ story as a story that includes each person, and by inviting all those who trust in Jesus to share in the eucharistic meal whenever the community is gathered. Through such hospitality, the ordained person also encourages all members of the community to engage in the mission of the risen Jesus: a mission of communicating the story of Jesus to the whole world, and of inviting all people everywhere to participate in the life of God’s coming kingdom.

Further reading

  • Anderson, Ray S. An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006).
  • Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Sanctorum Communio (London: Collins, 1963), pp. 115-204.
  • Congar, Yves. I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Vol. 2 (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1983), pp. 5-61.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 167-249.
  • Küng, Hans. The Church (London: Burns & Oates, 1967), pp. 150-241.
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. The Church in the Power of the Spirit (London: SCM, 1977), pp. 289-361.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Theology and the Kingdom of God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), pp. 72-101.
  • Zizioulas, John. Being as Communion (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985).

Thursday, 28 September 2006

Theology for beginners (16): Spirit

Summary: The Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, the third person of God’s triunity, is also the Spirit of the Christian community, gathering us together around the risen Lord and propelling us towards the future of God’s kingdom.

We have seen that Jesus is our salvation. The death of Jesus is God’s descent to us, and the resurrection of Jesus is our human ascent to God. Our salvation thus comes from God alone. But God also communicates this salvation to us, right here and now in our contemporary lives. When we speak of this “communication” of salvation, we are speaking of God the Holy Spirit. As the Son of God ascends in his resurrection, so the Spirit of God descends to us from the Father and the Son.

The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead also opens our eyes – opens our very selves! – to the reality of Jesus’ risen life. Through the Spirit, we are thus awakened to faith in Jesus. Through the Spirit, we recognise the crucified Jesus as the risen and ascended Lord. Through the Spirit, we say “Yes” to Jesus from the depths of our hearts. Through the Spirit, we perceive the nearness of Jesus himself as the meaning and goal of our lives. To be more precise, the Spirit is the nearness – or rather the “hereness” – of Jesus. The crucified Jesus has been taken up into the life of the Spirit, and this same Spirit now moves and acts among us in the power of Jesus’ resurrected life.

The Spirit, then, is the power and reality of the risen Jesus right here and now in our midst. And as such, the Spirit is the power of God’s future, the power of resurrection, the life-giving power of the coming kingdom. Always and everywhere, the Spirit directs us towards the risen Jesus. Always and everywhere, the Spirit awakens us to the nearness of Jesus as the reality of our lives and our future. In this way, the Spirit demonstrates that he is in truth the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, and therefore the Spirit of God.

The work of the Spirit, then, is focused on the reality of the risen and ascended Jesus. The Spirit gathers us around the risen Lord. The Spirit draws us into community with Jesus, and so also into community with one another. Through the Spirit, we are united with Jesus, and we participate both collectively and individually in the life-giving power of his death and resurrection. In this way, the Spirit ushers us into the very life of the triune God, the life of God’s self-giving love. As the community of the risen Jesus, we are now animated by this life, ignited by this love, and we are set in motion towards the final completion that awaits us in the future.

The Spirit is thus the life which animates the community of the risen Jesus. The Spirit is the breath by which the community lives. The Spirit is the bond of loving fellowship between the community and the risen Lord himself. In all things the community therefore depends on the power of the Spirit.

But the Spirit’s power is not primarily a matter of ecstatic experiences or miraculous occurrences – rather, it is a transforming power, a power of new life and new creation. In a word, it is the power of resurrection: the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is now at work in us, transforming us and leading us towards the fullness of new life, the life of God’s coming kingdom. Indeed, through the Spirit the community is already placed under the kingly reign of God, so that the kingdom of God’s future makes its nearness felt even now in the world. And this is precisely the mission of the community: to allow God’s coming kingdom to make itself known in the world through the power of the Spirit.

Thus the work of the Spirit has a specific goal and direction. The Spirit does not merely edify or enrich the community. The Spirit directs the community, propelling it forwards into the life of God. By leading the community in this way, the Spirit also gives an anticipatory glimpse of the future towards which all created reality is heading. For the community is propelled forwards by that same Spirit who has always been at work in the created world. The same Spirit who gives life and breath to all things also animates the community with the life of the future – so that, in the community itself, there is an anticipation of the life that awaits the whole created world as its final destiny.

This also means that the work of the Spirit in the community and in the world will be completed only at the end of history, when all reality is gathered up at last into the life of the risen Jesus, the life of God’s kingdom. And this life which awaits the community and the world is none other than the Spirit himself. The Spirit is the life of the future. The Spirit is the power of resurrection and the animating breath of God’s coming kingdom. The Spirit is the life into which the crucified Jesus has been raised as the “first fruits” of all creation.

Thus the Spirit approaches us from his own future, gathering us together and empowering us to move together towards the fullness of his own life-giving power – towards the life of God, the life of love, which has appeared in the risen Jesus.

Further reading

  • Bloesch, Donald G. The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), pp. 268-341.
  • Congar, Yves. I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Vol. 2 (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1983), pp. 5-35.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 146-61.
  • Küng, Hans. The Church (London: Burns & Oates, 1967), pp. 162-79.
  • Moule, C. F. D. The Holy Spirit (London: Mowbrays, 1978).
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 1-20, 129-35.
  • Rogers, Eugene F. After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources outside the Modern West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).
  • Taylor, John V. The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and Christian Mission (London: SCM, 1972).

Wednesday, 27 September 2006

Things I've noticed

At the new Swansea University Chaplaincy website, Richard Hall has kindly reproduced my “theology for beginners” series.

Meanwhile, AKMA has an excellent post on Barth and Bultmann, Joshua discusses Barth’s theology of resurrection, and WTM posts some great quotes on the question, What is systematic theology?

Douglas Knight has been writing some superb posts on ecclesiology and catholicity, and Byron continues his excellent series proving that heaven “is not the end of the world” – a much-needed response to the disastrous idea that salvation is about “going to heaven when you die”!

And, speaking of heaven, various blogs have been discussing Kim’s latest post about hell – see for instance here, here, here and here.

Tuesday, 26 September 2006

David F. Ford on the eucharist

In the eucharist, “the realm of the ordinary has been taken up and involved in the most momentous events without rejection, contrast or competition between the two. There is no middle ground needed, no mediating of the ordinary to the extraordinary. The God who is implied by the blessing of these elements is at home with matter and its routine usage as well as with the climactic drama of Jesus’ life. This integrates the sphere of the ordinary with the historically significant.”

—David F. Ford, Self and Salvation: Being Transformed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 150.

Monday, 25 September 2006

Ten propositions on hell

by Kim Fabricius (first posted at Connexions)

1. What is hell? Hell cannot be known in and of itself. As a negative to a positive, hell can only be known as the antithesis of heaven. Heaven is life with God, hell is existence without God.

2. Or, again – because God is love – hell is lovelessness. At its centre, hell is not hot; hell (as Dante saw) is cold, ice-cold. Or if, with most of Christian tradition, hell be aflame, “Yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible” (Milton, Paradise Lost, 1.62-63).

3. The opposite of love is not so much hatred as fear. The wilted tree of hatred has terror for its roots. Hell is the war of terror.

4. And hell is despair, utter despair. Dante again: “Abandon hope, all you who enter here.”

5. And hell is power, absolute power – potestas absoluta. “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these things I will give you…’” (Matthew 4:8-9).

6. Heaven is communion, hell is isolation. Sartre was wrong: hell is not other people, hell is me, myself and I. Milton’s Satan: “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (Paradise Lost, 4.75).

7. But more: “I can speak of hell only in relation to myself, precisely because I can never imagine the possible damnation of another as more likely that my own” (Hans Urs von Balthasar). Of one thing we can be sure about anyone who knows the population of hell: he himself will be in the census.

8. Hell is not about what God does, hell is about what we do, about the horrendous evils humans commit. We trivialise these evils and betray the world’s victims if we deny the reality of hell.

9. Yet hell is not a datum of faith in the creeds. “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” (Apostles’ Creed). “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (Nicene Creed). We do not believe in hell.

10. Therefore while hell is real, we may pray and hope that hell will finally be empty. “This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ.” Thus the church will not preach hell – “the gospel at gunpoint” – “it will preach the overwhelming power of grace and the weakness of human wickedness in face of it” (Karl Barth). “For the Lord will not reject for ever” (Lamentations 3:31).

Saturday, 23 September 2006

Propositions by Kim Fabricius

Kim is a minister at Bethel United Reformed Church in Swansea, Wales, and he’s United Reformed chaplain to Swansea University. He was born in New York in 1948, and, after spending most of the 70s wasting his youth (which he reckons is better than having done nothing with it), he was blasted into faith reading Karl Barth’s Commentary on Romans. This led him pretty directly into ministry, which Kim describes as “that wonderful vocation provided by the good Lord for displaced Christian intellectuals who are useless at proper work.”

He studied English literature at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and then took an MA (Theology) at Oxford University in 1981. He’s married to Angie, and they have two kids in their late twenties, Karl and Katie.

Kim’s favourite theologians are Barth, Bonhoeffer, Yoder, Hauerwas, John Webster, and Rowan Williams; and his interests include running, baseball, rugby union, cappuccino, baseball, Indian food, cats, and baseball. He often contributes posts to Faith & Theology, including the ever-popular “ten propositions” series, listed below:

Ten Propositions on the Trinity
Ten Propositions on Prayer
Ten Propositions on Preaching
9.5 Theses on Listening to Preaching
Ten Propositions on Penal Substitution

Ten Propositions on Hell
Ten Propositions on Peace and War (with a postscript)
Ten Propositions on Karl Barth: Theologian
Ten Propositions on Being Human
Ten Thoughts on the Literal and the Literary
Ten Propositions on Worship
Twelve Propositions on Same-Sex Relationships and the Church
Ten Propositions on the Divine Perfections
Ten Propositions on Self-Love and Related BS
Ten Propositions on Theodicy
Ten Propositions on Ecumenism
Ten Propositions on the Holy Spirit
Ten Propositions on Sin
Ten Propositions on the Resurrection
Ten Propositions on Being a Theologian
Ten Propositions on Political Theology
Ten Propositions on Freedom
Ten Propositions on Being a Minister

Friday, 22 September 2006

Theology for beginners (15): Ascent

Summary: God’s deity in Jesus is the event of salvation, in which our humanness is raised up into fellowship with God.

We have seen that, in the death of Jesus, God’s deity descends to us as our salvation. But that is not the end of the story. For the man Jesus is raised up by God. And in this raising, in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we too are raised into fellowship with God.

Our salvation, then, consists both in this descent and this ascent – in the humiliation of God and the exaltation of our humanity. Both these events take place in the history of Jesus – or rather, Jesus is this twofold event of divine humiliation and human exaltation. This event, this movement in which God is lowered and we are lifted – this is our salvation.

The dead man Jesus is raised into fellowship with God. His human life is transformed and translated into the new life of God’s future. Just as Jesus has dedicated himself wholly to the will of God, so now God expresses his unqualified acceptance of Jesus. Jesus becomes the first fully human person – the first human being to arrive at the true goal of created humanity. In his resurrection from the dead, Jesus is lifted into the future, into the final goal that has awaited creation right from the beginning. Above all, this means that the man Jesus is raised into perfect fellowship with God. He is gathered up into the life of God’s coming kingdom – the kingdom for which we humans were created.

In all this, the man Jesus stands in our place. Just as God had descended into the depths to take our place, so too this particular human being is lifted into fellowship with God on our behalf and in union with us. In the raising of Jesus, we too are raised. The exaltation of Jesus is the exaltation of our humanity: along with the crucified Jesus, we are lifted from our darkness and are led towards the future life of God’s kingdom. This is our salvation.

Salvation means wholeness. It means that my entire life is held together as a unified whole. It means perfect harmony and completion. And this is exactly what takes place in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. My own humanness – so fragile and fragmented and scarred – is now completed and made whole.

Beforehand, my life was like a story with no conclusion – there was no proper end that could bring unity and wholeness to my life. But the man Jesus is raised into the life of the future, so that he himself appears as the true goal of my life-story. And so now, in him, my life-story is completed and unified at last. The fragments are picked up and pieced together – and, like a stained glass window, even the fragmentation of my life now contributes to the beauty of the whole. My life is transformed by the risen man Jesus into a new life, a life that is whole and complete for the first time – a life whose wholeness lies solely in the risen Jesus himself!

This, then, is the event of salvation. In the death of Jesus, God descends to us and meets us as the God who is our friend – and in the resurrection of Jesus, our humanness is lifted into the healing life of God’s future, so that we are completed and made whole.

This is our salvation: God descends to us, and we are raised up to God! God becomes like us, so that we can become like him! And these two movements of descent and ascent are simply two aspects of exactly the same event: the event of God’s deity in the humanity of Jesus. That is our salvation: “Immanuel,” God with us, now and forever, in the crucified and risen Jesus!

Further reading

  • Balthasar, Hans Urs von. The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 7 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), pp. 239-317.
  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics IV/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1958).
  • Bauckham, Richard. God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), pp. 56-69.
  • Berkhof, Hendrikus. Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), pp. 307-319.
  • Kasper, Walter. Jesus the Christ (London: Burns & Oates, 1976), pp. 197-225.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), pp. 365-97.
  • Torrance, T. F. The Mediation of Christ (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992).

New things

I’ve been tinkering around with the sidebar, and have added a number of new features (and I’ve finally updated the links to conferences). You’ll also notice a form at the bottom of the sidebar that allows you to have Faith & Theology delivered directly via email.

Thursday, 21 September 2006

Theology for beginners (14): Descent

Summary: God’s deity in Jesus is the event of salvation, in which God descends into the depths of our existence in order to make us his friends.

Jesus is our salvation: that is the whole message of the gospel. But what does this mean?

In the first place, Jesus does not merely bring salvation – rather, he himself is the event of salvation. Salvation is the reconciliation between God and humanity. It is the event in which God and humanity come together in perfect fellowship. While we had been estranged from God, we now become his friends once more. While we had been bent away from God – like nocturnal animals that cringe from the light – we are now healed and restored, so that we can delight in God’s nearness and God’s friendship.

All this becomes a reality in Jesus. For Jesus is, as we have seen, both the “true human” and “true God.” He is himself the union between God and humanity. He is himself the reconciliation between the estranged creatures and their creator. He is himself the healing of the relationship between God and humans.

In short, Jesus is the event of salvation. Salvation happens in him, once and for all. And this event of salvation is precisely the event of God’s deity. God’s deity is an event of healing and reconciling love. God’s deity is an event in which we humans are gathered together into fellowship with God.

This means, then, that God’s deity descends to us in Jesus. God goes out of himself towards us. God has decided not to be without us, but to be with us and for us. God has decided that his deity will travel the path of our lowly human existence. God has decided that his deity will be carried out and expressed in this human way.

Thus, in Jesus, God humbles himself in the most astonishing way. God lowers himself to the level of his creatures – to the level of estranged human beings! God is not self-serving, he does not merely draw all things into himself, but he moves out of himself in an act of incomparable self-emptying. God empties himself into the most abject depths of our human existence, into the depths of our sadness and alienation. Just as someone might pour a cup of water out on the ground, so God pours himself out into our humanness. He willingly degrades himself, descending to the lowest depths of our existence. God becomes all that we are, so that all our suffering and estrangement and alienation are taken into his own heart.

Thus God descends to us to become our “substitute,” the one who takes our place. This substitution is not something external to God, like a sacrifice or a financial transaction. Rather, this substitution takes place within God’s own deity: for our benefit, God becomes all that we are. We were subject to darkness and rejection – but now God enters our darkness and becomes the rejected one. We were broken and fragmented – but now God allows himself to be shattered, like a fragile piece of pottery thrown against a wall. We were wounded and lost – but now God becomes wounded for us, God loses himself in the bewildering darkness of our despair. God takes our place. God steps into our world and identifies himself with our plight. God is our substitute. God’s deity is an event of deepest solidarity with us humans.

In other words, God’s deity saves us by becoming what we are. God in the depths! – that is the meaning of the humble life, obedience and death of Jesus. God in our place! – that is the meaning of Jesus’ rejection and abandonment on the cross. God for us! – that is the meaning of the whole story of Jesus, a story that finds its bitter climax in a death of darkness and brokenness and humiliation.

This means that we humans – all of us – have been reconciled to God. God has taken our place in order to make things right. God has become what we are in order to heal and restore us. The event of God’s deity in Jesus is an event of forgiveness and reconciliation.

God meets us face to face in our deepest darkness – and in this meeting, we discover that all is forgiven, everything is dealt with, no obstacle remains that could ever separate us from fellowship with God. God draws near to us in order to draw us near to him. God identifies himself with us in our estrangement in order to forgive us and to make us his friends.

This is the path of God’s deity – a path of lowly humiliation and degradation, all for our benefit, all so that we can be friends with God. In Jesus, God’s descent is our salvation. In Jesus, God is truly “Immanuel”: God with us!

Further reading

  • Balthasar, Hans Urs von. The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 7 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), pp. 202-35.
  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics IV/1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956).
  • Bauckham, Richard. God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), pp. 56-69.
  • Brunner, Emil. The Mediator (London: Lutterworth, 1934), pp. 285-315.
  • Frei, Hans W. The Identity of Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), pp. 102-115.
  • Kasper, Walter. Jesus the Christ (London: Burns & Oates, 1976), pp. 163-92.
  • Torrance, T. F. The Mediation of Christ (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992).

Wednesday, 20 September 2006

Jesus as God and human

“God’s identification with Jesus can only be understood in the tension of Jesus’ death and resurrection and thus in the tension between Jesus Christ’s Easter exaltation and his earthly humiliation. Only this historical tension in the being of Jesus Christ constitutes the unity of his being as true God and true human.”

—Eberhard Jüngel, “Thesen zur Grundlegung der Christologie,” in Unterwegs zur Sache: Theologische Bemerkungen (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1988), p. 278.

My desk

Thanks to a very generous gift on the weekend, I now own a digital camera at last! So here’s a photo of my desk:

God's advent

Advent Calendar
by Rowan Williams

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like the frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Theology for beginners (13): Deity

Summary: Through his resurrection from the dead, the whole course of Jesus’ human life is the event of God’s deity.

At the centre of the gospel story is the claim that God has acted in the man Jesus. In other words, the whole gospel depends on the fact that both God and humanity are present in Jesus – as one of the Christian creeds puts it, Jesus is both “true God” and a “true human.” What does this mean?

We have seen already that the word “God” does not describe some sort of divine substance or entity. God is an event. God happens. So when we say that God is present in Jesus, we’re not saying that a divine “substance” has somehow been joined to Jesus’ human body, or that Jesus is a “God-man,” a unique blend of divinity and humanity. Rather, we’re saying that God has happened in the human history of Jesus. The story of Jesus’ humanity is the story of God’s deity. Through his total dedication to the Father’s will, Jesus reveals God’s deity in a unique and unrepeatable way – and therefore God’s deity appears and takes place in Jesus.

From one perspective, Jesus’ life as whole is a human life; and from another perspective, this same human life is also the life of God. Jesus is not partially human and partially divine. He is not human in some respects and divine in other respects. No, his existence as a whole is both the existence of one particular human being and the event of God’s deity.

This means that we cannot think of “deity” as something that is incompatible with “humanity.” Precisely in his humanness, Jesus reveals God’s deity. For example, when Jesus eats and drinks with social outcasts, he is doing something human – but in exactly the same act, God’s deity is also taking place. When Jesus heals people through the power of the Spirit, he is acting as God’s human servant – but in the same act, God’s deity is unfolding.

In other words, there is no competition between deity and humanity. Deity and humanity do not remain apart, each repelling the other like a pair of magnets. Deity and humanity are not incompatible opposites, like darkness and light. In the story of Jesus, we see that deity and humanity belong together! The humanness of Jesus is at the same time the deity of God! In Jesus, deity and humanity are not separated, but they are both events that unfold in the totality of Jesus’ existence. The whole meaning of Jesus’ life is that he is human – the whole meaning of his life is that he is God! These are two different ways of describing the one set of phenomena – they are two different ways of saying who Jesus is.

To put it another way, in the single life-history of Jesus, two distinct events take place: the event of authentic humanness, and the event of God’s deity. In every particular aspect of Jesus’ existence, both these events are unfolding. There is no switching back and forth between deity and humanity – as though Jesus sometimes acted in his capacity as God and sometimes in his capacity as a human. Since Jesus is the man wholly dedicated to God, in all that he does he reveals true humanness and true deity. In all that he does, deity happens and humanity happens.

Moreover, the fact that God’s deity is an event in Jesus means that God’s deity is a process which unfolds in time. God’s deity is not something which Jesus “possesses” right from the start of his life. It is a process that unfolds throughout the whole course of his existence. God’s deity is revealed in the whole of Jesus’ history.

But it will not do merely to say that God’s deity begins with the birth of Jesus and continues until his death and resurrection. In fact, it is exactly the other way round. As we have seen repeatedly, the “place” of God’s deity is the future. God does not live, like us, by moving from the past towards the future – God moves from the future towards the present. God comes from the future. And just so, God’s deity happens first and foremost at the end of Jesus’ history – in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!

The resurrection is the decisive moment in which God’s deity happens in Jesus. This is the event of God’s deity! And from this event, God’s deity (so to speak) “moves backwards” throughout the whole course of Jesus’ life. Thus every aspect of Jesus’ life becomes part of the event of God’s deity. His death on the cross, his message of the kingdom, his miracles and forgiving love, yes, even his birth – through the resurrection, all this now becomes the living movement of God’s deity. The whole course of Jesus’ existence, from the end to the beginning, is the single and unrepeatable event of God’s deity.

Because Jesus was raised from the dead, he is both “true human” and “true God”! Because he was raised from the dead, he is – and always has been! – one with God. Because he was raised from the dead, he is therefore the only way of salvation, the only way to God.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. The Humanity of God (London: Collins, 1961), pp. 37-65.
  • Brunner, Emil. The Mediator (London: Lutterworth, 1934), pp. 201-48.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 125-45.
  • Jüngel, Eberhard. God as the Mystery of the World (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1983), pp. 343-68.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus – God and Man (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), pp. 127-58, 334-64.
  • Rahner, Karl. Theological Investigations, Vol. 1 (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1961), pp. 154-85.
  • Schillebeeckx, Edward. Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (London: Sheed & Ward, 1963), pp. 7-45.
  • Tanner, Kathryn. Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2001), pp. 1-52.

Shadows of divine things

Our friend Todd Vick is back – so be sure to check out his blog, Shadows of Divine Things.

Monday, 18 September 2006

Tradition and creativity: Is Bob Dylan a plagiarist?

As Richard points out, some people have suggested that Bob Dylan plagiarises material on his new album, Modern Times.

Dylan’s last two albums, “Love and Theft” (2001) and Modern Times (2006), have been characterised by extensive quotations from various blues and folk traditions. It’s clear that Dylan has been doing this very self-consciously, not as a plagiarist but as a master of these traditions – indeed, it’s no accident that even the titles of both these albums are quotes! And although this technique has become more prominent recently, Dylan has always been interested in appropriating and reinvigorating earlier musical traditions (even nursery rhymes!).

The interesting thing, then, is to identify the sources which Dylan draws on, and to examine the creative ways in which he transforms this material and makes it distinctively “Dylanesque.” A valuable resource is this superb website, which provides annotated lyrics to Dylan’s albums – the annotations point out numerous quotations from old folk, blues and gospel songs.

Anyway, one wonders whether people who make allegations about Dylan and “plagiarism” have understood anything at all about the nature of artistic creativity. Perhaps they think that artistic creativity is a creation ex nihilo? On the contrary, creative geniuses are those who absorb and master their traditions, and then move those traditions forwards in surprising new ways. Just think of a composer like Mozart, a painter like Picasso, a poet like Milton, a theologian like Barth.

Suggestions that Bob Dylan is a plagiarist, then, are simply ridiculous – just as it would be ridiculous to accuse Milton of plagiarising Homer and the Bible, or Mozart of plagiarising Haydn and J. C. Bach, or Barth of plagiarising Calvin and Schleiermacher.

People (including theologians!) who want to create something new without first immersing themselves in tradition will generally find that they have only “created” something trite and banal. Creative geniuses, on the other hand, not only absorb their traditions but also commandeer them, so that tradition itself now moves forwards with new power and vitality.

Jaroslav Pelikan

A tribute to one of one of the twentieth century’s greatest theological scholars – Jaroslav Pelikan: delighted by doctrine.

Sunday, 17 September 2006

Mister God ain't like us

“Mister God ain’t like us; we are a little bit like Mister God, but not much yet…. You see, Fynn, Mister God is different from us because he can finish things and we can’t. I can’t finish loving you because I shall be dead millions of years before I can finish, but Mister God can finish loving you, and so it’s not the same kind of love, is it?”

—Fynn, Mister God, This Is Anna (London: Collins, 1974), pp. 41-42.

Saturday, 16 September 2006

On heresy

At the group-blog God as the Mystery of Theology I’ve posted some theses by Eberhard Jüngel on heresy and superstition. Here’s an example:

“A mere recitation of confessions of Jesus Christ does not preserve theology from becoming heretical, but makes it all the more heretical. The mere recitation of confessions is christological superstition.”

Friday, 15 September 2006

Faith, reason and the university: Benedict XVI

As noted on Insight Scoop, this week Pope Benedict XVI gave an address at the University of Regensburg entitled “Faith, Reason and the University.”

It’s an excellent address that deserves attentive reading. After offering a critique of the rise of modern reason, the Holy Father says:

“The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all grateful for the marvellous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us. The scientific ethos, moreover, is the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which reflects one of the basic tenets of Christianity.

“The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons. In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith.”

Thursday, 14 September 2006

Karl Barth Prize: Meehyun Chung

Meehyun Chung, a Korean theologian and pastor, has become the first woman to win the prestigious Karl Barth Prize. Established by the German Evangelical Church in 1986, the Prize (including 10,000 Euro) is normally awarded every two years.

Meehyun Chung did her doctorate in Basel on the relationship between Barth and Korean theology, and her dissertation was later published as Karl Barth, Josef Lukl Hromádka, Korea (Berlin: Alektor-Verlag, 1995). An ordained Presbyterian minister, she now works for Mission 21 in Basel, as head of the Women and Gender Project. This Project aims to improve the position of women in the church and to increase awareness of gender equality.

Other recipients of the Karl Barth Prize have included Eberhard Jüngel (1988), Hans Küng (1992), Karl Cardinal Lehmann (1994), Bruce McCormack (1998), John de Gruchy (2000), Kurt Marti (2002), and Johannes Rau (2005).

Wednesday, 13 September 2006

Is the reformation over? Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom

Thanks to Baker for sending me a review copy of the recent book by Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom: Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 272 pp.

This is a fascinating historical and theological report on the developing ecumenical relationship between evangelicals and Roman Catholics in North America. Although the book doesn’t aim to provide a sustained theological analysis, it offers a wealth of valuable information about this important aspect of American church history, and it situates recent ecumenical developments within the broader contexts of North American social and political history.

The book’s theological analysis centres on Chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 reports on the various evangelical-Catholic dialogues that have taken place since the 1960s—dialogues which have fostered not only theological understanding, but also attitudes of personal respect and affection, thus helping to displace the polemical attitudes that have been so deeply ingrained in North American Protestantism (although, alas, “in the world of ordinary, unlearned evangelicals, atavistic anti-Catholicism remains as colourful ... as ever” [p. 187]).

In Chapter 5 the authors analyse the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church. They praise its devoutness, clarity and theological content, and they highlight remaining areas of contention between evangelical theology and the teaching of the Catechism. On the basis of the Catechism, they rightly conclude that “ecclesiology represents the crucial difference between evangelicals and Catholics”—and they point out that evangelicals will never understand Catholic teaching without first grasping the Catholic doctrine of the church (pp. 146-47).

At the end of the book, the authors illustrate evangelical-Catholic differences by comparing the major Christian traditions to different languages (pp. 245-49). “Like languages, the Christian traditions are handed down unselfconsciously from generation to generation as complete systems of belief and practice.” Since Vatican II, the Catholic and evangelical languages have moved much closer towards each other, but they still remain different languages, “different ways of approaching, internalising, articulating, and expressing the Christian faith.” These systematic differences are “both a problem and a gift”—a problem for communication and understanding, but a gift that opens our eyes to the God who transcends the limits and boundaries of our own particular church structures.

And anyway, ask the authors, will not differences in language continue also in heaven, albeit with mutual understanding? For the time being, though, let us be content to be “like ents and hobbits” (p. 251)—“not yet speaking the same language and certainly misunderstanding much that the other says, but nonetheless communicating quite well and actually learning from the apparent idiosyncrasies of the other tongue.”

Tuesday, 12 September 2006

Theology for beginners

Here are the links to the series:

Faith
1. Faith
2. Theology
3. Gospel

Gospel
4. Israel
5. Jesus
6. Crucifixion
7. Resurrection

God
8. Triunity
9. Election

Creation
10. Creation
11. Creatures
12. Humans

Salvation
13. Deity
14. Descent
15. Ascent

Community
16. Spirit
17. Church
18. Freedom
19. Forgiveness
20. Mission

End
21. Completion
22. Glorification

Monday, 11 September 2006

The terror of 9/11: God on the scene

“[God] knows the Nothingness. He knows that which he did not elect or will as the creator. He know Chaos and its terror. He knows its advantage over his creature. He knows how inevitably it imperils his creature. Yet he is Lord over that which imperils his creature. Against him, the Nothingness has no power of its own. And he has sworn faithfulness to his threatened creature. In creating it he has covenanted himself with it in solidarity.... He would rather let himself be injured and humiliated in making the assault and repulse of Nothingness his own concern than leave his creature alone in this affliction. He deploys all his glory in the work of his deepest condescension. He intervenes in the struggle between Nothingness and the creature as if he were not God but himself a weak and threatened and vulnerable creature…. This is how God himself comes on the scene.”

—Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3, p. 358 (KD III/3, pp. 413-14).

Sunday, 10 September 2006

Lord, behold a wretched sinner

A hymn by Kim Fabricius

(Tune: Quem pastores laudavere)

Lord, behold a wretched sinner,
from the outer to the inner;
at repentance, rank beginner:
   day and night my conscience cries.

Where begin? My faults keep mounting;
when I start I can’t stop counting;
huge the sum, but Christ’s accounting
   crosses out and nullifies.

Good I would but can’t achieve it,
bad I hate but can’t relieve it.
God for us? I can’t believe it:
   me the apple of his eye!

God forgives before petition;
grace alone shows our condition;
truth demands our self-suspicion:
   like a snake the heart is sly.

While accusing scribes are hissing,
Christ portrays the Father kissing
cheek of child that he’s been missing:
   Love forgives and sanctifies!

Saturday, 9 September 2006

Species of doctoral students

A humorous column by Monica Dux in today’s Weekend Australian classifies several species of graduate students (called “postgrads” here in Australia). Here are some of the species:

The Departmental Darling: “ … given unspoken patronage by the department due to family or old school connections.”

The Phantom Postgrad: “… supposedly enrolled in a postgraduate course, but … you start to doubt if they really do exist.”

The Gifted One: “… universally hated by their fellow postgrads.”

The Show Pony: “… their greatest skill is the ability always to present their exploits in a positive light.”

The Interminable Scholar: “… their poignant cry of ‘I will be submitting my thesis next year’ has echoed through the university since time immemorial.”

Friday, 8 September 2006

Theology for beginners (12): Humans

Summary: As humans, we are priests of God’s creation: our role is to give thanks to God, to relate to one another through giving and receiving, and to care for all creatures. As humans we are also deeply flawed, but God directs us towards the life of the future in which our true humanness will be fulfilled.

When the Father sent the Son to become a creature, the Son did not become merely some sort of creature-in-general: he became human. And this tells us that, among all God’s creatures, there is something very special about human beings. What is this special “something”? What is it that makes us humans unique?

We have seen that creatureliness is a gift. All creatures receive their existence as a free gift from God. When a gift is given, the proper response is one of thanks. And among all that God has made, only one creature – the human – can give thanks. This, then, is the simplest way of describing the uniqueness of human beings: to be human is to give thanks. Only humans can verbalise their creatureliness. Only humans can bring their gratitude to verbal expression, so that the creator is thanked and praised for his generous grace.

Human beings are thus the priests of creation. On behalf of the whole created world, humans give thanks to God. On behalf of all other creatures, humans acknowledge God’s goodness in praise. On behalf of all creatures, humans speak the word “God” – a glad and cheerful word that expresses the meaning of all that exists. Humanity, we might say, is the voice of creation: only through human beings does the created world enter into conversation with its maker. In this way, humanity completes and fulfils the creation – this is the dignity which God has conferred on humanity! And so to fail to give thanks to God is to deny and contradict our own humanness.

Since human beings alone can enter into conversation with God, it is also true that humanity is God’s genuine partner. God creates human beings not merely as servants or slaves, but as friends. Within God’s own triune life, God is already an eternally rich conversation. But God freely decides to incorporate an other into this conversation. He creates humans in order to participate in this conversation – to be partners and friends who listen to God’s gracious voice and reply with a voice of gratitude. This is the astonishing dignity which God has conferred on humanity: to be God’s friends, to offer a creaturely reply to the triune voice of God’s life.

The meaning of our humanness, then, is our unique relationship to God the creator. But this unique relationship also has its own echo. For God not only creates us humans to relate to him – he also creates us to relate to each other. God creates humanity as male and female, as persons different from each other yet dependent on each other. Our existence, then, is one of mutual interdependence. As humans, we exist in so far as we relate to one another. And the fullest expression of this relatedness is the sexual union between different human beings – a union in which one gives oneself away to another in trust and dependence, and then receives oneself again from the other as a free gift. It is this union, above all, that expresses our humanness in a vivid echo of our relatedness to God the creator.

To seek complete isolation from other human beings, or to use and exploit others for our own purposes, would thus be to deny our humanness and to contradict our relationship to God. Our relationship to others is meant to be an embodied echo of our relationship to God: from God we receive everything, and then we give everything back to God in free gratitude.

Further still, God’s relationship to us is echoed in our unique relationship to the whole created world. Just as we act as priests of creation when we represent all creatures in our thanks to God, so too we are priests by representing God’s goodness to the whole created world. As humans, we are to be God’s caretakers or “gardeners” of creation. In this way, we are to express and represent God’s generous care for his creatures. To exploit or deface the created world is thus always a denial of God’s grace and an expression of our ingratitude. It is a denial of the most basic truth about ourselves – that we are creatures who have received everything from God.

This, then, is what it means to be human: we stand in a unique relationship to God, to one another, and to all creation. But by now we are starting to feeling a little uncomfortable: for all this only highlights the deep flaws in our humanness. How many of us have really fulfilled these unique relationships? How many of us can say that we are truly and fully human? Are we not, in fact, alienated from God, from each other, and from our creaturely environment? Do we not in fact fail to give thanks, fail to give and receive freely, fail to care for God’s world? With these questions, we have uncovered the deep contradiction, the dark riddle at the centre of our humanness: we are God’s creatures, but we live as though we were not God’s creatures; we are human, but we are not yet truly human.

This riddle brings us, however, to the most important aspect of what it means to be human: our humanness is not something that we already possess! We have not yet arrived at true humanness, but we are en route. To be human is to be directed, to have a goal. To be human is to have a future which summons us. Yes, we are wounded and flawed and even downright rebellious – but the God who gave us life now summons us forwards into the new life of his future, into a future in which our wounds will be healed, our flaws repaired, our rebellion transformed into gratitude.

And this future has in fact broken into history in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Jesus is and always has been the true human – the one in whom humanity is fulfilled and completed and healed. Jesus is and always has been the final goal of humanity – the destiny to which we are all directed. True humanness, then, is found in this particular man. The future that awaits us all is found in this man’s resurrected life. The man Jesus is raised into perfect fellowship with God. He is raised into the living conversation of God’s triunity. He is raised into participation in the life of God.

In the resurrection of Jesus, we have thus glimpsed the true meaning and goal of our humanness – and through the power of the Spirit, we are summoned towards this goal, summoned into the life of God’s future, where God and humanity, giver and receiver, are united at last in perfect fellowship.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1960).
  • Grenz, Stanley J. The Social God and the Relational Self (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 183-264.
  • Gunton, Colin. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), pp. 104-120.
  • Jenson, Robert W. On Thinking the Human (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. God in Creation (London: SCM, 1985), pp. 215-75.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Anthropology in Theological Perspective (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985).
  • Ratzinger, Joseph. In the Beginning… (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 42-58.
  • Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), pp. 33-54.

Thursday, 7 September 2006

Theology for beginners (11): Creatures

Summary: Through the life-giving Spirit, God’s creatures exist as a rich plurality of related beings; and the source, goal and meaning of all these creatures is grace.

What, then, does it mean to be a creature? First and foremost, the word “creature” describes a relationship between God and something other than God. To be a creature is to stand in relation to God. To be a creature is to be addressed and summoned by God. Further, all creatures exist not only in relation to God, but also in relation to each other. All created things thus exist in dependence on God and in mutual interdependence – so that to be a creature is to be related.

This creaturely relatedness takes place in a world of unimaginable plurality. The whole created world is characterised by diversity, plurality and difference. Since the universe exploded into being some 13.7 billion years ago, it has expanded and developed into ever more complex and diverse forms. Within the last 3.5 billion years, our own planet has become home to life in innumerable species and variations. Such plurality is an essential aspect of what it means to be a creature. And this plurality is the work of God’s Spirit which accompanies and indwells all creatures. The Spirit is God himself as life-giver – the Spirit accompanies the created world and brings forth life in ever greater complexity and plurality. The Spirit creates and nurtures life – or rather, the Spirit is life, the life of all creatures. This creative, energising Spirit is the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. And so, in giving life to creation, the Spirit is always the Spirit of the future, the one who prepares all creatures and summons them towards their goal of participation in the life of God’s future.

Thus through the power of the Spirit, the world that God makes is a world of irreducible difference. This difference echoes the dynamic triunity of God’s own life: God himself is rich in relations, and irreducible differences constitute the unity and harmony of God’s own life as Father, Son and Spirit. Through the Spirit, creatures therefore echo God’s own richness of difference – so that the plurality of the created world forms a symphony of praise to the life of its creator.

Further, the differences within the created world are physical differences. To be a creature is to be physically located in space-time in relation to other creatures. There is no deeper disembodied or “spiritual” plane on which the material world finds its true goodness or true reality. Rather, the world which God calls “very good” is precisely our physical space-time cosmos. The world’s sheer physicality is its goodness; the embodied existence of creatures is their true reality. God affirms the world that he creates – and, more than that, God himself enters into this world as a body, as a biological creature of flesh and blood. All attempts to escape or transcend the embodied physicality of creatureliness are thus denials of God the creator – the God who calls our world “very good.”

The created world, then, is a plurality of physical things which exist in relation to God and to one another. And this also means that creatureliness is a gift. A creature does not derive its existence from itself. Its existence is simply there. To recognise myself as a creature is to recognise my mysterious thereness – I simply find myself in the world, I find myself depending on God and on other creatures, I find that my life has been given to me as an undeserved gift.

Thus to be a creature is to exist as an expression of God’s generosity and grace. And such grace is not merely incidental: it is the very essence of creatureliness. At every moment, the created world exists by this grace. At every moment, it is grace that upholds the creation, preserving it and carrying it forwards. To be a creature is to be open to God’s grace. Grace is not foreign to creatures. It is not an alien interruption of the created world. Rather, nothing is more suitable to creatures than the grace of God – for creatures already have their being solely through the gift of grace.

Moreover, the life of God’s grace is the goal of all creatures. In the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, God’s future breaks into the world and reveals for the first time the final goal and meaning of creation. In the resurrection of Jesus, one of God’s creatures – one particular member of the human species – is raised by the Spirit into the life of the future. Jesus remains a real human, he remains a creature – but the life-giving Spirit transforms his creatureliness into a new creation, so that Jesus becomes the first new creature of God’s kingdom, the one who arrives at history’s goal ahead of time. Thus the risen Jesus lives from the future, as the goal of all history. His risen life is the “first fruits” of a renewed creation, and he thus summons all creatures towards their destiny.

It is here, then, in the risen Jesus, that all reality finds its goal! It is here that all creatures are gathered together in anticipation of a new creation – the new creation of God’s future kingdom! And thus it is here, in the resurrected life of Jesus, that the created world as a whole appears in its true light as a world of meaning and grace and destiny.

In the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, then, the beauty of the created world is finally seen – with startling clarity – as the beauty of the triune God who generously gathers all creation into his own life, into the life of the future.

Further reading

  • Hardy, Daniel W. God’s Way with the World (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), pp. 151-70.
  • Hart, David Bentley. The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 249-318.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 29-49.
  • de Lubac, Henri. The Mystery of the Supernatural (New York: Herder & Herder, 1967).
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. God in Creation (London: SCM, 1985), pp. 104-214.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 59-161.
  • Torrance. T. F. Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).

Wednesday, 6 September 2006

George Hunsinger

The excellent Barth scholar from Princeton, George Hunsinger, has increasingly been engaging in political activism in the States. A recent article offers a very hostile (and, in spite of itself, quite revealing) assessment of Hunsinger’s politics.

And, speaking of Hunsinger, Joshua alerts us to a paper Hunsinger will present in November, entitled “The Analogia Entis Makes a Comeback: David Bentley Hart.” Hart will be there to respond as well, so it should be a lively and fascinating discussion. If any of my lucky American friends happens to be there, I’d love to hear about the paper and about Hart’s response.

Tuesday, 5 September 2006

Theology for beginners (10): Creation

Summary: As an echo of the Son’s distinction from the Father, God creates the world for its own sake, and endows the world with meaning through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Within the eternal life of the triune God, the Father has sent the Son, and the Son has freely gone out from the Father. Within God’s triune life, the Son has thus distinguished himself from the Father. He has freely decided to be God in a human mode – that is, he has decided to be a creature. Thus before ever the world had existed, the Son had distinguished himself from the Father as a creature. Before the world existed, the Son had already existed not only within the triune fellowship, but also outside this fellowship as a genuine other. Already the Son had related to the Father not only as God in relation to God, but also as a creature in relation to God. Already God had existed not merely in isolation, but also alongside a creature which is different from himself.

In this way, the Son’s relationship to the Father is a relationship of both the greatest possible nearness and the greatest possible distance. In the Son’s free obedience to the Father, God himself has distinguished between God and not-God, between creator and creature. It is thus here, within the self-giving fellowship of God’s triunity, that creation has its source. And so in perfect freedom, God chooses to echo his own self-distinction by bringing the created world into being.

Because God has already affirmed creatureliness within his own triune life, God also declares the created world to be “very good.” The created world does not, therefore, simply exist as a stage or theatre upon which God will enact his own purposes. Rather, the creature truly exists for its own sake. Its existence is utterly unnecessary. Indeed, all creaturely reality is characterised by extravagance and surplus – we might almost say wastefulness. God does not create a machine or a mechanism that can simply carry out his purposes – no, he creates a universe overflowing in riches, extravagant in beauty and diversity.

And God truly loves this created world – not with the sober satisfaction of a watchmaker viewing his handiwork, but with the authentic love that rejoices in the other purely for its own sake. The world is not part of God; it is not necessary to God; it does not emanate naturally from God’s own life; and it is not a machine that God uses. The world exists for its own sake – it exists by grace! God creates the world out of sheer goodness, out of the freedom of his own love. And this love cannot be explained by recourse to any deeper reason: love is its own reason, it is grounded only in itself.

In just this way, the creation is an expression of that same love which is the life of God’s eternal triunity. In God’s own life, the Father sends the Son and the Son distinguishes himself from the Father. And the picture or analogy of this self-distinction is the world’s difference from God. The extravagance of the Father’s love for the Son is echoed in the extravagant beauty of creation – not merely in particular instances of beauty, but in the primal beauty of sheer thereness, the beauty of reality, the beauty of being. The world does not have to exist; God does not need it. But it does exist, it is real, it is there – and this is its true beauty; in this it echoes the Son’s loving self-distinction from the Father.

When God creates, then, he is painting a picture of that distinction which exists already within himself. And by doing so, he is making room for the Son’s obedience, creating a space within which the Son’s creatureliness can be carried out. In other words, although creation exists for its own sake, it also travels towards a specific goal – towards the history of Jesus.

This doesn’t mean that all created reality is somehow squeezed down and reduced to the history of Jesus – as though the entire cosmos should pass through the eye of a needle. Rather, it simply means that the story of Jesus provides all created reality with its final context. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead provides the conclusion to the story of created reality – and this conclusion throws its light back on everything else in time and space. In just this way, the space-time universe is seen at last for what it really is: the good creature of God.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. Dogmatics in Outline (London: SCM, 1949), pp. 50-58.
  • Hart, David Bentley. The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 249-318.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 3-28.
  • McGrath, Alister E. A Scientific Theology, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), pp. 135-91.
  • Mascall, E. L. He Who Is (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1943), pp. 95-112.
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. God in Creation (London: SCM, 1985), pp. 53-98.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 1-35, 136-46.
  • Ratzinger, Joseph. In the Beginning… (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).

Monday, 4 September 2006

The science of theology

“What decides whether theology is possible as a science is not whether theologians read sources, observe historical facts as such, and uncover the nature of historical relationships, but whether they can think dogmatically.”

—Karl Barth, praising Schleiermacher in Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1973), p. 431.

Sunday, 3 September 2006

A good sermon

This morning my wife and I attended a wonderfully vibrant Roman Catholic mass. We were on the edge of our seats as the ageing priest delivered a gripping sermon about human freedom and dignity in relation to medical ethics – one of the most authentically contemporary sermons I’ve ever heard.

Above all, I was struck by the preacher’s ecumenical perspective when he remarked that this emphasis on human dignity is “not simply an eccentric Catholic teaching, like the immaculate conception or the processions within the Trinity” (!), but it is simply an emphasis of Christian faith.

Saturday, 2 September 2006

Things I've noticed

At Sci-Fi Theology, Alex Thompson has some humorous insight into the difference between theologians and philosophers. Ben Fernström from Finland has written a nice fictional account of the progress of the famous book meme. Also in Finland, Patrik has now completed his impressive dogmatics for a shrinking universe. And from his inconceivably great island, Gaunilo discusses David Bentley Hart’s view of infinity.

Meanwhile, there’s some great discussion of the church and postmodernism at a new blog by James K. A. Smith and others, and there are two interesting new blogs, Disruptive Grace and Der evangelische Theologe, by Princeton Seminary students. In First Things, R. R. Reno voices his opinion about the best places for theological study in the United States. And Jim West notes that you can now download entire out-of-copyright books for free via Google Books.

On another note, you’ll see that there’s now a link to recommended reading in my sidebar – I’ll change this selection of books fairly regularly. And if you’re an Apple user, you’ll notice that my friend Amy has given this blog a nice new font, Hoefler Text. (Unfortunately this font is only free for Apples, so most Windows computers will continue to see the old font.)

Friday, 1 September 2006

Bob Dylan's Modern Times: some highlights from the lyrics

Best image
I’m as pale as a ghost holding a blossom on a stem.

Best chorus
Oh, I miss you Nettie Moore,
And my happiness is o’er,
Winter’s gone, the river’s on the rise.
I loved you then, and ever shall,
But there’s no one here left to tell;
The world has gone black before my eyes.

Most audacious rhyme

Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches,
I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages.

Best eschatological image
The judge is coming in, everybody rise:
Lift up your eyes.

Best image of forgiveness
In you, my friend, I see no blame,
If you want to look in my eyes, please do.

Funniest biblical allusion

If it keep on rainin’, the levee’s gonna break,
Everybody’s sayin’ this is a day only the Lord could make.

Funniest lines about women
I’m flat out spent, this woman she been drivin’ me to tears,
These women so crazy, I swear
I ain’t gonna touch another one for years.

Funniest lines about love

I’ve been sittin’ down studying the art of love,
I think it’ll fit me like a glove,
I want some real good woman to do just what I say.

Funniest lines about sex

Ain’t nothin’ more depressing
Than trying to satisfy this woman of mine.

Most peaceful lines

I’m trying to feed my soul with thought,
Gonna sleep off the rest of the day.
Sometimes no one wants what you got,
Sometimes you can’t give it away.

Best lines about faith
I practise a faith that’s been long abandoned,
Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road.

Best lines on unfaithfulness
Sometimes I wonder why you can’t treat me right
You do good all day, and then you do wrong all night.

Best lines about violence

Well, I don’t wanna brag, I wanna wring your neck:
When all else fails I’ll make it a matter of self-respect.

Best lines about a relationship

I got the pork chops, she got the pie,
She ain’t no angel, neither am I.

Best image of universities

Well the world of research has gone berserk:
Too much paperwork.

Best lines about life
I laugh and I cry, and I’m haunted by
Things I never meant or wished to say.

Best lines about ageing

I can see for myself that the sun is sinking –
How I wish you were here to see.

Best line about dying
But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.

Finally, my own favourite:
Well, I’m listening to the steel rails a-hum,
Got both eyes tight shut.

Note: See also my review of Modern Times here; and see this site for a full annotated set of the album’s lyrics.

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