The God of the Sinners not the Metaphysicians: Luther’s God is Concrete Love

I grew up a Christian, came to Christ as a very young child; it was real. By time I got out of high school I had become very lukewarm (not realizing I had, of course). The Lord, through some extremely difficult and prolonged circumstances got a hold of me and brought me to the point where I knew my reality was either going to have to be Him, or insanity. I chose life, not death. From that point on I came to habitually inhabit Holy Scripture; read through it non-stop, memorize it, meditate on it. Then I went to school and was formally trained in biblical studies and theology; I learned of philosophical, metaphysical, and grammatical approaches to think God—some of these ways having greater value than others, some having almost no value at all. But the Lord always kept me close to Him, and He did that through this sort of relational and experiential reading of His Word. No matter how prominent these other ways have attempted to rise up, and habituate me in their ways of thinking God, I have always come back to this personal-relational understanding of God; and as that comes through afresh and anew in encounter with His face in Jesus Christ as realized by meditation upon Scripture.

I am sure there are many people out there who have a vibrant relationship with Christ who are also enslaved to highly metaphysical ways for attempting to think God, but I typically fail to see the evidence of that. When they talk about God I don’t recognize the God they are talking about. When they work out the minutiae and ‘angels on a pinhead’ in relation to the inner-workings of God, I do not recognize that as a discussion of the God that I know. I didn’t commit myself to a God who is a math problem, a Gordian Knot, or a quantum algorithm; I committed myself to a God who has a face, and His name is, Jesus Christ! This might sound all so melodramatic to the metaphysicians, but I assure you: it is not! I do understand the theo-metaphysicians fear; that is, they might fear that the God I know might be sublated to my experiences, to our collective experiences—thus falling prey to the Schleiermacherean collapse to the subject, turning theology into anthropology. But I am not talking about that when I refer to experience. I am referring to the fact that I am a constant sinner, who also is now justified (the simul). The God I am referring to confronts humanity, by assuming our humanity, and invites us into a participatory relationship with Him through Christ. The God I am referring to desires fellowship with us, and He has made the way for that to happen through the sending of His sin into the ‘far country’ of our fallen humanity, and raising us up with Him in the new creation of His resurrected humanity. The God I am referring to is all about being in union with us, that we might be in union with Him; this is a personal God, who does what He does because in His inner life is triune and eternal love. This isn’t a God who is accessible to metaphysicians or philosophers; they might talk about some pure being or monad, but that has zero correlation with the God who calls us sons and daughters.

Mark Mattes, a Lutheran theologian, makes these points crystal clear as he describes some of these very themes in Martin Luther’s theology:

The doctrine of justification bears on how God’s goodness is to be understood. Unlike his contemporaries and forebears, Luther has no confidence in either metaphysics or mysticism to establish God’s goodness, in spite of the fact that both approaches influenced his theological development. Luther’s is a highly experiential theology—not that experience is a criterion for truth but that sinners can never detach emotionally when doing theology, and at some point in their lives all sinners will do theology.[1]


Luther was vitally concerned to address the question of God’s goodness. It bears on salvation. His point was that people do not need merely an incentive and an example to be good. They need in fact to be made good from the core of their being, their hearts. Counterintuitively, God does this by granting sinners his favor and promising them new, eternal life in Christ. As believers’ status with respect to God is changed, so is their identity. The law accuses old beings who seek to be their own gods for themselves and so control their lots and the lots of others to death. Humbled by the law, despairing of self, sinners can look to none other than Christ for salvation. In Christ they have a new identity and a new calling—to serve as Christ served in the world—and so to help especially those in need. The gospel promise unites believers with Christ, and Christ impels believers to serve their neighbors freely.

All this grounded in God’s own goodness. Outside of Christ, God is encountered as sheer power, a terror and threat to humans because such omnipotence jeopardizes sinners’ own quest for power, status, and authority. But Luther admonishes sinners not to neutralize this power by harmonizing it with some modicum of human power, such as establishing a free will. Instead, only God has a free will (though humans indeed make choices with respect to temporal matters). If we are to see the content or center of God and find him as good, then se must cling to the gospel alone. It establishes God as wholly love and goodness, indeed overflowing generosity, and serves as a basis from which to affirm life and explore mystery in the world. Goodness can no longer be established as a transcendental through metaphysics. Instead, goodness as a proper name for God and as a means by which every creature can participate in God is established only on the basis of how God acts in Christ, and that is to reconcile, redeem, and renew. Insofar as beauty is tied to goodness, it too will only be established through the gospel and not through metaphysics.[2]

We can see how Matte’s conception of Luther was to think God in purely concrete and relational terms; and this, because Luther was so beat down by his personal sense of sinfulness juxtaposed with a sense of God’s grandeur and holiness. When Luther had his break through of a solafidian, it transformed his whole understanding of just who this God is for him; indeed, he finally realized that God was for him in Christ, and not against him as the theo-metaphysicians had drowned him with. Luther was groomed in a theological world where the conception of God was one that took shape under the specter of Aristotle’s categories. Once he realized that Aristotle’s god was not commensurate with the God he encountered in the New Testament, Jesus Christ, he was able to chart out contra mundum. As Heiko Oberman called Luther, he was now a man between God and the devil. This is what happens when are able to push off the god of the mathematicians and metaphysicians; we are able to realize that God is purely interested in having an ongoing and personal fellowship with each and every one of us. You realize that you are free to press on for that upward call, and live a poured-out life for and from God, and thus for others. This is where the power of God is realized in the Christian’s life. This is why Luther began to be a ‘man between God and the devil,’ a theologian who had epic almost hand-to-hand combat with the devil himself.

This has been my experience too. As I dug into the Bible years and years ago now, I came to encounter this God of Luther’s. I have experienced heavy spiritual warfare, not typically when attempting to think God along with the metaphysicians, but when attempting to proclaim this God who desires to have fellowship with all who will. None of this is to say that God isn’t high and transcendent; it is just to say that to confuse what the metaphysicians are talking about with that doctrine is rubbish. God’s transcendence comes down for us, before it goes up. God’s life is independent and extra from ours, but He has freely chosen, as revealed in the incarnation, to not be God without us. So, for us, to think God’s transcendence we always must think it from who God has revealed Himself to be, not who we speculate Him to be from our own resources and powers. God resists the philosopher’s machinations, and is only and always known by the sinners.


[1] Mark C. Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 54.

[2] Ibid., 66-7. [emboldening mine]

The Determination of the Church’s Witness as the Ground of Theology for the Church and the World: A Reflection Prompted by Robert Jenson

Theology is as Barth would intone early on in his Göttingen Dogmatics, Deus dixit ‘God has spoken.’ In other words, theology, genuinely Christian theology cannot be done from a prethought framework that comes as a prius to God’s speaking to us first. If so, if this was indeed the Christian theological way then how could we ever determine whether or not we were actually hearing from God rather than men and women? This is an important point that I’m afraid much of the theological endeavor has failed to appreciate; not that it hasn’t appreciated it in principle, but I don’t think it has attended to this type of reception-from-God nature of theology that real Christian theology must attend to and be determined by. In other words, so much of the theological task through the centuries, the type that has been done in and from the church, I would contend, has been underdetermined by the church’s reality in Jesus Christ; and instead has focused too much on the mediatorial nature of the church; thus getting lost in its own self-referential and traditioned ways rather than actually doing theology in intentional terms such that the Lord of the Church is both the object and subject of the theologian’s grammar and articulation. Yes, the theologian, in the best of cases, speaks for and to the church, for her edification, but this can only be done as it works from and attempts to elucidate the good news it has received and continues to receive as it reflects upon the Word of God not only written but proclaimed ever afresh anew. Robert Jenson says it this way:

The characterization of theology as reflection internal to the attempt to speak gospel must therefore be amplified. We do not in any unmediated way have this gospel that we are to speak; we have it only as we receive it. To state the full case we must therefore say that theology is reflection internal to the act of tradition, to the turn from hearing something to speaking it. Theology is an act of interpretation: it begins with a received word and issues in a new word essentially related to the old word. Theology’s question is always: In that we have heard and seen such-and-such discourse as gospel, what shall we now say and do that gospel may again be spoken?[1]

We don’t presume that we could ever speak the Gospel, or think it out loud with all its effervescent realities in face outwith our location and situadedness within the church; it’s just that the church itself, depository as she is, has an instrumental function. The church is made up of a thousand voices, that only have gravitas and foundation as it repeats for each and successive period, in the lingua franca of her admirers, what gives her first and last orientation; an orientation that comes from, over and again the fact that God has spoken, and that he speaks. The church operates in such a way that she goes on mission, starting in Jerusalem and going as far as Samaria and Timbuktu; she seeks to bear witness to the Gospel reality, the always already determinate reality of the church, as she exegetes and translates the depth dimension of the Gospel as that is given as gracious gift through the womb of Mary.

As Jenson underscores, there is a continuity between the ‘old word’ and the ‘new word’; and I would want to suggest that this continuity is sustained because the old word and the new word are always and only circumscribed by the first and last Word of God, Jesus Christ. As the church seeks to speak the new word from the old word we have the freedom, because he who the Son has set free is free indeed, to imagine creative grammars that seek to ‘amplify’ the Word given in the broken body and shed blood of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. This is the gift the church has, as it seeks to do theology only after God has spoken, we have the gift of prophecy which is the spirit of Christ to speak the evangel in gracious ways wherein those we speak to will have manifest ways and endless tributaries to imagine a way from the Way that explicates what it means that Jesus is supreme; that all things have been reconciled by his shed blood, and given new life from his dead body born again as the firstborn from the dead.

Even as I am writing this post I can only really conclude that the process the church has been invited to, of being sanctified from glory to glory, as she seeks to get lost not in the substructures of the church, but instead in the effulgent reality of the Church’s Head and primary Voice, is a doxological act. The act of speaking the old words in new words from the Word is an inherently worshipful endeavor consisting of seeking Christ first, his righteousness and then all these other words will be given to us to speak in concert with the words already spoken before. We will, as genuine Christian theologians, continue to speak these words, upon their reception by the Spirit, not without the past words but with and from them as they have found their fresh and vivacious grammarizations from the plenitude of the first and last Word spoken in the eternal Logos, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. If the church collapses that voice into her own voice, conflates the two without distinction, we will no longer genuinely be bearing witness to the Church’s reality, but instead we will sadly only be found to be bearing witness to ourselves; there’s nothing truly doxological about that.

“What shall we now say and do that the gospel may be spoken?” We must attend deeply to the voice of God in Jesus Christ. Meditate on the rivulets the Gospel opens in the sanctuaries of our hearts and minds, and allow the Spirit to kindle anew and afresh the songs, hymns and spiritual songs that repose in and from the heart of God in Jesus Christ. As we participate in the interpenetration of God’s Triune life, from the anchor of our souls in Jesus Christ, we might come to know how we ought to respond to Jenson’s question.


[1] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology: Volume 1: The Triune God (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 14.

The Mystery of Godliness in Flesh: Engaging with K Sonderegger’s “Immutable-Mutability” in the Hypostatic Union

Katherine Sonderegger’s recently released (2015) Systematic Theology. Volume 1, The Doctrine of God is a theology text that is textured and dripping with doxological prose towards a God who you sense is truly holy as you work your way through it. She is someone I would say who writes in the same type of reverent style as John Webster did in his writings; with a kind of poetic and sacred flare.

jesusblackFor the rest of this post I wanted to share with you some of Sonderegger’s thinking on the immutability of God, or what she calls “Immutable mutability.” Here she has just been working through the Old Testament book of Numbers, and offers her thoughts on how God is both immutable and mutable (in a qualified way), using the themes of God’s stooping down to meet His covenant people where they are. She reifies the Torah revelation of God, the tabernacling God, by bringing Christ as the substance of that reality into the cultic picture offered by the salvation-history disclosed for us in Numbers. You will notice as you read this quote from her that she brings prayer or intercession into this discussion, just briefly, as she has previously been discussing that within the context of Numbers and God’s immutability. You will also notice that she refers to “omni” theology, i.e. God’s “all-knowingness,” and God’s “all-powerfulness,” so on and so forth. These are surely classical grammarisms for referring to the Christian God, but ones, that I think there might be better language for; at the very least, just as the language of immutability should be, I think so should the language of the “omnis” be qualified and conditioned from within a Christ concentrated frame of God’s Self-explication.

Furthermore, what you will also see in Sonderegger’s following quote is a reference to Barth. Sonderegger, ultimately, is not a fan of Barth’s Christ concentrated or principial approach for doing theology; indeed, as you read the whole of her Systematic Theology she makes that clear. That said, as is illustrated even here, she does make constructive appeal to Barth here and there (when she is not critiquing his Trinitarian approach to a doctrine of God). If you are familiar with Barth studies you will also see that she defers to a more Bruce McCormack reading of Barth wherein the Logos asarkos is essentially nullified. Of course as George Hunsinger and Paul Molnar are only too ready to argue, it is not the case that Barth has this allergy to the Logos asarkos lurking in his theology, or in particular, in his touchstone doctrine of election. Even so, Sonderegger, as you will see, works constructively with her reading of Barth and attempts to somewhat synthesize (that might be too strong of a word), constructively, her understanding of God’s “immutable-mutability” in the Incarnation with Barth’s concentration on the Logos ensarkos. These are technical things, in regard to Barth, that are indeed important, but for the purposes of this post, don’t let that deter you from being enriched from what Sonderegger offers here. As you read this your appetite might be whetted, as mine is, for her volume 2 which is focusing on Christology. What you will read is a rare flourish into some Christological thematic; for the most part in this volume 1 of hers she avoids much if any discussion of Christology (which that in and of itself should tell you volumes about how she differs from Barth — Barth wouldn’t even attempt to develop a doctrine of God without first starting with Jesus Christ — Sonderegger believes Barth is in serious error here, of course I disagree with her!). Here is Sonderegger:

In the mystery of the Incarnation, creaturely time is bent. It is taken up into the eternal, even as our flesh is taken up into Deity. What takes place under Caesar Augustus, in a shed in David’s city, takes place in another sense, yet altogether really, in the wilderness beyond the Jordan. Just this is what we mean when we say that time and eternity have met in Christ. Time and its order, its direction and impulse, are not destroyed—precisely not that! No, the movement from death to life, from exile to return, cannot be shaken: it is the Lord’s promise to His creatures. But our time is taken up into His, and in that way, receives as communicated, the Eternity that is God.

Our intercessions and commerce with the Lord God take place in that bent and hallowed time. The Mutability that is also the Lord’s Power is the Incarnation as it exists—“preexists”—in eternity. We want to be precise here. We do not purpose that the Divine Son is mutability within the Godhead, nor a “readiness” for Incarnation among the Triune Persons. No! This is a rather rarified form of Arianism, but Arianism, all the same. What we hear in the book of Numbers, rather, and aim to set out here, is the conviction that God’s very Nature, His own fiery Omnipotence, is “disposed” to Incarnation, the entire Godhead. Perfect Power is Humility in jus this sense. The fiery Dynamism that just is Omnipotence is Life, Movement, Energy. It eternally consists in and anticipates the Incarnation through its Divine Mutability. Just this is spiritual Nature. Though we must take up this task more directly in Divine Omniscience, even here we must say that the act of Incarnation is no novelty in God, no decision to be realized or adopted, no remedy. Rather this Mutability is the Divine Power in its dynamic Life. It is Eternal: immutable Mutability. This is what Barth means, I believe, when says that Christ makes us His contemporaries: we are drawn, as by the good Teacher, to His time, the eternal temporality. Perhaps this gives us another avenue into the perplexing doctrine of the Logos Ensarkos, beloved by Barth. Even as the apostle tells us that the Mind of Christ is exemplified and enacted by the lowering of Christ into the form of a slave, so the Humility of the Lord God is exemplified and enacted in His lowly readiness to hear, to bend down to His creatures in the dust, to have real commerce with those who are perishing. He will do this. It is not too little a thing for Him to take the form of a slave, to attend to us, to turn His Face toward us. That is His Goodness, His astonishing Humility. He asks, in that merciful exchange, What will you have me do for you? For just this reason the Incarnate Christ ask this very thing of the supplicants who come His way. He hears. He communicates His own Life to us in prayer, His own Vitality and Blessing. And as we cannot say, from our exiled home, east of Eden, just how the Eternal Word could become and live and die as one of us; just so we cannot say, as creatures of the earth, how the Eternal can assume our time, our days and years, into His Presence, so that we may speak and He may hear. But with the full realism that is the Incarnation, we may affirm, Yes, the Lord God, the omnipotent One, is mutable in just this way.[1]

What stands out to me most about this is the strong appeal to mystery that Sonderegger relies on in her constructive offering relative to how she tries to frame God’s “immutable-mutability” embodied by and within the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the singular person of Jesus Christ. This appeal to mystery, as J.N.D. Kelly reminds us is very patristic, and sounds somewhat like what Leo famously summarized in his Tome, which helped lead to the Chalcedonian settlement (we will have to explore how Leo brought all of this to summary in the next post).

I realize this has been somewhat of a fragmented post, but it is a blog post after all. Hopefully at the very least you’ve been given something to think about as a result of reading Sonderegger’s thoughts. Like I noted, I don’t fully endorse her approach, but her thinking on things is worth engaging with and being edified by at some level.


[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 297-99.

God’s Plight as Our Plight in Christ; Death Couldn’t Hold Him Down

I have read loads of theology books over the years, but I can’t ever recall being moved to tears as a result of reading them. That just changed as I’m finishing up Robert Dale Dawson’s book (published PhD dissertation) The Resurrection in Karl Barth. In the closing chapter he is offering up some critical constructive points in regard to Barth’s theology of resurrection and doctrine of christcrucifiedGod (prior to this, the whole of the book is affirmative of Barth in every way). Here, in the quote I am going to share from Dawson, he is offering a word of development relative to what he sees as somewhat of a lack in Barth’s relating of resurrection and Trinity. So that’s the context of the quote, but the quote really stands on its own, materially. The reality of what is being communicated is so deep, profound, and worship-inducing that indeed it actually did cause me to cry for a moment; because of the depth of love that God has for us. As you read this quote just reflect on what is being communicated, and allow it to cause worship. Dawson is reflecting on what has happened on the cross, and in the Triune life (as that implicates the being of God):

For what then is the Son appealing to the Father, except that the Father should restore him (and all who are gathered in him) to eternal life and fellowship with the Father? That is, he commends his Spirit into the hands of the Father in order that he may, by the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, be raised (that is, begotten as ever and always) into the being and perichoretic fellowship of the Trinity; that he may yet again and despite all assume his place as the Son of God bound eternally both to the Father and to humankind, the God-man who is alive and forevermore. This is not to say the Trinity has been dissolved in the death of the Son of God and remade in his resurrection, but that the Son of God has so bound himself to humankind that death’s threat against humanity must now also become a threat directly against the trinitarian being of God, a threat which can never be victorious for God simply lives in his freedom to exist as Trinity. The God-man has so bound himself to sinful men that he takes their plight, even their death and destruction, upon himself, such that their end is inextricably bound up with his. Yet it is the very nature of the being of God to will to be God not in isolation, not imprisoned in monadic aloneness, but in fellowship with himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because it is the will and essence of God to be God in this manner, death has no victory, for God precisely in this moment reaffirms his eternal trinitarian being, this time with human being bound to himself in the being of the second Person. The resurrection is the outward form of God’s reaffirmation of himself as trinitarian being. That is God so binds himself to humankind in Jesus Christ that the very trinitarian being of God is threatened, by virtue of the fact that the God-man, the Son of God and the Son of Man, goes into death. The Son of God surely dies, and humankind with him, but not without hope. Beacause it is the very nature of God to elect himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; that is, because God continues to elect himself as the Father who is the fount of the eternal begetting of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit, the threat of the dissolution of God as Trinity is utterly – in the grace and freedom of the Father – nullified. What is more, the thread of the dissolution of creation and humankind is also removed forevermore. In other words, God removes the thread of death against humanity by securing human being in his own trinitarian life, against which death has no avail.[1]

[1] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 222.

The Sina Qua Non of the Gospel, The Trinity

The Holy Trinity is the absolute ground and grammar of all epistemology, theology, and worship; so says our thesis one from chapter fifteen in our volume one Evangelical Calvinism book. Torrance beautifully illustrates this in what he writes below:

trinity-iconWhile the Lord Jesus Christ constitutes the pivotal centre of our knowledge of God, God’s distinctive self-revelation as Holy Trinity, One Being, Three Persons, creates the overall framework within which all Christian theology is to be formulated. Understandably, therefore, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity has been called the innermost heart of Christian faith and worship, the central dogma of classical theology, the fundamental grammar of our knowledge of God. It belongs to the Gospel of God’s saving and redeeming love in Jesus Christ who died for us and rose again and has given us the Holy Spirit who has shed the love of God abroad in our hearts. The doctrine of the Trinity enshrines the essentially Christian conception of God: it constitutes the ultimate evangelical expression of the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ who though he was rich for our sakes became poor that we through his poverty might become rich, of the Love of God who did not spare his own Son but delivered him up for us all, for it is in that personal sacrifice of the Father to which everything in the Gospel goes back, and of the Communion of the Holy Spirit through whom and in whom we are made to participate in the eternal Communion of the Father and the Son and are united with one another in the redeemed life of the people of God. Through Christ and in the Spirit God has communicated himself to us in such a wonderful way that we may really know him and have communion with in his inner life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.[1]

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons, 2.


Silence, Suffering, and Worship Coram Deo with Reference to Sonderegger

We ought to be silent before the LORD God! I have once again come to the so called ‘Minor Prophets’ or more Tanakhnic the ‘Book of the Twelve’ and have been reminded of a verse or two that simply has never left me from the time that I first read through these sections of Holy slaughteredlambWrit with attention over twenty years ago now (and continuously since then). The theme is silence before God, simply because he is God and alone inhabits his holy temple; the whole earth ought to be silent before him!

“But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.” Habakkuk 2.20

“Be silent in the presence of the Lord God; For the day of the Lord is at hand, For the Lord has prepared a sacrifice; He has invited His guests.” Zephaniah 1.7

I love this concept, and mandate! It conjures for me this idea that God is truly omnipotent (to use that ancient language), and that he is the One in control; not me, not my problems, and definitely not this earth or world system that ‘appears’ to structure it. God is God, and for that reason alone we ought to sit with our hand over our mouth in prone prostration (if not physically all the time, at least attitudinally). This idea of God’s immensity, to the point that I am left speechless, brings health to my broken and aching bones; it lets me know that I am not reliant on politicians, teachers, doctors (of any kind), et al. to order my life aright. I am contingent and fully dependent upon the One who outsources any resource I might conceive of on my own, and this is universally true not just for me but for the theater of God’s total creation (whether that creation recognizes it or not – so there is an objective mind independent of God’s reality that He is whether we recognize it or not … and in this I find total peace and comfort).

To help me brighten this theme up even more let me appeal to my new favorite theologian, Katherine Sonderegger. She “coincidentally” just happens to be writing on this same theme as I am currently reading through her new Systematic Theology, Vol. 1. I am going to quote her at serious length (just know I am doing this for you reader, you need to read what she has to say on this at length and let it penetrate the depth of your soul; you need to hear this as much as I do, we all need it!)

… It is the searing, personal encounter with the Living I, the God who is. Before the free Holiness of this God, His sovereign, personal Power, we fall silent. “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes,” Job says as he too finally falls silent before the Lord (Job 42:5-6). Our silence is the terrible correspondence, in human scale, to the personal Freedom of God. In its own frightening incompatibility, this is faith’s compatibilism: that in our anguished silence, the Aseity of God, His very own Mystery as infinite I, is signaled and buried deep.

Thou hast given us up to be butchered like sheep and hast scattered us among the nations. Thou hast sold thy people for next to nothing and had no profit from the sale. All this has befallen us, but we do not forget thee and have not betrayed thy covenant; we have not gone back on our purpose, nor have our feet strayed from thy path. Because of thee we are done to death all day long, and are treated as sheep for the slaughter.

So Abraham Herschel begins his remarkable book, The Prophets, with this searing citation from Psalm 44, dedicated to the Jews who were murdered in Shoah. Just this psalm erupts in the middle of the apostle Paul’s hymn to divine consolation in Romans 8, a lament in the very heart of the highest confirmation of the Lord’s Presence and benevolent Power. Just so may we dare to imagine our Lord Jesus Christ when He falls to the ground with great terror and shuddering lament in the night of His arrest. He carried a psalm on His lips as He leaves the supper, St. John tells us, preparing to encounter in prayer the Lord who will expose Him to the taunts of neighbors, to the mockery and contempt of all around, and make Him a byword among the nations, and the peoples shake their heads at Him (cf. Ps. 44:13-14). It has been a commonplace of patristic and medieval exegetes to explain our Lord’s grave terror in Gethsemane as an expression, natural to the flesh, of flight before certain cruelty and death. And so indeed it is! But something more terrible is here. As the people Israel remained faithful to the covenant and its Lord, so Jesus Christ Himself Israel and an Israelite, remains faithful, the faithful Witness, even as the torrent of God breaks over Him, sending Him down, broken and stretched out upon the earth. There are, to be sure, many elements at work in the problem of suffering; but this is the brutal core. To trust God, to believe and rest in His Promise, to rely and call upon His Goodness and to be broken on God: that is the serious heart of this problem that makes all else stand in the shade. The element of sacrifice, so closely intertwined with atonement and with sacrament, takes its point of departure from this terrible and holy self-giving of Christ on the cross. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise,” (Ps. 51:17). And in all this suffering, the very Word of God is mute, and opens not His mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter.[1]

In a world full of its own self-generated noise and clamor this is not the score being heard in the heavenly repose of God’s own triune life. There is a silence in His life, a silence that characterizes the Son’s relationship to the Father, a silence that speaks of God’s own character; and we would do well to participate in Him through Christ in that way. We would do well to understand that we are constantly being given over to death for His sake that we might also experience the life that He has always and eternally shared among Himself (Godself). At some point the gift of gab just isn’t a gift (at least not in the Kingdom of the Son); at some point being silent is all that is left to do before a Holy God. Jesus demonstrates this for us in His vicarious humanity (true humanity) at the cross; He commits Himself into the Father’s hands and is quiet, we ought to as well.

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), Loc. 3568, 3575, 3582, 359 Kindle Edition.

Against Polemics: Augustine on the Superabundance of God’s Life, and Rest In Him

I once read a book by Peter Leithart, his book on Athanasius; an excellent book! He prologued his book on Athanasius, ironically, with a reflection by Augustine; and it is brilliant, I love it. Here it is:


[W]hat is the nature of things? What are things, ultimately and in their most basic structures and essence? You, O Lord, know, for you made them all, sustain them all in existence, direct and guide all things to your good ends. You know every thing, love every thing, are good to every thing. You know them all more nearly than they know themselves. But how shall we know?

Should I even ask, O Lord? Should I even ask? You have spoken, and you have acted, and you have called us to believe. You have taught us that we walk by faith and not by sight, by trust in your good promises of goodness, and not by understanding. It is enough that you know the nature of things. Should I ask?

If I ask, will I receive an answer? You are beyond all my thoughts, greater than all that I can say, incomprehensible in your eternal communion as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You cannot be encompassed with any concept, bounded by anything greater than yourself, since you are greater than all. All my efforts to encompass you are acts of idolatry and not true worship. And you made all things and all things shine with the bright radiance of your glory. Your world seems as incomprehensible as you yourself.

Should I even ask? Can I ask? Dare I ask?

Have not some of your servants turned to such idols? Have they not bound you in forms and substances and concepts of their own imagining and bowed to worship what their own hands have made? Have they not turned your glory, the glory of the incorruptible God, into idols more ethereal than four-footed beasts and crawling creatures, and worshiped and served the creature rather than you, the Creator? Have not your servants all but denied that you were Creator, following vain philosophers who spoke of eternal matter and changeless forms? Have they not said that you are subject to time and development, denying that you are eternally complete and fulfilled? Have they not danced and sung before other gods? They asked, what is the nature of things? And were they not turned from your ways?

Dare I ask?

Yet, I cannot escape the question, for others have spoken before me. Others have asked, what is the nature of things? and have given answers. Are their answers true? Should I, O Lord, ignore their questions and answers and devote myself to prayer and service to the poor? Or shall I seek to answer? Shall I seek to determine if they speak the truth? How can I not? Can I tell whether their answers are true without asking the same questions? If a philosopher says that all things exist by participation in forms, should I, O Lord, believe him? If another says that matter is eternal, shall I, O Lord, accept that? If yet another says that all substances are informed matter, shall I receive that? If another says that we can know nothing of things beyond their phenomenal appearances, what shall I say? If the philosophers are correct about the nature of things, do they also describe your nature, O God? Are you one of the the things whose nature these philosophers describe?

If you would not have me believe these philosophers, I would know why. And if they are false, I would know what truth to speak in place of their falsehoods. [Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius, xv-xvi]

Augustine is not being anti-intellectual, but he is seeking to find rest in God’s own Revelation, and confident that God is able to speak and communicate Himself to us through Christ in contrast to the un-restful quest provided by the Philosophers.

I often feel, as I engage with people online, as if there really is not this kind of posture of doxology and rest in our discourse; a looking away from ourselves (including our philosophical and exegetical arguments), and a looking to the One who sustains all of reality by the Word of His power conditioned by the life of love that He is in the intercourse of His life. What Augustine rightfully notes, is that even though Christian grammar uses the forms provided by the Philosophers, it does so in a non-correlationist way, such that these forms or these kinds of metaphysics are evangelized (as Leithart would say) in a way that the original philosophical context is given a new pretext and thus new context that is determined to be what it is by the reality being referred to in God’s life in Jesus Christ. It is not that we don’t engage with ideas, it is just that we do so from a posture of Confession, and most of all Faith. Which presupposes that we can trust the Revelation of God to be more than adequate in moving beyond the normal and mundane reflections of the Philosophers, and actually provide a way into the Holy of holies through the torn veil of Christ’s body for us. There is rest here from the wranglings of men and women who are trapped by trying to gain approval from other men and women; we have rest where the Father has rest, in His dearly beloved Son (Hebrews 3).

I just feel burdened by being in a state of polemic, and not in a state of doxology.

My Theological Rhythm For Today

Sometimes I just feel like doing some theological flowing. I get this “burning in the bosom” 😉 that seems to be fueled by a sense of utter worship, and love of Christ. So the following represents my theological throw down for the day (very stream of conscious).

isuzuThis life is full of continual angst, and grist, of the kind that makes no sense; not really! I was just a boy driving in my low rider from the LBC (Long Beach, California), bumping to the beats of the world, resting in my ecclesial and Christian heritage as the son of a Baptist preacher man. Sure, I loved Jesus, but I thought (with Snoop Dog bumpin’ in the back ground), that I had experienced all there was to being a Christian. You see, I grew up as a Christian, I came to Christ (for real) when I was three and a half, something like God’s call to Samuel (I awoke early in the morning, and knew that I wanted to receive Jesus), and began to grow from that point. But as I said, after high school, in my early twenties, feeling pretty august among the world (I was trying), I thought I had exhausted knowledge of God in Christ. But as I was rolling in the hood, God once again encountered me in the blessed name of His Son, He rattled and shook, till all that was left was my utter dependence on Him! He set my life to a different beat, one He was orchestrating, one that He was turn-tabling. He hasn’t stopped. He still shakes, and strangely (to me), there is still stuff falling from me all around. There is still nowhere to look but Jesus.. Now I read the Bible from dust cover to cover, I read theology, high and low, and I seek to proclaim this reality wherever I go. I work among the bluecollar, as a theologian to the lost; I preach the same Gospel that found me,  and His name is Jesus Christ. I have constructed (and am) a personal theology that is grounded in Jesus, but in reality Jesus is doing His personal theology that is grounding me in Him. And yet I fear, I fear that I spend all this time reading and thinking about God in Christ, only in the end to find out that I have been missing Him all along. But then I am comforted, the Lord speaks, and I hear His Shepherd voice; He says that I didn’t seek Him to begin with, He sought me in His Son, and He found me! He speaks to my heart, He says ‘Bobby, teach my people … stay in my Word’, and I tremble. I am full of inadequacy, but He reminds me that He is my adequacy. I sin, and He says that He forgives 70×7, that He is my advocate and there is no condemnation because I am in Him, and if He is for me who can be against me? I am overwhelmed, I worship, and I think about where I once was, where I now am, and where the Lord will take me to be; and I worship! After all of this, God has reminded me that my life is but a vapor, and so while there is opportunity I need to do good! I continue to fail, but I know the God who is in the bosom of the Father, and He explains the Father to me; He has told me to cry out to Him, to call Him ‘Abba’, to come into His throne room of grace boldly in time of need, which is where I find myself continually. I am broken, but Jesus is my fix, every morning His mercies are brand new to me. All I can conclude is that I love Jesus—I love You, Jesus!—you are my life, Lord; you alone speak the words of eternal life, where else can I go?! You are God, I am not! You are my Father.

PS. Picture in post is not my truck, but looks almost exactly like mine, except for the color.

Reading the Book of Revelation Properly: Dispensationalists and Non-Dispensationalists

I just listened through the book of Revelation yesterday, performed by Max McLean (the NIV); and it was a great exercise. It is different to listen than it is to read, indeed, it is more true to how the original audience would have received it as an circuit epistle (letter) written to the ‘7 churches’. As I was listening to this (back dropped by my current bible reading which just happens to be in the book of Daniel) I began to reflect on the way I had Maranathagrown up understanding the book of Revelation, and how that has changed, somewhat relative to now.

I grew up understanding the book of Revelation through a Dispensational lens (I am an American Evangelical after all!). The Dispensational lens annexes the whole book of Revelation to a futurist reading (alone). In other words, Dispensationalist readers read Revelation as if all of the visions and apocalypses recorded in this book have to do with future events (even future to our present situation in the 21st century)—which many believe have started to unfold currently. As I said, this approach annexes the whole book of Revelation to the future; and its approach to interpreting the apocalyptic language of Revelation is to do so through a modern day pesher, or the contrivance of relating the language therein with contemporary modes of reality (like nuclear warheads, modern helicopters, etc.). This is in keeping, according to Charles Ryrie, with the sine qua non of what makes someone a Dispensationalist interpreter; that is if you interpret scripture woodenly Literal, the interpreter cannot help but pop out as an Dispensationalist, a Pre-Tribulationist, Premillennial one. But I think this approach is on sandy land.

I read Richard Bauckham’s two books: The Theology of the Book of Revelation and The Climax of Prophecy over a year ago now. He offers an alternative reading—a reading that is actually more historical and mainstream relative to the historic Christian faith than the Dispensational reading [which in itself is not an argument for the validity of the hermeneutic that Bauckham appeals to]. Bauckham emphasizes the genre of Epistle (or letter) as the frame through which we should primarily read Revelation (which is also made up of two other dominant genres: Prophetic and Apocalyptic literature). What this positioning does is to locate the primary audience of this book’s reference to be in the 7 churches mentioned in the first three chapters. If this is the primary audience then this letter or book is oriented in a way that gives shape to the kind of language and appeal that the Revelator would be using; the language would be used in a way that makes sense to this audience in particular, and it would be being ‘revealed’ in a way that is intended to provide the kind of perspective that these early Christian martyrs would need when faced with the ‘Beast’ of the Roman Empire. What this reading does, by way of framing it properly, is that it allows us to read it in a relevant and literal way; a way that understands the usage of the apocalyptic language to find referent in the historical (now) present of its first recipients. As Bauckham develops, all of the language like Beast, 666, the usage of the numbers, etc. all have historical Graceo-Roman explanation and referent to them. And what this usage of language does is to provide the real picture of what is going on for God’s people when up against the Beast (in that period the Roman Empire). What is really going on is that there is a great battle inhering between God and the forces of darkness, but God has overcome the world; and more to the point of these early readers, they should take heart because Jesus has overcome the world, and these martyrs in particular will be vindicated at the second coming of Christ and the establishment (in consummate form) of his Heavenly Zion, the New Jerusalem. This would represent the principled reading of Revelation, its applicational reading works in ‘Perfect tense’; that is, the same truth that was painted through the apocalyptic language of Revelation then, is the same truth and reality that is present now. There is a colossal and global struggle/battle taking place between the kingdom of darkness, and the kingdom of the Son of His love; but take heart, Jesus has overcome this world (Jn 16.33).

The book of Revelation, if read rightly has substantive discipleship properties associated with it. If it is read improperly, it has almost nothing to do with us; other than it gives us a sense of control and gnostic insight into what is purportedly and proleptically to come. Indeed we take heart in what is to come, but only because of what is to come has already come, and is presently breaking in on this world which appears in upheaval. We can have a sense of peace and control, but not because we have a mastery knowledge over the nitty gritty of future events (relative to an idiosyncratic reading of Revelation); but because we know that this world has already lost, and the battle that is supposedly coming is already being waged (in a realized way) right now. We aren’t waiting for all of this Great Tribulation to happen (the futurist reading), it is happening all around us (especially if you live as a Christian in many many parts of the world other than the US and the West); and so we need to take heed to the book of Revelation, and understand that the martyrs and those who have gone before us are indeed sitting in the heavenlies with Christ, ruling and reigning with him (during this realized thousand year period we currently inhabit—the space between the first and second coming of Christ); and that what Dispensationalists are waiting for is currently unfolding before our very eyes (and has been since Christ’s ascension and Pentecost). Maranatha!

Creation, A Reason

In some of my posts, especially of late, we have been thinking about the Christian doctrine of Creation; as corollary, we have also been considering our relation to creation in and through Christ. The first step we ought to engage, in our consideration of such things; is to wonder about the God-world relation and what purpose he has always already intended for creation as the counterpoint to his gracious life of love, from which he created. It becomes quickly obvious, as we read the New Testament, and work out the theo-logical implications of Trintarian and Christo-logical assumptions, therein; that creation was created with Christ in mind, and us in Christ. So that God’s original intent, was in and through Christ, to bring all of creation (and humanity as the pinnacle of his creation) into his life of perichoretic (interpenetrating) love (self-giving, subject-in-distinction=Trinity). Scottish theologian, David Fergusson, helps us understand how all of this has played out in the history of interpretation:

The notion of ‘wisdom’ provides further evidence of the integration of creation and salvation in the Old Testament. As the creative agency of God, wisdom is celebrated in the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and some of the deutero-canonical works. In some places, such as Proverbs 8, wisdom is personified as a divine agent. The divine wisdom by which the world is created is also apparent in the regularity of nature, the divine law, and human affairs. This notion of ‘wisdom’ is later fused with the Greek concept of ‘Logos’ and becomes vital for expressing the linking of creation and Christology in the New Testament. In the prologue to John’s Gospel the Word (Logos) of God is the one by whom and through whom the world is created. This Word which is made present to Israel becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ. In this cosmic Christology, the significance of Jesus is understood with respect to the origin and purpose of the created order. Already in Paul’s writing and elsewhere in the New Testament epistles, we find similar cosmic themes (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:15-20, Heb. 1:1-4). By describing creation as Christ-centred, these passages offer two related trajectories of thought. First, the origin and final purpose of the cosmos is disclosed with the coming of Christ into the world and his resurrection from the dead. Second, the significance of Christ is maximally understood reference to his creative and redeeming power throughout the created universe. Writers at different periods in the history of the church would later use this cosmic Christology to describe the appearance of the incarnate Christ as the crowning moment of history. No longer understood merely as an emergency measure to counteract the effects of sin and evil, the incarnation was the fulfillment of an eternal purpose. The world was made so that Christ might be born. This is captured in Karl Barth’s dictum that creation is ‘the external basis of the covenant’ (Barth 1958: 94). [David Fergusson, Chapter 4: Creation, 76-7 in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, edited by John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance]

In the history what David Fergusson is describing is known as the Scotist Thesis; viz. that the plan was always for Jesus to incarnate to bring humanity and creation into the divine dialogue and life of communion through union with the Son. The ‘Fall’ intensified the Incarnation in a way that is tragic, but rife with the redemptive hope of the resurrection and advent life! I follow the Scotist thesis on this front. My friend, brother in Christ, Evangelical Calvinist co-conspirator, and doctoral adviser, Myk Habets has written this to open up his essay entitled On Getting First Things First: Assessing Claims for the Primacy of Christ (©The author 2008. Journal compilation ©The Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2008, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK, and 350 Main Street, Malden MA 02148, USA DOI:10.1111/j.1741-2005.2008.00240.x):

According to Christian tradition Jesus Christ is pre-eminent over all creation as the Alpha and the Omega, the ‘beginning and the end’ (Rev 1.8, 21.6; 22.13). This belief, when theologically considered, is known as the primacy of Christ.1 The specific issue this doctrine addresses is the question: Was sin the efficient or the primary cause of the incarnation? This essay seeks to model the practice of modal logic in relation to the primacy of Christ, not to satisfy the cravings of speculative theologians but to reverently penetrate the evangelical mystery of the incarnation, specifically, the two alternatives: either ‘God became man independently of sin,’ or its contradiction, ‘God became man because of sin’. . . .

Wouldn’t you agree that ‘the world was made so that Christ might be born’?

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. 19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. 21 And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled 22 in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight— 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister. ~Colossians 1:15-23