J. N. D. Kelly

Analogia Incarnatio: How the Christian Reality is Focused on an Embodied Existence: Incarnation Contradicts Gnosticism

The Christian reality isn’t “some angels in the heavens floating on white puffy clouds playing harps before God” faith; instead it is a richly and concretely embodied reality that places great emphasis upon bodily and physical reality. Note the Apostle Paul in his argument to the Corinthians (at length):

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another.41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. 42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

There is a one-to-one continuity between the pre-resurrection body, and the resurrected body; the perishable and the imperishable; the mortal and immortal body. The argument could be pressed further from the scriptural text (think of John 11 and 12 wherein we have more resurrection themes in the Dominical teaching; a correspondence between the ‘seed that falls into the ground and sprouts as a new blade of grass from what appears to be its deathly seeded life’). But for our purposes, the reference to the Apostle Paul will suffice. Christians believe, intensively, in the ‘good’ and ‘very good’ nature of embodied and physical reality; it’s at the very touchstone of ‘the faith’: for if Jesus did not raise from the dead we are of most people all to be pitied.

I preface this post in this way because I want to delve into the wonderful world of Gnosticism (maybe not so wonderful, actually). Gnosticism antedates Christianity, at least according to JND Kelly, in incipient or proto ways in what he identifies as a Jewish Gnosticism. But at the advent of Christianity, post-Pentecost, just as we have this kind of [super]natural organic movement from the ‘shadow’ of Judaism (i.e. the promises cf. Rom. 11.29), to the ‘substance’ in Christ (i.e. the fulfillments cf. Col. 2.18); this movement also takes place from the Jewish forms of Gnosticism[s] into Christian adaptations. Gnosticism, in the main, is a dualistic cult that generally teaches that ‘matter’ or the material world is evil, and the ‘spiritual’ or eternal world is pure and sacrosanct. The word Gnostic is ascribed to this belief framework because ‘gnosis’ (or ‘knowledge’), for the Gnostic, is the key for escaping the evil material world, and finding salvation in the eternal and abstract world of pure spirit. JND Kelly, at length, details all of this this way:

First, most of the Gnostic schools were thoroughly dualistic, setting an infinite chasm between the spiritual world and the world of matter, which they regarded as intrinsically evil. Secondly, when they tried to explain how the material order came into existence, they agree in refusing to attribute its origin to the ultimate God, the God of light and goodness. It must be the result of some primeval disorder, some conflict or fall, in the higher realm, and its fabricator must have been some inferior deity or Demiurge. Where the Old Testament was accepted as authoritative, it was easy and natural to identify him with the Creator-God of the Jews. Thirdly, the Gnostics all believed that there is a spiritual element in man, or at any rate in the élite of mankind, which is a stranger in this world and which yearns to be freed from matter and to ascend to its true home. Fourthly, they pictured a mediator or mediators descending down the successive aeons or heavens to help it achieve this. These ideas were expounded in a setting of elaborate pseudo-cosmological speculation, and extensive use was made of pagan myths, the Old Testament concepts borrowed from Far Eastern religions.

In this way, then, the Gnostics sought to explain the riddle of man’s plight in a universe he feels to be alien to himself. But what of the redemption they offered? Here we come to the distinctive feature which gives Gnosticism its name. In all the Gnostics systems redemption is brought about by knowledge, and it is the function of the divine mediators to open the eyes of ‘pneumatic’ men to the truth. ‘The spiritual man’, the disciples of the Valentinian Marcus declared. [sic] ‘is redeemed by knowledge’; while according to Basilides, ‘the Gospel is knowledge of supramundane things’. In other words, when a man has really grasped the Gnostic myths in all their inwardness, and thus realizes who he is, how he has come to his present condition, and what is that ‘indescribable Greatness’ which is the supreme God, the spiritual element in him begins to free itself from the entanglements of matter. In the vivid imagery of Valentinus’s Gospel of Truth, before he acquires that knowledge, he plunges about like a drunken man in a dazed state, but having acquired it he awakens, as it were, from his intoxicated slumbers. Irenaeus has a colorful passage describing how the possession of esoteric knowledge—of the abysmal Fall, of Achamoth, of the Demiurge and so forth—was supposed to enable the Gnostic to overcome the powers confronting him after death, and so traverse the successive stages of his upward journey.

It is easy to understand the fascination which the Gnostic complex of ideas exercised on many Christians. The Church, too, professed to offer men saving knowledge, and set Christ before them as the revelation of the Father. There was a powerful strain in early Christianity which was in sympathy with Gnostic tendencies. We can see it at work in the Fourth Gospel, with its axiom that eternal life consists in knowledge of God and of Christ, and even more clearly in such second-century works as 2 Clement and Theophilus’s Ad Autolycum. As we noticed above, Clement of Alexandria freely applied the title ‘gnostics’ to Christians who seemed to have a philosophic grasp of their faith. It is the existence of a genuinely Christian, orthodox ‘gnosis’ side by side with half-Christian, heretical or even non-Christian versions which in part accounts for the difficulty in defining Gnosticism precisely. As has been shown, many of the Gnostic teachers mentioned above sincerely regarded themselves as Christians, and there is an element of truth in the thesis that their systems were attempts to restate the simple Gospel in terms which contemporaries would find philosophically, even scientifically, more satisfying. The root incompatibility between Christianity and Gnosticism really lay, as second-century fathers like Irenaeus quickly perceived, in their different attitudes to the material order and the historical process. Because in general they disparaged matter and were disinterested in history, the Gnostics (in the narrower, more convenient sense of the term) were prevented from giving full value to the fundamental Christian doctrine of the incarnation of the Word.[1]

Much to digest. But I wanted to give a fuller context because I don’t think many Christians really grasp what the early Christian thinkers were up against. And this is ironic since what we count as ‘orthodox’ Christian doctrine today was constructed in precise ways to counter the teachings of folks like the Gnostics.

Another reason I wanted to highlight Gnosticism comes back to how I opened this article. Christianity is embodied reality; it entails body and soul realities, and sees such realities as an integrated whole. In other words, I fear that the early Gnosticism we just sketched still lives on in many expressions of 21st century Christian modes of thought. For example, the Dispensationalists, where my rootage comes from in my Christian heritage, emphasizes an ‘escape’ from this world through a secret coming of Jesus Christ for the church: commonly known as the rapture. At that point, this approach believes, the world will plummet into all out hell on earth finally and only overcome at the second coming of Jesus Christ. It will be at that time, according to Dispensational thought, that a thousand year reign of Christ will ensue only to terminate in one more battle between evil and good (i.e. the Demonic hoard of Satan), and then God will destroy this earth by fire. In other words, the “elite” or Christians will be cloistered away under the wings of the Divine Host somewhere aloof in the heavenlies, at which point a new heavens and earth will be created. The problem is, and the link between Gnosticism here is, is that there is no one-to-one correspondence between this earth we currently inhabit and the new heavens and earth to come. This is Gnostic teaching, it is not Christianity.

Let me not digress too much. The biblical teaching, and the early Christian teaching counter to the Gnostic teaching (of whatever varying expression that might take, ‘back then’ or now) is that these bodies we currently inhabit will themselves be metamorphized (cf. Phil. 3.20-21), and recreated just like Jesus’s was in the resurrection/recreation of his body (cf. I Jn. 3.1-3). What this implies is that there is continuity between the very goodness of this earth and these bodies with the elevated goodness of this earth and these bodies to come, in the age to come (in the consummation).

The analogia incarnatio (‘analogy of the incarnation’) puts to death all expressions of Gnosticism. Even though Gnosticism proper was something the early Fathers dealt with, as Christian thinkers in the 21st century we are no less confronted with a neo-Gnosticism of today. As TF Torrance has noted though, and with this we will close, what orthodox Christians think from is the reality and particularity of the mystery of the incarnation: i.e. God become [hu]man. If this bedrock reality does not flood our minds and hearts as Christians in such a way that all of our thinking is not colored by it, then we are thinking probably much more in line with the Gnostics than from within the Christian reality.

‘The Word was made flesh’ – but what is meant by flesh? John means that the Word fully participates in human nature and existence, for he became man in becoming flesh, true man and real man. He was so truly man in the midst of mankind that it was not easy to recognise him as other than man or distinguish him from other men. He came to his own and his own received him not. He became a particular man, Jesus, who stands among other men unsurpassed but unrecognised. That is the way he became flesh, by becoming one particular man. And yet this is the creator of all mankind, now himself become a man.[2]

[1] JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 26-8.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downer Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 61.

A Mini-Sketch of Pelagius and Pelagianism with Reference to JND Kelly

We often hear of Pelagianism, or of Pelagius himself. We know it is a heresy which Augustine in the 5th century combated; but we don’t often hear exactly what Pelagianism entails. I thought in an effort to remedy this type of lacuna, at least for those who don’t know, that I would share something from JND Kelly on Pelagius, and in brief, what the main aspect of his troubling teaching entails. Kelly writes:

Pelagius was primarily a moralist, concerned for right conduct and shocked by what he considered demoralizingly pessimistic views of what could be expected of human nature. The assumption that man could not help sinning seemed to him an insult to his Creator. Augustine’s prayer, ‘Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt’ (da quod iubes et iube quod vis), particularly distressed him, for it seemed to suggest that men were puppets wholly determined by the movements of divine grace. In reaction to this the keystone of his whole system is the idea of unconditional free will and responsibility. In creating man God did not subject him, like other creatures, to the law of nature, but gave him the unique privilege of being able to accomplish the divine will by his own choice. He set life and death before him, bidding him choose life (Deut. 30, 19), but leaving the final decision to his free will. Thus it depends on the man himself whether he acts rightly or wrongly: the possibility of freely choosing the good entails the possibility of choosing evil. There are, he argues, three features in action—the power (posse), the will (velle), and the realization (esse). The first of these comes exclusively from God, but the other two belong to us; hence, according as we act, we merit praise or blame. It would be wrong to infer, however, that he regarded this autonomy as somehow withdrawing man from the purview of God’s sovereignty. Whatever his followers may have said, Pelagius himself made no such claim. On the contrary, along with his belief in free will he has the conception of a divine law proclaiming to men what they ought to do and setting the prospect of supernatural rewards and pains before them. If a man enjoys the freedom of choice, it is by the express bounty of his Creator, and he ought to use it for the ends which He prescribes.[1]

Augustine famously opposed this with his development not only of sin as privatio (privation), but also concupiscence (self-love). But beyond that, if you have ever wondered about Pelagius, or more pointedly about his teaching which has become known as Pelagianism, then this should at least give you a good start. If you want to see what Kelly says further about Pelagius I recommend you pick up his excellent book where he covers this, among other important developments in the early period of the church.

I think all Christians, whether classical Calvinist, classical Arminian, Evangelical Calvinist, Barthian, Lutheran, or what have you share common ground in their opposition towards Pelagianism. Sometimes it requires heresy in order for orthodoxy to be sharpened and articulated in such a way that it provides a fruitful way forward for the church. In this case what Augustine offered against Pelagius served as the basis for what many Christians, even today, think of Pelagianism, and more importantly, how Christians conceive of grace (of course we’ve had other developments since Augustine and Pelagius as well).

[1] JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 356-57.

The Christology of Leo’s Tome, The Chalcedonian Settlement, and Miscellaneous Thoughts on Church Trad and Biblical Interpretation

I wanted to share J.N.D. Kelly’s summarizing of the theses presented in Pope Leo I’s Tome. The writings which helped contribute to what became known as the Chalcedonian settlement which occurred at the Council of Chalcedon in 451ad. It is this “settlement” which has been used, thenceforth, as the standard or canon for determining whether or not someone’s view of Jesus Christ is orthodox iconjesusfaceor heterodox, if not downright heretical. As you will see through Kelly’s summary what Leo offered in his Tome wasn’t necessarily original to him, instead it served as a good codification of what had come before him in the various christological struggles (which the Council of Nicaea in 325ad is related to in some important conceptual matters). Here is Kelly:

The Christology which appears in Leo’s Tome has no special originality; it reflects and codifies with masterly precision the ideas of his predecessors. The following are the chief points he was concerned to bring out. First, the Person of the God-man is identical with that of the divine Word. As he expressed it, ‘He Who became man in the form of a servant is He Who in the form of God created man’. Though describing the incarnation as ‘self-emptying’ (exinanitio), he claimed that it involved no diminution of the Word’s omnipotence; He descended from His throne in heaven, but did not surrender His Father’s glory. Secondly, the divine and human natures co-exist in this one Person without mixture or confusion. Rather, in uniting to form one Person each retains its natural properties unimpaired (salva . . . proprietate utriusque naturae et substantiae), so that, just as the form of God does not do away with the form of a servant, so the form of a servant does not diminish the form of God. Indeed, the redemption required that ‘one and the same mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, should be able to both die in respect of the one and not to die in respect of the other’. Thirdly, the natures are separate principles of operation, although they always act in concert with each other. So we have the famous sentence, ‘Each form accomplishes in concert with the other what is appropriate to it, the Word performing what belongs to the Word, and the flesh carrying out what belongs to the flesh’. Lastly, the oneness of the Person postulates the legitimacy of the ‘communication of idioms’. We can affirm, for example, that the Son of God was crucified and buried, and also that the Son of Man came down from heaven.

These four theses may not have probed the Christological problem very deeply; it is obvious that they left the issues which puzzled Greek theologians largely untouched. They had the merit, however, of setting out the factors demanding recognition fairly and squarely. Moreover, they went a long way towards meeting the points of view of both the schools of thought struggling for supremacy in the East. Antiochenes could recognize their own theology in Leo’s vigorous affirmation of the duality in Christ, and of the reality and independence of the two natures. Some of his sentences, indeed, particularly the one cited above, were to prove stones of stumbling to Alexandrian Christologians. Nevertheless these latter, too, could see the essentials of their standpoint vindicated in the Pope’s unerring grasp of the identity of the Person of the Incarnate with that of the eternal Word. As he expressed it in a Christmas sermon, ‘It is one and the same Son of God Who exists in both natures, taking what is ours to Himself without losing what is His own’.[1]

It may or may not trouble some that Leo was a Roman Pope, but what this should illustrate for Christians across the spectrum is that we share an ecumenical past when it comes to the most basic stuff of our theological grammar and how we understand who God has revealed Himself to be in His Son, Jesus Christ. Beyond that, it is important to recognize that what we take for granted today as orthodoxy, when we speak of Christ’s two natures and the hypostatic union, or the Trinity, was something that developed over time within the mind of the church. We can be the most Free non-denominational Bible church out there, but it is important to remember that the orthodoxy we affirm when it comes to two-nature Christology, etc. is something that binds us to the church catholic itself. It is these realities, and church historical developments that ought to cause people who claim a nuda scriptura or solo Scriptura approach (meaning people who often claim the label of Biblicist) to come to terms with the fact that even they operate with some very basic tradition as the foundation for how they conceptualize God and Jesus Christ; which of course then impacts the way they  interpret and read Holy Scripture itself.


[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 337-38.

Jürgen Moltmann on Karl Barth’s Predestination at Princeton

For Karl Barth the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel; he writes (in CD §32): ‘the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all the words that can be said or heard it is the best: that moltmannGod elects humanity; that God is for humanity too the One who loves in freedom’. This is a beautiful thing, really. It stands in relief to what many an Augustinian believes about predestination; not that the Augustinian doesn’t try and persuade herself that (in its medieval expression) double predestination isn’t a beautiful thing. No. It stands in relief precisely because it does not have to tell itself that it is a beautiful thing; it simply is. The Augustinian assures themselves that because they are one of the elect for whom Christ died and gave his life, that they should be grateful to be counted as such. J.N.D. Kelly makes the Augustinian position clear:

The problem of predestination has so far only been hinted at. Since grace takes the initiative and apart from it all men form a massa damnata, it is for God to determine which shall receive grace and which shall not. This He has done, Augustine believes on the basis of Scripture, from all eternity. The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels. Hence he has to twist the text ‘God wills all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2, 4), making it mean that He wills the salvation of all the elect, among whom men of every race and type are represented….[1]

Augustine’s position became the norming norm of how this doctrine continued to develop and be conceived. By time it got to Calvin, who adopted the basic gist of Augustine, it had developed into a full blown conception of double predestination where there were the elect and reprobate (for some this became a matter of active and passive action on God’s part, but nevertheless it was there). Understanding the problem, theologically, that this presented (insofar as it caused anxiety in a person’s self-perception relative to whether they were elect or reprobate) Barth critiqued Calvin’s view (and the whole company) this way:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

If you would like to hear more about this, about Barth’s view of predestination/election then you can watch Jürgen Moltmann deliver his paper on this topic at the Karl Barth Conference 2015 currently underway at Princeton Theological Seminary. Thanks to my friend Jason Goroncy for pointing us to this video of Moltmann.




[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Franciso: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978), 368-69.

[2] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.


The Psychology of Predestination: Two classes of humanity, and its impact.

The doctrine of predestination for Christians always causes their little antennae’s to shift into hyper-activity. It is a controversial issue, no doubt. And this issue has a long, albeit pretentious pedigree, and sourced, at least in the Latin side of the church, most prominently from that indefatigable saint of the most prodigious sort, St. Augustine. And so we note this reality as we venture into this little sketch of mine, but we note this kind of genetic and historical theological reality only to pass into a psychological and even, theo-anthropological consideration; and apply this toward the real life existential co-habitation of society at large, and culture nearer to home.


What am I talking about? Let’s turn back to Augustine, so that we might move forward.  Augustine articulated his view (and what has served as a categorical/conceptual touchstone for following generations and traditions into the present) on predestination unto Christian salvation in this way, and as described by famed patristic scholar, J.N.D. Kelly:

The problem of predestination has so far only been hinted at. Since grace takes the initiative and apart from it all men form a massa damnata, it is for God to determine which shall receive grace and which shall not. This He has done, Augustine believes on the basis of Scripture, from all eternity. The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels. Hence he has to twist the text ‘God wills all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2, 4), making it mean that He wills the salvation of all the elect, among whom men of every race and type are represented. God’s choice of those to whom grace is to be given in no way depends on His foreknowledge of their future merits, for whatever good deeds they will do will themselves be the fruit of grace. In so far as His foreknowledge is involved, what He foreknows is what He Himself is going to do. Then how does God decide to justify this man rather than that? There can in the end be no answer to this agonizing question. God has mercy on those whom He wishes to save, and justifies them; He hardens those upon whom He does not wish to have mercy, not offering them grace in conditions in which they are likely to accept it. If this looks like favouritism, we should remember that all are in any case justly condemned, and that if God makes His decision in the light of ‘a secret and, to human calculation, inscrutable justice’. Augustine is therefore prepared to speak of certain people as being predestined to eternal death and damnation; they may include, apparently, decent Christians who have been called and baptized, but to whom the grace of perseverance has not been given. More often, however, he speaks of the predestination of the saints which consists in ‘God’s foreknowledge and preparation of the benefits by which those who are to be delivered are most assuredly delivered’. These alone have the grace of perseverance, and even before they are born they are sons of God and cannot perish.[1]

This doesn’t sound surprising or shocking to most Western Christians in our day and age; indeed, this is rather common fare among the neo-Reformed (and of course, the classically Reformed), and even contemporary Arminians (I mean in regard to the conceptualization itself, not its affirmation by the Arminian). Evangelical Calvinists, such as myself, repudiate this Augustinian trough; and we do so through a re-casted Christ concentrated or conditioned conception of election (which we have articulated elsewhere). But this isn’t really where I want to continue to reflect; instead I want to engage in a theological thought experiment, presume Augustine’s umbrella (for its various diachronic expressions, and precisions), and act as, indeed, this is actually the case.

The thing that got me thinking this way was as I was at work last night, I was thinking about the sanctity of life, and just the sheer value of each person’s life – like my co-worker’s lives. But it donned on me, if God has predetermined to only salvifically love a portion of my co-workers, or only a portion of the masses of people traveling down the freeways and highways that connect our burgeoning population centers; then, clearly, this implies, in the negative, that God does not value the other people (the reprobate seems appropriate here) all around me. So in a real sense (not just a perceived one), in an ontological sense, some people, some of my co-worker’s are less valuable to God than I am (as I am a Christian, and so presumably one of the elect who God chose for salvation before the foundations of the world).

When I allowed all of this to hit me, psychologically and existentially, last night; what this did to me was rattle me! Not that I haven’t been rattled like this before, but more pointedly, it rattled me to the realization of how perverse of a notion this actually is. And the psychology of it, serving as an undercurrent as it does (for those who actually maintain this position), can be quite insidious. It means that there are actually people who just sub-human (because they will never be able to be at rights with what it really means to be human – which is to be at rights with the God who created them). And so ethically such an undercurrent, such a psychology could help to foster a milieu in which there is an elite class of people over against a poor and popper class of people – the upwardly mobile (in a Western context), and the downwardly desperate.

One profound thing, in the dominical (Jesus’) teaching that thoroughly marginalizes this calcification of two classes of people is that Jesus inverts the whole paradigm. For Jesus the ‘elect’ are in fact the downwardly desperate, not the upwardly mobile. For Jesus, there is no privileging of an ‘elite elect’ caste of people for whom he came to purchase and die. If this is so, this is just one of many problems that undercuts any psychology or ontology of humanity wherein there is an elite elect class of people from the very beginning. God’s category starts with the poor and destitute, the reprobate among us; and the exaltation and ‘wonderful exchange’ starts there, not in an elect class of people that works into and out of the mass of Augustine’s perdition. The mass of humanity, the mass of perdition is God’s elect. And the particular in this mass is Jesus’ universal humanity for all, not for some.

In the end, I am thankful that I can look at all of the people I work with and know that each of them has equal value to God; and that I am not any more of a person than they are. I might be saved, and they might not be (at the moment); but their value comes from the same ground that all of our value comes from – from the vicarious humanity of Christ, which is for all of us (we are all destitute, except for the grace of Christ).

[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition (New York: Harper Collins, 1978), 368-69.

Interpreting Scripture as if Jesus is the Center and not the [Nation] of Israel

Is the nation of Israel distinct as a people of God, or was the nation of Israel the prefigural and pre-incarnate mode of God’s Self-revealing life in the unfolding reality of salvation history; such that Jesus then is the distinct person[s] of God who is the Israel of God, and indeed the point of the nation of Israel’s existence? I hold to the concept that Jesus is the ‘Israel of God’; however, I did not always hold to this interpretation. In my previous life as a Dispensationalist I held that a defining feature of  salvation history, and God’s prophetic plan for the nations was that Israel was distinct from the Church (which is probably the sine qua non of what it means to be a dispensationalist in any of its expressions); and that God’s primary intention with his dealings with creation had to do with the nation of Israel (the Church was simply an ‘add-on’ in God’s plan). But this old belief of mine runs contrary to the Patristic (early Church–’Church Fathers’) interpretation of Scripture, and even more importantly, I believe it runs counter to the Apostolic and Dominical (Jesus’) interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures (and we have their interpretation deposited for us in the New Testament writings). Robin Parry (Gregory MacDonald) provides a really good and precise statement on my belief:

The insight that throughout the New Testament Jesus is portrayed in terms that recall the nation of Israel and its mission is so commonplace I shall not spend long defending it. The kinds of evidence appeal can be made to include the fact that many titles for Jesus have strong associations with Israel. For instance, Jesus’ use of the title Son of Man as influenced by Daniel 7 (e.g., Mark 14:62), where it refers to Israel or Israel’s representative of the nation. This could suggest that Jesus, in his role as messianic king of Israel, represents and embodies the destiny of that nation. Now the title Son of God did evolve during the New Testament period and afterwards into something closer to the later title of God the Son, but its messianic connections are still clear in places. This insight helps explain some otherwise peculiar Christian interpretations of the Old Testament, such as when Matthew takes the words of Hosea 11:1, “out of Egypt I called my son,” which in their context refer to the exodus of the Israelites, and applies them to Jesus’ flight to Egypt after the death of Herod (Matt 2:15). Once it is perceived that for Matthew Jesus is Yahweh’s son because he is embodying the story of Israel, this apparent misuse of an Old Testament text begins to make sense. The title Messiah/Christ could also suggest one who represents the whole nation before God; and, in light of our arguments in the previous chapter, thinking of Jesus as Isaiah’s Servant of Yahweh, as the early Christians certainly did (Mt 3:17/Isa 42:1; Mark 10:45/Isa 53:10; Acts 8:30-35/Isa 53:7-8), is to think of him as one who fulfils the story and mission of Israel. On top of this, we can see how the Gospels can tell the story of Jesus in such a way as to parallel the story of Israel. For instance, after Jesus is baptized he goes into the wilderness for forty days before crossing the Jordan into Israel to begin his mission just as Israel went into wilderness for forty years before crossing the Jordan into Canaan. However, where Israel failed its testing in the wilderness, Jesus succeeds. [Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 75.]

This way of interpreting Jesus’ reinterpretation and “re-living” of the nation of Israel has been called recapitulation; something that dominated Church Father, Irenaeus’ method of re-interpreting the Old Testament, and the nation of Israel, in light of its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. J. N. D. Kelly remarks in regard to Irenaeus’ method:

The conceptions, Pauline in its ultimate derivation, of the inauguration of a new, restored humanity in Christ seems to have reached Justin [Martyr] from the theological tradition of Asia Minor. It was taken up and deepened by Ireanaeus, who was also the first to work out comprehensive theories both of original sin and of redemption…. [J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christ Doctrines, revised ed., 170.]

So this is

… the distinctively Irenaean interpretation of the work of Christ. ‘Because of His measureless love,’ he writes, ‘He became what we are in order to enable us to become what He is.’ The method he outlines in the oft-repeated assertion that what we lost in Adam we recovered in Christ; its premiss is the idea that, if we fell through our solidarity with the first man, we can be restored through our solidarity with Christ. The key-conception which Irenaeus employs to explain this is ‘recapitulation’ …, which he borrows from St. Paul’s description of the divine purpose as being ‘to sum up all things in Christ’. He understands the Pauline text as implying that the Redeemer gathers together, includes or comprises the whole of reality in Himself, the human race being included. In close conjunction with this he exploits to the full the parallelism between Adam and Christ which was so dear to St. Paul. Christ is indeed, in his eyes, the ‘second Adam’ …, and ‘recapitulated’ or reproduced the first even in the manner of His birth, being generated from the Blessed Virgin as he was from virgin earth. Further, just as Adam contained in himself all his descendants  so Christ (as the Lucan genealogy proves) ‘recapitulated in Himself all the dispersed peoples dating back to Adam, all tongues and the whole race of mankind, along with Adam himself’ [sic] Thus, when He became incarnate, Christ ‘recapitulated in Himself the long sequence of mankind’, and passed through all the stages of human life, sanctifying each in turn. As a result (and this is Irenaeus’s main point), just as Adam was the originator of a race of disobedient and doomed to death, so Christ can be regarded as inaugurating a new, redeemed humanity. [Kelly, 172-3.]

As we can see from Kelly’s description of Irenaeus’ method, the whole of it is shaped by a deeply rooted christological conditioning; such that all of Israel’s history, both in its obedience and disobedience (mostly the latter), and in its Adamic heritage is taken up in a Christian way, so that Christ is understood as the center of what it is to be God’s primary hope and purpose for all of creation, for all of the nations.

It is this method of interpretation, an Apostolic (if you will) method that is at the heart of my own hermeneutical theory. It is working in a ‘depth dimension’ as Thomas Torrance has called it, and Adam Nigh has developed it in our edited book, Evangelical Calvinism, and Nigh’s chapter, The Depth Dimension of Scripture: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Calvinism. And as can be observed, this kind of method has soteriological shape to it, such that Scripture is to be interpreted through the saving and mediating (e.g. ‘Priestly’) person of Jesus Christ for us. It is this kind of hermeneutic that leads to (and from, really) an ‘ontological theory of the atonement’, which we have developed in detail in our book (already mentioned).

Maybe this will better help some appreciate where I am coming from with even more clarity than heretofore. And maybe it will help some of you who have known me in my past to better understand why it is that I have rejected dispensationalism as my hermeneutical method.


Recapitulation has been developed further, and has been taken up, in certain ways, by what has become known as (especially in Reformed circles) ‘Covenant theology’. I advocate a certain form of this kind of theology, one that is tied to what Barth and Torrance have called an ‘analogy of faith’ versus an ‘analogy of being’ interpretation of the text of Scripture (which in my application of this refers to God’s life and Self revelation as a God who is grace and not Law … which is fodder for another post).