Deus dixit ‘God has Spoken’. The Antidote to Evangelical and ‘Liberal’ Apologetics Alike

Is there a place for Christian apologetics? I grew up (and still largely culturewarsinhabit) in the North American evangelical sub-culture where J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, along with the fellows of the Discovery Institute and Intelligent Design are common fare. I grew up where a whole hermeneutic developed out of an apologetic against the perceived threat of ‘Liberal’ higher criticism; a hermeneutic based upon positivism and empiricism (where biblical prophecy and its fulfillment become somewhat determinative towards proving the veracity of Scripture, etc.) – and of course there are more sophisticated developments, but still, along positivist lines, at least in response to the perceived threat of Enlightenment, rationalist higher criticism. So because of this I grew up in a Christian sub-culture that is always on the defense; always on the defense for God, as if God needs to be defended. But is this what God needs? And is this the best way to approach these types of macro-concerns, as if God needs us to be him (of our choosing, not his), to be who he is for us?

Swiss theologian Karl Barth doesn’t think so, and I have come to heartily agree with Barth on this issue. It isn’t a matter of being anti-intellectual; just the opposite! It is a matter of thinking ‘after God has spoken’ and as if he has before we start trying to speak for or about him. Barth grew up right in the heart of the development of so called ‘Liberal’ theology in World War I German theology; and his response (when he repented!) to ‘Liberal’ theology wasn’t to try and deconstruct it based upon its terms, but instead to turn to God and allow him to set his terms as the means and categories through which Barth was going to attempt to do his theological thinking and preaching. Barth writes:

In detail, of course, dogmatic thinking will everywhere be made up of partly historical, partly psychological, and partly philosophical elements. But if things are to be done aright we must never for a moment let these elements, the stocheia tou kosmou [Col. 2:8], become independent or a presupposition. In dogmatics we cannot for a moment think seriously in historical, psychological, or philosophical terms. We cannot fail to make Deus dixit the presupposition, or do so only questioningly or partially, trying to think our way up to God had not spoken, as though God were a problem and not the ground of all problems and also, whether we have eyes to see it or not, the solution to all problems. From the roots up dogmatic thinking is either kata ton Christon [Col. 2:8] or it is not dogmatic, theological thinking. Let us be on guard not against criticism or doubt or skepticism — these are not the enemies — but instead against apologetics, against trying to get at the matter by detours, as though God could be known without God, as though he could be the second thing, as though he were not already quite unambiguously the first.[1]

I would seriously submit that evangelical Christianity in North America is dying right before our very eyes for the reason that Barth identifies; even if Barth is talking about his attempt to do Christian Dogmatics (Systematic Theology) in a German theologically liberal context. Indeed; exactly. North American Evangelicalism continues on in the Fundamentalist heritage of its recent past; which means that it does theology and lives Christianly from the same pietistic inward turned individualistic premises that so called German theological liberalism lived from (or close enough).

The antidote to this is to REPENT! We need to turn to God, and think from Deus dixit (i.e. ‘God has spoken’) as the premise of our Christian lives. We don’t need to be apologetic about being ‘in Christ’. God is God. He works from what is perceived as weakness and foolishness (in the world); we don’t need to assert ourselves in order to think Christianly. It is okay to be laughed at when the one you are talking about, talking to, and proclaiming holds all of reality together by the Word of his power; remember Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’)!

 

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion. Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 289.

A Reflection on My Experience in the Cancer Ward Today

Today, well yesterday now (as I write this), February 17th, 2015 I went in for my annual CT scan to make sure that I am still cancer free. For those who don’t know I was diagnosed with a rare and typically terminal cancer called Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor sarcoma (DSRCT). After some hard chemo, surgery, and more chemo I was declared cancer free for the first time the day of my resection surgery on May 6th, 2010 (I was originally diagnosed in November, 2009). After some sweat and anxiety today, shared by my wife and myself, I did indeed get the CT scan, and I got the results from my medical oncologist; he said: ‘Your scans look clear, you are good to go.’ Praise the Lord, I am still cancer free; it has been five years now. All I can say is God’s grace! For the rest of this post I want to reflect upon my experience (it is the same one that I experience every time I go through this from year to year now), and what it is like to walk back into the cancer clinic where I almost died [they never verbalized this, but it was pretty obvious at one point] (from the side effects of the chemo).

homelessThe most striking thing for me as my wife and I walk into the lobby of the oncology center on the seventh floor of OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute in Portland, OR is the array of broken souls sitting in their chairs waiting for their numbers to be called; called so they can go back and start ingesting the poison that is intended to kill their cancer (with the full realization that in the process everything ‘gets killed’ in the body too). The feeling of hopelessness is palpable as we walk into this big elongated room, with big picture windows opening up to the sun-shining city of Portland. One guy stood out to me in particular; he looks like a salty old merchant marine or something, and instead of a black eye patch over his left eye, he has this big black tumor protruding out of his face just under his left eye situated closely to the side of his nose–he looks broken to me, worn out, like he has lost hope. The room is full; next to the salty marine, a younger guy with an Army sweatshirt is sitting there. He too is obviously there to receive the elixir of liquid mixed up to hopefully save his life; his skin is jaundiced, yellowish in tint, but he seems like he still has some energy left, maybe a glimmer of hope about him, or at least he seemed to be trying. The rest of the room just blurred together after this; mostly older people today, and most of them facing various protocols, but all with the same hope: they all want to live; they all want to beat the beast that has become intertwined and somewhat one with their bodies. I know that they feel like this, because that’s how I felt too, when I was the one sitting in those chairs; not as someone who was hoping my scans would come back clean for the fifth year in a row, but as one who was hoping to hear for the first time (since diagnosis) that there is no evidence of disease, that I was indeed cancer free.

As my wife and I walked in, we checked in, sat down among the masses of the cancerous, and I hoped that I could, once again, walk out of there not blending back in, but standing out as someone who had indeed made it out with a clean bill; I did. But I still feel broken for these people, knowing what they are going through even tonight! I get tempted to forget about them; it would be easier to just leave them there behind those walls, the walls that cordon them off from the ‘living.’ But I can’t, they need to be saved; they need to be prayed for, cared for, interceded for. So I will pray; I hope you will too! I am praying for the seventh floor at Knight Cancer Institute in Portland, OR; I’d encourage you to pray for the cancer wards in your area, and remember that your neighbors are there. amen.

§1. Homily for Monday’s. God’s Summons to Holiness

The Mosaic author wrote this about God’s holiness, and how God, or Yahweh (God’s Covenantal name for his people) desires us to relate with him:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

“Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. – Leviticus 19:1,2

And then the Apostle Peter reiterated this command when he wrote this:

14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, 15 but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; 16 because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:14-16

Obviously this is a serious topic! As such we will spend our time this fine Monday considering what this might mean for us as God’s saints here and now in the 21st century. Instead of doing a typical exegetical or expositional analysis of the texts that we have in Leviticus and Peter, what we will do today is attempt to understand what it means, theologically, to be holy. So what we will be doing today is engaging in what the theologians call ‘theological-exegesis’ of the text (by the way, ‘exegesis’ is a Greek word transliterated into English which simply means to ‘interpret out of’, so we will try to press into the theological implications of what the Mosaic and Petrine authors are commanding of us as followers of the only true and living God).

To help us along today, let me refer our attention to a really helpful insight about what ‘being holy’ involves for the Christian. John Webster, one of my favorite bible teachers and theologians, writes:

As we approach the topic, it is imperative that we keep in mind two basic requirements for thinking Christianly about God’s holiness. The first is that we need to understand that theological thinking about holiness is itself an exercise of holiness. Theology is an aspect of the sanctification of reason, that is, of the process in which reason is put to death and made alive by the terrifying and merciful presence of the holy God. Without sanctification – without being caught up by God and cleansed for the service of God in the fellowship of the saints – the work of theological reason is profitless. The second requirement for thinking Christianly about the holiness of God is that we need to make sure that we are thinking about the true God, and not about some God of our own invention. Theological talk of the holiness of God stands under the same rule as all theological talk, namely, that it is truthful only to the extent that it attempts to follow the given reality of God. That given reality is God’s glorious and free self-presentation as Father, Son and Spirit, the Holy One in our midst, establishing, maintaining and perfecting righteous fellowship with the holy people of God.[1]

Let’s break this down a bit, shall we?

1) Being holy cannot come from ourselves, and cannot be realized without God initiating the process of becoming holy with the holiness of his life. So we are called to, as the Apostle Paul calls us for as well, reckon ourselves ‘dead to sin and alive to Christ.’ What lies behind this is the idea that the ‘set apartness’ (or ‘holiness’) that we have been summoned to is not something we can generate in and from ourselves; it is something that is alien to us, and thus we must rely upon God to do the real work of making us holy as he brings us into a participatory relationship with him and his holy Triune life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

2) This second point somewhat picks up where we left off in our last point; the idea that the only way for us to truly ‘be holy’ is if we are aligned in relationship with the only true God who has revealed himself to us in and through Jesus Christ as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (what we call the ‘Trinity’). This of course is probably the most important realization about holiness that we might be confronted with. Only the Christian God has the resources to make us truly holy; only the Christian God has the power to make us holy; only the Triune God can ask us to be holy and at the same time command us not to look at ourselves in this process (unlike other gods of other religions). He alone can command this of us because he alone has the capacity in himself to be this for us, and to give us, by the Holy Spirit in and through the resurrection of Jesus, the power to live from his yes for us, to live in his holiness and to grow deeper into what it means to be truly ‘set apart’.

3) A function of this, as Peter, and the Mosaic author make clear, is obedience. Under the old covenant (i.e. Leviticus), the people had a whole moral code to follow in order to experience and participate in the holiness of Yahweh that God had called them to. Similarly, Peter emphasizes obedience to God as the mechanism that will allow for us to experience holiness (purity, set apartness, etc.) in our daily lived lives. What is interesting between the time of Leviticus and Peter, though, of course, is that the ‘shadows’ of Leviticus and the Mosaic ‘cult’ have become the ‘substance’ in Jesus Christ. All of these codes and laws the people were to be obedient to in order to experience God’s holiness in their lives really only drove the nail deeper into their hearts making them realize that they had hard heads, and hard hearts, thus pointing them back to Yahweh once again (see Galatians 3 and the role that the holiness-codes were to play in pointing people to Jesus). What happened, of course, is that by time we hear from the Apostle Peter, Jesus, Yahweh in the flesh had come and he had lived the obedient life for us; he lived the life of obedience that we never could, and he lived it to the point of death, resurrection, and ascension. So when Peter calls us to be holy (reiterating and even quoting Leviticus), when he calls us to obedience, he does so with the full knowledge that we have the capacity to do this and experience this as we live from Jesus’ obedience for us by the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Application

I wish we had more time to delve deeper into this most important topic for our daily lives. But as you reflect on this topic throughout the week I would ask you to consider the fact, that as Webster has pointed out, that even thinking about what it means to be holy before God is an act of holiness in and of itself. It is an act and confession of faith that you are beginning to think in ways you never would have lest the holiness of God’s life had already broken into your sinful life and shed abroad in your heart his love, his purity and holiness; which then has resulted in you even wanting to think about what it means to be holy, let alone wanting to live a holy life from God’s holiness for you! So through the week, as you engage in this process of being holy, attempt to identify other passages of scripture that talk about God’s holiness (they are throughout the corpus of Holy Scripture), and simply begin to prayerfully meditate upon what you find. And ask the Lord, as you do this, to make you sensitive to him and his holiness in your life, and watch how that might be manifested as you intentionally and prayerfully contemplate all that this means in your daily and often mundane life. And watch how engaging in this process will begin to take even the mundane, even as it did for the Israelites, into the holy of holies of God’s life for you.

[1] John Webster, Holiness, kindle loc. 87, 92, 98.

Uncle Karl on the relationship between Pulpit Ministry and Christian Dogmatics or Systematics

Something that I struggle with, personally, is with the apparent need calvinspulpitfor depth in Christian discipleship, and how that relates to Pulpit ministry. In other words, because of the way that I am wired, the way the Lord has worked in my life, in particular, I struggle with the idea that all people, all Christians need to be being inculcated with the deeper things, the deeper realities that the history of Christian ideas and Christian Dogmatics have to offer. I want to see people push deep into being deep thinkers about our deep God; but we aren’t all the same are we? We are the ‘body of Christ’; as such we all have our roles within that body-life. And so since this is the reality I simply need to remember all of this, and ask the Lord for wisdom and sensitivity to where people are at in their own walks with Jesus Christ. I think there does need to be a challenge to the body of Christ at large to go deeper, to stretch further into the doctrinal riches God has for us in Christ; but then this also needs to be chastened by the further idea that not all have been called to spend all of their time thinking about the relationship, say, between the Divine and human natures in the singular person of Jesus Christ (this is why creeds and such are so important because they allow non-professional theologians to affirm the deep and doxological truths required by the pressures of the Christ reality, while at the same time not requiring person’s affirming such creeds to necessarily engage in all of the fine tuning and intricacies of developing theories of kenosis etc.).

Along these lines, Karl Barth has a good word on how Christian Dogmatics and Preaching should relate. Barth writes:

When I say dogmatics I naturally have in mind not only what goes on at the university and in books — though I mean that too — but also everything that individual theologians do all their lives as also official systematicians, everything that goes on always and everywhere behind the front of proclamation, everything that I called reflection in § 5. The only thing is that we must not confuse dogmatics and preaching. You should not go out and for a few years overpower your poor congregations with the contents of your notebooks, with the objective and subjective possibilities of revelation, with exercises in the ancient and modern theologies of the schools that we have to study here, with the dialectical corners into which I have to lead you here. You must draw the content of your sermons from the well which stands precisely between the Bible, your own concrete situation, and that of your hearers. Homiletics and practical theology as a whole will deal with it. In no case, however, must you draw on my own or any other dogmatics and please, not from the dogmatics that probably each of you will work out for private use. Everything in its own time and place. Dogmatics is an exercise when it is done properly, but still an exercise, a preparatory act behind the scenes. If other people are interested in it, then we must not forbid this, but as a whole I would say to you that there is hardly anything that we theologians should keep as much to ourselves as dogmatics.[1]

Thank you, Uncle Karl.

Full disclosure: What I do on this blog represents something more like my personal theological notebook, written in a way that I realize that other’s are looking in from time to time. But what I plan on doing, soon, is to start writing min-sermons and posting them here at the blog. My tentative plan is to have what I might call Homiley Mondays, and each Monday post a new sermon on a particular topic or theological exposition of Scripture. I think this will be good practice for me, and hopefully edifying for you.

 

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics. Instruction in the Christian Religion, Vol. One (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 276.

On Irenaeus. Christ ‘the concentric feedback loop of Israel’ or Recapitulation

Jesus is the recapitulation of Israel; or in fact of God’s life itself in the kameronvia historia, according to Patristic theologian Irenaeus. I want to share what Duke Divinity School theologian J Kameron Carter has to say about this in his book Race. I will want to revisit the substance of this at a later date, until then, here is what Carter has written in regard to Irenaeus’ view of how God in Christ “re-does” “re-lives” “re-capitulates” creation, Israel-Mary, and Godself in his lived life for the nations:

In arguing this way, it is as if Irenaeus is saying that the recapitulation of all things in Christ occurs in a concentric feedback loop. Creation itself is a concentrated expression of the love the Father has for the eternal Son through the Holy Spirit. That is, it is a condensed narrative that captures without diluting the rhetorical plotline of the depths of God’s love for the Son, a love that embraces within itself even that which is not God (i.e. creation). In this sense, creation in its own way recapitulates the divine life as the “structure of supreme love.” But then as if even this condensed story were still too prolix, YHWH presents the story of Israel, beginning with the call of Abram-become-Abraham to create ex nihilo a people who before did not exist, as a compendium of the story of creation, which too came into being. And so to grasp the story of Israel is to grasp the story of creation. And finally again, in an effort to contain what yet appears to be too elongated a narrative filled with plot twists, reversals, and surprises, Christ himself “cuts short” the story of Israel into the résumé of his own material body and historical life, only then to have this loop back to the story of creation, but now under the aspect of the second Eve. He is the biography of creation. But in so being, he proves to be God’s own autobiography, God’s writing of Godself.[1]

Rich. Too rich for me to try and engage with at the moment (due to time constraints), but hopefully you grasp some of the point, and see what is going on in the theology of Irenaeus, at least as mediated through Carter’s wit.

[1] J Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account, kindle loc. 851.