Will Marcion win after all?

In his recent book, Princeton Theological Seminary professor Brent Strawn makes a provocative case that American Christians are in imminent danger of losing the Old Testament—and with it much of the substance of Christian faith.

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Drawing on a variety of evidence, Strawn argues that we are losing our grip on the OT, making it comparable to a dying language. He bases this assessment on a survey of religious knowledge among Americans, an analysis of the content of sermons, the way the OT is used (or not used) in hymns, and the highly selective use of the OT in the Revised Common Lectionary. He concludes that American Christians’ faith is subsisting on a drastically reduced diet of Old Testament.

Pursuing the linguistic analogy, Strawn looks at how the use of the OT has become “pidginized”—its use reduced to a very basic, almost childlike “vocabulary”—and “creolized”—combined with other non- or sub-biblical thought-and-language systems. In the first category, he places the New Atheists, who often deploy a radically simplistic understanding of the OT in their anti-religious polemics. They latch on to a few verses supposedly demonstrating the barbarism and immorality of the OT and its God, without bothering to understand the Bible in all its complexity. The problem is that many Christians are themselves so devoid of OT knowledge that they can’t muster effective counterarguments.

Strawn sees this “pidginized” understanding of the OT at the root of the church’s recurrent temptation toward the arch-heresy of Marcionism. This is what’s going on, for example, whenever the “mean,” “violent,” “judgmental” God of the OT is contrasted with the “tolerant,” “peaceful,” “forgiving” God of the New Testament/Jesus. The historical Marcion took this to an extreme in seeking to explicitly excise the OT (and large swaths of the NT) from the Christian canon, but neo-Mariconite tendencies are at work whenever (often well meaning) preachers, teachers, liturgists, etc. elide or omit large portions of the OT (especially certain “troubling” passages) from Christian worship, prayer, and education.

Like nature, theology abhors a vacuum, and the void left by the OT is often filled by sub-biblical and sub-Christian discourse. This is what Strawn compares to linguistic creolization—snippets of biblical language are grafted on to another belief-system, resulting in new hybrid that loses much of the biblical substance. The clearest example of this is the prosperity gospel, where quasi-biblical language and concepts are combined with a debased form of American civil religion/capitalist ideology.

Languages can die, and once they do, it’s extremely difficult to resurrect them. As with a dying language, American churches suffer from too few competent “speakers” of the OT, and based on the available evidence they aren’t doing a great job of making new ones. If use of the OT continues to trail off, it may soon be too late to bring it back.

Strawn’s key point of emphasis is that Christianity without the Old Testament front and center isn’t actually Christianity at all, at least not in any sense continuous with the earliest Christians. Many Christians have too long treated the OT as, at best, a kind of preface to the NT. Strawn maintains, on the contrary, that it has its own integrity for preaching, teaching and worship, and–considering that it makes up the vast majority of Christian scripture–that it should have a much more prominent place than it currently does. (To show how this can be done, he highlights Walter Brueggemann as one of the few prominent Christian theologian/preachers who draws primarily on the OT.)

As a course of treatment for this perhaps fatally ill patient, Strawn offers several recommendations: lectionaries that make fuller use of the OT in worship; sermons that preach primarily, if not exclusively, from the OT readings; hymns that reflect a more biblically-based theology, as well as more use of the psalms in corporate worship; and Christian education that teaches people to wrestle with the full scope of scripture.

One may wonder if even these steps would be enough if the problem is as deep and pervasive as Strawn has suggested. Of course, even these actions are unlikely to be taken if church leaders aren’t facing up to the problem. Getting Strawn’s book into as many of their hands as possible would be a good start. The Old Testament may be dying, but we have it on good authority that God is in the resurrection business.

Tom Paine, the Bible and wealth redistribution

I enjoyed this interview with University of Michigan philosopher Elizabeth Anderson on how workplaces effectively function as “private governments” and often act in oppressive ways toward their employees.

That lead me to this piece by Anderson on Tom Paine as an early theorist of social insurance. In Anderson’s telling, Paine was responding to revolutionary communist tendencies among some thinkers during the French Revolution.

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The other Tom of the American (and French) Revolutions

He wanted to save private property and freedom while also solving the problem of poverty–the very problem that led some to embrace extreme, communist-like solutions.

Paine called for an unconditional grant of money to every citizen funded by a tax on inherited wealth. For him, this was not a matter of charity, but of justice. The earth belongs to everyone, so others are owed some recompense when property is appropriated to private ownership. Moreover, the value of any property depends in part on the social context in which it exists.

As Paine says in his essay Agrarian Justice:

I have made the calculations stated in this plan, upon what is called personal, as well as upon landed property. The reason for making it upon land is already explained; and the reason for taking personal property into the calculation is equally well founded though on a different principle. Land, as before said, is the free gift of the Creator in common to the human race. Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally.

Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich. So inseparably are the means connected with the end, in all cases, that where the former do not exist the latter cannot be obtained. All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.

What’s striking about Paine’s arguments is that they anticipate later views about the common origin of property, the social construction of property rights and the duties that property owners have to society. (Recall President Obama’s (in)famous “You didn’t build that” line.)

I’d add that, although Paine was a Quaker-turned-Deist, this general viewpoint is consonant with Christian thinking. The earth does not belong to any human being; rather we hold it in trust as a gift of the creator. The Old Testament sets explicit limits on property rights, calling for fields and vineyards to be left fallow for the poor (and animals!) to eat from every seventh year (see Exodus 23). There is no absolute right of private property in the Bible, and any scheme of property rights that leaves some in destitution is unjustifiable and wicked.

With the Fourth of July upon us, remember that Paine is at the very least an honorary founding father, so wealth redistribution turns out to be as American as apple pie. 😉

 

Is penal substitutionary atonement the “core of Christian faith”?

According to this story, the Southern Baptist Convention just adopted a resolution at its annual meeting that re-affirms the “penal substitutionary” view of Christ’s atonement. This was passed in the face of what were described as efforts to “weaken” the doctrine.

Proponents of PSA (penal substitutionary atonement)–the view that on the cross God was punishing Jesus for the sins of humanity–often treat it as a non-negotiable part of Christian orthodoxy, or even the very essence of the gospel. In the article linked above, Southern Baptists seminary professor Owen Strachan is quoted as saying the following:

“there is no doctrine in Scripture more beautiful than penal substitutionary atonement,” yet at the same time “there may be no doctrine that is more hated.”

“In truth, the biblical precept that the righteous must die for the wicked is the very core of Christian faith,” Strachan said. “Here is the burning heart of divine love: Christ crucified for us.”

By contrast, many other Christians will concede that PSA, properly interpreted, is one legitimate way of understanding the cross, but they insist that it be balanced with other images and motifs from Scripture, such as Christus Victor or moral exemplar.

What strikes me about the pro-PSA side of the argument is that, considering it’s supposed to constitute the essence of the gospel, it actually takes a lot of work to make the case for it from the Bible. Nowhere does Scripture unambiguously say in so many words that God was punishing Jesus on the cross. (And there’s a lot of biblical data that would tell against such an interpretation.) The case for PSA draws primarily on certain passages in Paul, Isaiah, and a few other books, and these passages admit of various interpretations. One has to stretch, to say the least, to find PSA in the gospels and much of the rest of the NT. Even Paul himself draws on a variety of images for understanding what happened on the cross, not all of them obviously consistent with PSA. It seems to me that the death-and-resurrection of Jesus is, for the NT authors, a cosmic event that eludes neat and tidy explanations in the form of any particular theory.

You’d think that if the atonement, understood specifically in a penal, substitutionary sense, really was the “core of Christian faith” it would be presented a bit more unambiguously in the Bible. Given that it isn’t, it seems a sin against Christian liberty to require people to believe in PSA. As the Anglican articles of religion put it,

HOLY Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. (Article VI)

It’s a little ironic that a free-church tradition like the SBC would try to impose more restrictions on Christian consciences than the church of Queen Elizabeth.

The cross as sacrifice and gift

In chapter two of his small book on the cross and resurrection (see previous post), Rowan Williams turns to the important but controversial motif of sacrifice. He reminds us that “there is no pre-cross Christianity”: that is, as far as we can tell, there was no early Christianity that regarded Jesus only as a charismatic teacher or preacher. “[N]ot only is the first stratum, the base level, of Christianity preoccupied with the cross: it seems to take it for granted that the cross is for something, that it is an event whose effect is liberation given to us from beyond ourselves” (p. 21).

When the New Testament writers (and other early Christians) looked for ways to understand the death of Jesus, they reached, almost instinctively it seems, for the language of sacrifice. “If a first-century Jew had heard the statement that Jesus died ‘for many’, for the forgiveness of sins, his or her first thought would probably have been to connect it with the system of sacrifice: when blood is shed in God’s presence, for the sake of God’s people, for the avoiding of disaster, that is sacrifice” (p. 22). It is sacrifice—moreso than the image of the law court—that provides the controlling metaphor for much of the NT’s reflection on Jesus’ crucifixion.

Williams briefly reviews the multiple forms and purposes of sacrifice in the Old Testament, including peace offerings, guilt sacrifices, the great Day of Atonement where the sins of the whole people are laid on the scapegoat, and the daily offering of the lamb in the Temple sanctuary. There is no one, simple understanding of sacrifice that we can put into a “tidy system,” but

in the middle of it all is one great governing idea: a sacrifice is something given over into the hands of God, most dramatically when it is a life given over with the shedding of blood. That gift of life or blood somehow casts a veil over the sin or sickness or disorder of an individual or of a whole people. (p. 24)

The sacrifice, on this understanding, both turns away God’s anger and establishes (or re-establishes) a covenant between God and God’s people. “The gift is given, and in response God not only covers over sin but promises actively to be there for his people” (p. 25).

Turning to the NT, Williams highlights several key passages that use sacrificial language referring back to the OT. Paul uses language of “propitiation,” as well as the metaphors of the scapegoat and the covenant established in blood, when writing about what God has accomplished in Jesus. The Letter to the Hebrews sees Jesus’ sacrifice as analogous to, but surpassing, the Day of Atonement ritual, while both 1 Peter and Revelation reflect on Jesus as the sacrificial lamb.

This does not, Williams notes, add up to a “precise theory of Christ’s death as a sacrifice,” but we can identify at least three ways it has a sacrificial effect. First, it “breaks the chain between evil actions and consequences”; second, it deals with the failures not just of individuals, but of the people taken collectively; third, it establishes and reinforces the covenant—the “peace treaty” between God and humanity.

Granted that sacrifice is a powerful symbol or metaphor, can we say what it is a metaphor for? After all, Jesus was not literally sacrificed as a ritual victim in a cultic setting. He was executed by the Roman state as a rebel on a desolate hill, far outside the Temple.

To understand this, Williams turns to developments in the OT and intertestamental Jewish thought that seem to move away from a literal understanding of sacrifice and toward a more “spiritual” view. Specifically, “the real heart of sacrifice was obedience . . . to perform the law, to do God’s will, is to give the gift that pleases him most” (pp. 29-30). And it was recognized that fully giving the gift of one’s heart, will, and decisions could lead, under certain circumstances, to death: “obedience to the law could mean death at the hands of a ruthless occupying power.” Such a death, it came to be thought, could “cover over” the sins of others.

It’s a short step from here to understanding Jesus’ life and death as a sacrifice for others:

At every moment of his life he has given his heart to God in such a way that God is able to work through him with no interruption, with no diversion. At every moment Jesus has fulfilled the law; not by ticking off at the end of every day a series of acts performed; not by obeying God like a reluctant corporal with a sergeant major ordering him around; but at every moment Jesus has done what God wants. […]

But as with those martyrs in the period between the Testaments, it was an obedience that led to death. Jesus’ single-minded gift of his heart to the Father leads him to the shedding of his blood, because obedience to God in this world of sin, oppression and violence puts you lethally at risk. This is a world in which if you try to give your heart to God you may find your blood shed; it’s that kind of world. That’s why the New Testament speaks of the cost of Jesus’ obedience, and of Jesus paying a price on our behalf; he buys us back. (p. 31)

The uniquely Christian twist on this idea, however, is that Jesus is more than a perfectly obedient human being whose self-sacrifice covers the sins of others and restores relationship with God. He is, as the doctrine of the Trinity says, God enfleshed.

The obedience that Jesus offers to his Father is not just that of a very pious Jew: it goes deeper. It’s a loving gift which directly and uninterruptedly and perfectly reflects God’s own loving gift. It’s the Son watching what the Father does and ‘playing it back’ to him. (p. 33)

In other words, sacrifice is here not understood as something humanity offers God to assuage his anger, but as a gift that God himself gives: the loving response of the Son to the Father in the Spirit. Human beings are “caught up in” this loving relationship, enabled by the Spirit to share in the Son’s loving response to the Father.

This is, Williams says, what the often-misunderstood St. Anselm of Canterbury was trying to get at, in part, in his treatise on the Incarnation.

At the heart of [Anselm’s] argument is the idea of giving a gift to God that is worthy of God. What gift could be worthy of God except God’s own love? Jesus, perfectly human, perfectly diving, gives it to God as we cannot because of our ingrained sin. So the life and death of Jesus are the translation into human terms of the eternal truth of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit. And when that divine life becomes active and local and immediate in the world, it changes the definition of what human beings are. It interposes between God and human failure, a new face for humanity.

‘Look Father, look on his anointed face, and only look on us as found in him,’ says the great eucharistic hymn. We are able to say to God: ‘Don’t look at our failures. You know, Lord God, that humanity is more than this because you have made it more than this. You know that humanity is more than me and my miserable and wretched and incompetent struggles to be human, because you have given to the world perfect humanity: Jesus’ humanity. And in association with that new human nature I can be at peace with you, my sins forgiven, my injuries healed, a new creation.’ (pp. 34-5)

Williams admits that we can’t quite get a satisfying intellectual grip on this “immense metaphor of sacrifice.” But at its heart it’s saying that “what Jesus does, who Jesus is, is a gift offered to God, offered from the earth, from humanity, and yet offered with divine liberty and divine love. That gift – so costly, so painful in a world of injustice and violence – ‘covers over’ the world’s failure, makes the face of the world new, makes peace” (p. 36).

Thus we are driven beyond the idea that the cross is (just) a revelation or sign of God’s love—it accomplishes something for us that we could never have done for ourselves. We can say that Jesus suffered “for us” or “in our place”–though not primarily in the penal-substitutionary sense favored by some evangelical Protestants. As David B. Hart described it in an article on Anselm, it is a “gift exceeding every debt.”

The cross as a sign of freedom

Here is a divine love that cannot be defeated by violence: we do our worst, and we still fail to put God off. We reject, exclude and murder the one who bears the love of God in his words and work, and that love continues to do exactly what it always did. The Jesus who is dying on the cross is completely consistent with the Jesus we have followed through his ministry, and this consistency shows that we can’t deflect the love that comes through in life and death. So when Pilate and the High Priest — acting on behalf of all of us, it seems — push God in Jesus to the edge, God in Jesus gently but firmly pushes back, doing exactly what he always did: loving, forgiving, healing.

So the cross is a sign of the transcendent freedom of the love of God. This is a God whose actions, and whose reactions to us, cannot be dictated by what we do. You can’t trap, trick or force God into behaving against his character. You can do what you like: but God is God. And if he wants to love and forgive, then he’s going to love and forgive whether you like it or not, because he is free. Our lives, in contrast, are regularly dominated by a kind of emotional economics: ‘I give you that; you give me this.’ ‘I give you friendship; you give me friendship.’ ‘You treat me badly, and I’ll treat you badly.’ We’re caught up in cycles of tit-for-tat behaviour. But God is not caught up in any cycle: God is free to be who he decides to be, and we can’t do anything about it.

And that’s the good news: the good news of our powerlessness to change God’s mind. Which is just as well, because God’s mind is focused upon us for mercy and for life. God will always survive our sin, our failure. God is never exhausted by what we do. God is always there, capable of remaking the relationships we break again and again. That’s the sign of the cross, the sign of freedom. (Rowan Williams, The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection, pp. 8-9)

In this book, the former archbishop of Canterbury writes meditatively on the central mystery of the Christian faith. The first part looks at the three classic motifs that have been used to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death — sign, sacrifice and victory. Here, in the spirit of Peter Abelard, Williams writes powerfully of the cross as a revelation (or sign) of God’s inexhaustible love. He’s clear, however, that this isn’t all that Christians have wanted to say about the crucifixion of Jesus. An example of love, no matter how powerful and inspiring, doesn’t seem to capture the sense that our objective situation is different because of the death of Jesus. Hence the motifs of “sacrifice” and “victory,” which he considers in subsequent chapters.

The approach Williams takes in this book is one I’ve long agreed with – the different atonement models are better seen as complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Each of them presents to us a particular aspect of a mystery which is ultimately beyond the grasp of any schematic theory.

(Why) does the debate about divine (im)passibility matter?

I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading up on the debate over whether God can be said to suffer, and if so in what sense. I haven’t come to any firm conclusions about this, but I think it’s helpful to understand what religious commitments may motivate the debate. In particular, this is not just an intellectual debate about the most accurate and coherent way of talking about God; it’s something that impinges on piety, social and personal ethics, questions of theodicy and other areas central to a living religious faith.

One reason for thinking this is that the debate hasn’t been carried on only in the rarefied realm of academic books and journals; it’s spilled over to sermons, popular-level books, blogs, social media and other venues where the proverbial person in the pew can (and has) formed a strong opinion. Moreover, the debate has—like so many other things—been projected onto a culture-war grid of “conservatives” vs. “progressives,” with conservatives generally favoring impassibility and progressives arguing for some form of passibilism. (Clearly there are exceptions to this generalization.)

Given the (ahem) passion that this debate has generated, it’s worth considering what the various participants think is at stake. At the risk of oversimplifying, I think that both sides are, at their best, seeking to uphold essential divine attributes that lie at the heart of what the Christian message is or should be about. (I’m generally confining myself to the debate within Christianity here, since it’s what I know best. I don’t have a good sense of the extent to which, if any, this is a live debate in other traditions.)

For proponents of divine passibility, I think many of their concerns derive from an emphasis on divine compassion. The God of the Bible—of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; of Moses; of the Prophets; and of Jesus and the apostles—is a God deeply concerned with the plight of his creatures, with their well-being, and with their ultimate fulfillment. God responds to his needy creatures through suffering love. In the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, God hears the cries of the oppressed Hebrew slaves and accompanies them in their journey from bondage to freedom. He gives laws and teaching aimed at constructing a polity of justice and peace and suffers when his people turn away from them, with the great prophets giving voice to what Abraham Joshua Heschel called the divine pathos. In the life and passion of Jesus, this compassionate God enters, in a profound and mysterious way, into the depths of human suffering and alienation to redeem his wayward creatures.

Proponents of divine passibility worry that traditional concepts of God cannot do full justice to this divine compassion that is so central to the biblical message. These theologies seem to them to spend a lot of time explaining (away)—through metaphor or allegory—the attribute of divine compassion. The rather austere God of classical theism is not easy to square with the passionate God of the Bible. Is God in himself really unmoved by the suffering of his creatures? Does creation not, strictly speaking, make a difference to God at all?

For defenders of impassiblity, which has a good claim to being the traditional majority view, at least among theologians, I think a good way of summarizing what’s at stake is the divine transcendence. God is the cause of everything else that exists, which he created from nothing. God is not one being among others—even the wisest, most powerful, best being—but being itself, the metaphysical ultimate which explains why there is anything rather than nothing. Accordingly, God is not subject to alteration or affect at the hands of his creation.

Moreover, God is the Lord of history—he exercises sovereign power over the created cosmos and providentially guides the world toward its consummation. And because he transcends the created order, God exercises his sovereignty in mighty and miraculous acts, such as the liberation of the Israelites from bondage and the defeat of death and sin in the resurrection of Jesus. God will further bring the history of the entire cosmos to an end in an act that transcends the possibilities immanent in the laws and processes governing the natural world.

Defenders of impassibility worry that passibilist theologies don’t do justice to God’s transcendence. In some forms, such as process theology, God is described as limited by laws and principles not of his own making. In others, suffering enters into the very heart of the divine life, possibly for eternity. But if this is so, what becomes of God’s ultimate triumph over the forces of sin, decay and death? Impassibilists argue that the passibilist God is rendered as a being among beings, one who is engaged in an agonistic struggle with the forces of evil in which victory is not assured. Does evil’s reach extend even into the heart of Almighty God? And if so, doesn’t it threaten to overwhelm him and his purposes for creation? A God that does not transcend the created order may begin to look like a puny and ineffectual godling.

Obviously this is a highly simplified and schematized account, and I’ve only scratched the surface of the debate. There’s an indefinite number of replies and counter-replies each side could make, as well as possible tweaks and refinements to both positions. However, I do think this gets at a central set of concerns driving this debate. We can see this in how they relate to questions of everyday faith and piety: Does God care about me? When something bad happens in the world, does God get upset? Can God do anything about the world’s suffering and evil? Will good triumph in the end? Does anything we do ultimately make a difference to God? Will evil be with us forever? How we think about the im/passibility question affects what we might say to these questions too.

What I think is worth keeping in mind is that both these camps are trying to do justice to attributes of God that are arguably essential to any version of Christian faith worth hanging onto. Divine compassion does seem to be at the heart of the Bible, and the gospel message in particular. In some theologies it seems to die the death of a thousand qualifications. Likewise, the God of the Bible is not just one god among many, but the incomparable creator and redeemer. The profound distinction between creature and creator is essential to a Christian view of the world. Any concept of God claiming to be Christian should be able to fully incorporate both compassion and transcendence.

This may be overly irenic or Pollyannaish, but I suspect there are suitably nuanced versions of both “impassibilist” and “passibilist” theologies that can accomplish this and which, at the end of the day, may not look all that different from one another. And maybe we need both to complement and balance one another, and to remind us that we see through a glass darkly and can never grasp the fullness of the divine Mystery.

Jesus and Rome

Were Jesus and the early Christian movement foes of the Roman Empire? This common claim is critically examined by biblical scholar Christopher Bryan in his thought-provoking book Render to Caesar. He takes issue with those who regard Jesus as primarily concerned with opposing Rome in the name of “home rule” for Israel. Bryan examines the OT and the inter-testamental background, the gospels, the letters of Paul, and other NT writings (as well as extra-biblical sources) in making his case. There’s scant evidence, he says, that Jesus regarded Rome as illegitimate as such, and significant evidence to suggest that he recognized its authority–within limits. (The same goes for Paul and other NT writers.)

Bryan contends that Jesus and the early Christian movement stood broadly within the biblical prophetic tradition, which regards earthly powers as permitted by God for the purpose of ensuring peace and justice. The powers are legitimate insofar as they seek to fulfill their God-ordained purpose, but are subject to vigorous critique (and divine judgment) when they don’t. Pagan empires are not bad per se, and the biblical tradition can in fact be quite positive about them (as in the case of Cyrus). Jesus and the early Christians certainly believed the claims of God transcended those of Rome, but that doesn’t mean they rejected the claims of Rome within proper limits.

I confess I’ve never been persuaded by the “Jesus as dedicated enemy of Rome” interpretation. There just seems to be too little evidence in the gospels to support the idea that this was the primary purpose of his ministry. Obviously Bryan’s book isn’t the last word on these issues, but it makes a persuasive (and highly readable) case.

And yet they are not three gods but one God

I recently re-read Keith Ward’s Christ and the Cosmos, which was published in 2015, but which I didn’t feel like I really digested upon my first reading. (Not that I fully digested it this time either!)

In this book, Ward offers a multi-part trinitarian theology, fleshing out in more detail arguments he’s made elsewhere (particularly in his Religion and Creation; see here for my discussion). In doing so, he’s trying to accomplish a number of ambitious things: first, to defend a version of theism wherein God is conceived as the personal ground of being who interacts with and changes in response to the created world; second, to critique recent popular “social” accounts of the Trinity that picture God as a “society” comprising three distinct persons or centers of consciousness; and third, to explore the relationship between the “economic” and “immanent” Trinity in light of a modern scientific understanding of the universe.

Regarding the first point, Ward argues that although God’s nature is necessary and immutable, God nevertheless has certain contingent properties. This is because, since creation itself is contingent, how God relates to that creation must be subject to change. For example, God’s knowledge of the world is contingent upon features of the world that could be otherwise. If the world was different (and most of us assume it could be, at least in some respects), then God’s knowledge of it would be different. Or, as most theists have assumed, since God didn’t have to create a world, God’s knowledge, experience, etc. would be different had God chosen not to. Thus Ward sides with modern “passibilist” or “relational” forms of theism against classical theism, although he does not go as far as, say, process theology. Ward regards God as causally and metaphysically ultimate in ways that most process theologians don’t.

On the question of the social Trinity, Ward takes on some of its more prominent proponents, both in contemporary theology (e.g., Moltmann, Zizioulas and La Cugna) and analytic philosophy (e.g., Swinburne and Hasker). The argumentative thickets are fairly dense, drawing on the Bible, theology and philosophy, but Ward’s underlying contention is that it’s very difficult to provide a strong version of social trinitarianism that doesn’t end up looking like tri-theism. He argues that it’s better to think of God as a single subject—a single mind and will—that acts in a threefold way, or with three distinct aspects. He envisions God as (1) the creative source of being who (2) self-manifests in the created order as a pattern of rationality and beauty and (3) acts within created beings to unite them to Godself. This is not the ancient heresy of modalism, Ward says, because the three aspects or activities of the divine being are essential and permanent—not successive or transitory—features of the divine being. He thinks this does a better job than the social view of balancing faith in the Trinity with a proper commitment to monotheism.

Finally, Ward criticizes the tendency to collapse the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity in recent Christian theology. Theologians are too quick, he says, to identify the Trinity as revealed in the biblical narrative with God’s inner life. He notes that some have gone so far as to say that “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” constitutes the “proper name” of God. He points out that such a name might well be meaningless to other creatures in the universe (supposing there are any), relying as it does on very earth-bound imagery. He recommends more metaphysical reserve; the Trinity as revealed still corresponds to an “inner” threefoldedness in God, but the Trinity as it appears to us cannot be simply projected into the inner divine life. The cosmos is much larger than our forebears realized, and we shouldn’t be too quick to think that the way God appears to us is universally valid.

Obviously no single book is going to settle all the controversies regarding the Trinity (and I’ve only touched on the arguments Ward deploys). But speaking for myself, I find Ward’s case for a more open-relational theism pretty appealing, as well as his criticism of strongly social doctrines of the Trinity. I also agree that Christian theologians shouldn’t be so eager to describe the “inner” life of God—Ward’s criticism of the views of Moltmann and Von Balthasar, with their suggestion of an almost metaphysical rupture between the Father and the Son, is a case in point. Perhaps it’s my Western bias, but I’m more inclined to begin with the divine unity and seek to understand how it can be threefold than to begin with three distinct “persons” or centers of consciousness.

That said, Ward himself, as a philosophical theologian, is maybe too quick to abstract from the biblical narrative in trying to describe the immanent Trinity. His triad of creative, expressive, and unitive being (he is indebted to John Macquarrie here) is suggestive, but it also smacks of the kind of speculation that he warns others against. The emphasis on the Trinity in recent theology was motivated in part, I think, by a desire to think about God in a distinctly Christian way, taking its lead from the gospels and not from a priori theorizing. While this might lead in some cases to a mistaken view of the Trinity (as I think it does in the case of Moltmann, et al.), the answer may lie in greater attention to the biblical narrative as a whole. After all, monotheism is a key tenet of Old Testament religion, which ought to inform, if not wholly determine, how Christians think about God.

The hope of the kingdom

Georgia Harkness (1891-1974) was a 20th-century theologian and church teacher who could hold her own with the theological bigwigs of the day (Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr) while writing accessible works of theology aimed at lay people. Her books have an almost C. S. Lewisian ability to convey profound theological ideas in lucid prose. (What she lacks in Lewis’s imaginative richness she arguably makes up for in a more solid grounding in academic theology.)

Harkness was a feminist, a pacifist, a proponent of the social gospel after it became unfashionable, and a defender of liberal theology (broadly speaking) in the face of challenges from fundamentalism and neo-orthodoxy. She called herself a “liberal evangelical”—a phrase that reflected her commitment to open inquiry and social improvement as well as a personalist evangelical piety informed by her life-long Methodism.

In her book Understanding the Kingdom of God Harkness considers the various ways Jesus’ message of the kingdom has been understood and develops her own approach, which combines many of the best elements of the others. She doesn’t fully align herself with any “school”—apocalyptic, prophetic, “realized” eschatology, Bultmannian existentialism—but finds strengths and weaknesses in each.

For Harkness, the kingdom as preached by Jesus has three key aspects: the present, kingly rule of God over all creation; our personal entry into the kingdom by accepting its ethical demands; and its future consummation. Harkness acknowledges that there was an apocalyptic element to Jesus’ teaching and preaching, and even that he may have expected an imminent end of the world, but she denies that this made up the entirety of his message. Just as important, if not more so, is the prophetic aspect of his teaching—“good news for the poor”—and the ethics of participating in the kingdom. She finds the heart of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom in the parables, and the chapter discussing them is one of the book’s richest.

This is not to say that Harkness denies the eschatological. The kingdom is yet to be fully consummated, and this includes life beyond death for individuals, not just a this-worldly utopia. She is (wisely in my view) agnostic about the precise outlines of the eternal kingdom—will it be a “new heaven and earth”? eternal life beyond the spatio-temporal realm?—noting that the language we have in the Bible is highly symbolic and poetic. She grounds this hope in the character of God as revealed by Jesus and the biblical tradition more broadly.

Harkness laments that mainline churches have neglected the teaching of the kingdom, while the more conservative churches have turned it into apocalyptic escapism. The book was published in 1974, but I’m not sure how much has changed since then. Harkness argues that a better understanding of the kingdom can provide hope and motivate social action without leading to escapism or political utopianism. In a time when hope seems pretty fragile, Harkness’s words provide some: “What one can say in the midst of a complex and changing world is that it is still God’s world, and God is still working for good within it.”

Making sense of the Bible with Adam Hamilton

I really enjoyed Rev. Adam Hamilton’s recent book Making Sense of the Bible. It’s an overview of the nature of the Bible—how and when it was written, how the books were compiled and ultimately canonized—and  a persuasive effort to reconcile its very human character with its “God-breathed” status.

We mainline Christians usually emphasize that we reject “inerrancy” and other shibboleths of the more conservative churches, but we’re not always as clear about what positive role the Bible plays in our faith. Hamilton–the senior pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, and a prominent voice in United Methodism–distills a lot of mainstream scholarship to present the Bible as a record of people in specific contexts struggling to make sense of their experience of God and the world. He argues that “inerrancy” doesn’t do justice the nature of the Bible as we have it and as it was written.

That doesn’t mean that the Bible isn’t “inspired.” But Hamilton suggests that the inspiration at work isn’t different in kind from the way the Spirit works with people in all ages. The Spirit doesn’t override human freedom to ensure infallibility. Rather, because they were open to the Spirit, the Word of God was able to speak through the biblical authors, but not in a way that bypassed their finite human capabilities. The Bible is not “dictated” by God; it’s a record of humans struggling to articulate the revelation they have received.

For Christians, the Word of God is preeminently Jesus, the incarnate Word. The Bible is authoritative for us not because it was composed in some supernatural fashion that protects it from error (how would we know this in any event?). It’s authoritative because it contains the earliest, most authentic witness to Jesus. Accordingly, Hamilton argues that Jesus—his teachings, his life, and his death and resurrection—provide a prism or sieve for looking at the rest of the Bible.

This approach allows Hamilton to address some of the “challenging passages” of the Bible, such as those that seem to portray God as endorsing horrific violence, approve of slavery and the subordination or women, or teach things add odds with a scientific understanding of the universe. The Biblical authors (like us) were finite, sinful human beings, and they didn’t necessarily always get it right. Interpreting the Bible in the light of God’s definitive (for Christians) revelation in Jesus may lead us to set aside certain passages as no longer binding or reflecting the true character of God. (This is something Christians have always done, whether they admit it or not, most obviously in the book of Acts.)

As I said, most of what Hamilton writes is based on mainstream biblical scholarship, and his conclusions would be broadly accepted in mainline churches. It’s essentially the view that I’ve more-or-less held my entire adult Christian life (such as it is). But I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone articulate this understanding of the Bible so clearly, persuasively and accessibly.

ADDENDUM: I wrote this, on getting by without an infallible Bible, a couple of years ago, and I think it holds up pretty well. As it happens, it was inspired by an interview I read with Rev. Hamilton!