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.

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(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!

Freedom, gender and transcendence

Of all the contributors to The Work of Love (see previous posts here and here), Anglican theologian Sarah Coakely is the most critical of the revisionist, “kenotic” picture of God. (Interestingly, she’s also the only woman contributor.) In particular, Coakely insists that “classical” theists have intelligent responses to many of the concerns motivating the other contributors. She cites, for example, Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe’s contributions in his book God Matters (a book I haven’t read, but intend to).

Her essay is subtle and nuanced, but I want to focus on her discussion of “libertarian” freedom as the lynchpin of many of the other contributors’ arguments. As she writes, “To most of the writers in this volume it is taken as an axiomatic good that humans should enjoy a type of freedom that places limitations on God’s power and foreknowledge” (pp. 204-5). She notes that this freedom is defined in an “incompatibilist” sense—that for humans to be genuinely free God has to “restrain his influence.”

Coakely suggests, however, that this picture of freedom is “gendered” in the sense that it portrays freedom as “an act of total independence from restriction, conditioning, or the admission of dependence,” a view that some feminist thinkers have characterized as “an intrinsically ‘male’ fantasy.”

An alternative, “compatibilist” view of freedom would evoke a “picture . . . in which I am most truly ‘free’ when I am aligned with God’s providential and determining will for me.” On a more classical view of providence, Coakely maintains, God can be understood—perhaps more maternally–as empowering rather than overpowering. Citing Julian of Norwich, she highlights “a notion of divine desire that finds its completion in human responsiveness rather than setting itself in competition with it” (p. 206). On a nuanced classical view, divine causality need not be thought of as competing with creaturely causality, but as making it possible.

Whether one agrees with Coakely on the “masculinist” nature of incompatibilist, or libertarian, freedom, I think she’s right to point to the pivotal role it plays in some of these “kenotic” accounts of God’s relation to the world. And I think she raises an important concern about some of the proposals developed by Ward, Polkinghorne, Fiddes and others. The concern is that when human and divine power are seen as locked in a kind of zero-sum game—such that for me to be free God has to “step back” or self-restrain—we risk putting God and creatures on the same “ontological plane” so to speak.

In the classical tradition—stemming from the “three As” (Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas)—God is not a being among beings, but the source of all that exists. As such, God’s relation to creation is “radically other” than the relationships among created beings. Thus it can be argued that God’s omnipresent activity does not compete with the powers of creative beings, but rather sustains them in their very freedom. (Such a “noncompetitive” view of divine power has been articulated in modern times by Kathryn Tanner, Rowan Williams and William Placher, among others.)

I’m not sure where I ultimately come down on this. As I said in my previous post, the impassible God of classical theism can sometimes seem remote from the passionate, involved God of the Bible. But the Bible also affirms that God transcends any image we can make or comparison with created things. The classical tradition rightly upholds this sense of divine transcendence. However, it’s also true that the classical picture of God has sometimes been rendered in an omni-causal deterministic way that really does threaten to suffocate human agency and any sense of reciprocity with the divine. Maybe reading McCabe will help me sort this out. 🙂