Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An Old Hermit on Human Fallenness

"The old man swung his head back and forth. The way of the transgressor is hard. God made this world, but he didnt make it to suit everbody, did he?

"I don't believe he much had me in mind.

"Aye, said the old man. But where does a man come by his notions. What world's he seen that he liked better?

"I can think of better places and better ways.

"Can ye make it be?


"No. It's a mystery. A man's at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it. You believe that?

"I dont know.

"Believe that."

—Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), p. 19

Monday, June 29, 2009

Commending to You: Freedom

Part of the job description for being an American today is the ceaseless accumulation of crap, compounded by the ever-increasing giving of one's time to some screen filled with words, video, or work to do. This can and does become a spiral of dizzying glaze, a subtle anxiety bubbling up or threatening to if the television is not on or the email isn't pulled up or the phone isn't open or the iPod isn't humming. Because: what if we missed something? What if we aren't being entertained? What if there is silence?

Like so many others in this situation, my wife and I are intermittently but perpetually involved in simplifying our life. We have been especially convicted as of late, and have begun to take steps seriously to diminish the role and time-consuming power technology has in our life. For example, we got rid of one of our TVs (the one in the bedroom), and are requesting that our cable service shift from the 80-odd channels we currently receive to the handful of basic network channels. We considered getting rid of cable or the TV altogether, but because we would like to have the news as an option, alongside special televised events (the Super Bowl, the Oscars, elections), and also because we value the visual medium as an art form (films, of course, as well as quality shows like The Wire or Battlestar Galactica), we decided to keep them, at least for now.

We also got rid of one of our two laptops, but that was because it broke. It has been a blessing, however, only having one computer, and now we have discovered (belatedly, it seems) a most wonderful tool for limiting our computer time: Freedom.

Freedom is only for Mac OS X, so PC users will have to look elsewhere, but it has already been a gift to these two members of the internet generation. Put simply, Freedom disables your computer's ability to get on the internet for the amount of time you tell it, up to eight hours. If you must get back on, you can simply restart the computer and the internet will be up and running for you.

The idea is that we are all unwittingly addicted to the internet. Email, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, ESPN, blogs, news, politics, opinion, whatever. We have lost the ability either to get any real work done on a computer without getting endlessly sidetracked or simply to do something offline, away from the computer, without feeling the nagging urge to "check our sites."

Enter Freedom, which is a kind of hopeful question mark on the possibilities of technology to check itself. Freedom offers the opportunity to learn the habits of healthy technological engagement, to form ourselves in a way that, in partnership with a program on our computer, we might learn to live life away from the computer. Of course, if we are so undisciplined that we will simply restart the computer to get the internet back, it won't be of any help. But on the other hand, if we can click "180 minutes" on Freedom, close the computer, and turn to other business, we might just feel liberated enough to know that a book, a person, a walk, or a prayer has our entire, unworried self for a whole three hours. Such attentiveness is surely the first step in a long-term rehabilitation from the virtue-sapping idol our television, computer, and cellular screens often become, a healing that might lead us to a place that creates and employs technology not to the detriment, but in the service of, human life.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Billy Collins

As I've mentioned a couple times, my wife and I were in Nashville Thursday through Saturday at Lipscomb University's Christian Scholars Conference, centered on the theme of "The Power of Narrative." One of the four plenary speakers was Billy Collins; I'm sure I'll have more later this week about the conference, but in lieu of the weekend, enjoy this wonderful poem by the always witty, absurdly poignant Collins, and my own afterward in the same spirit.

[Update: I have taken down poems I am in the process of submitting for publication. I apologize for the confusion and/or inconvenience!]

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By Billy Collins

My favorite time to write is in the late afternoon,
weekdays, particularly Wednesdays.
This is how I go about it:
I take a fresh pot of tea into my study and close the door.
Then I remove my clothes and leave them in a pile
as if I had melted to death and my legacy consisted of only
a white shirt, a pair of pants, and a pot of cold tea.

Then I remove my flesh and hang it over a chair.
I slide it off my bones like a silken garment.
I do this so that what I write will be pure,
completely rinsed of the carnal,
uncontaminated by the preoccupations of the body.

Finally I remove each of my organs and arrange them
on a small table near the window.
I do not want to hear their ancient rhythms
when I am trying to tap out my own drumbeat.

Now I sit down at the desk, ready to begin.
I am entirely pure: nothing but a skeleton at a typewriter.

I should mention that sometimes I leave my penis on.
I find it difficult to ignore the temptation.
Then I am a skeleton with a penis at a typewriter.

In this condition I write extraordinary love poems,
most of them exploiting the connection between sex and death.

I am concentration itself: I exist in a universe
where there is nothing but sex, death, and typewriting.

After a spell of this I remove my penis too.
Then I am all skull and bones typing into the afternoon.
Just the absolute essentials, no flounces.
Now I write only about death, most classical of themes
in language light as the air between my ribs.

Afterward, I reward myself by going for a drive at sunset.
I replace my organs and slip back into my flesh
and clothes. Then I back the car out of the garage
and speed through woods on winding country roads,
passing stone walls, farmhouses, and frozen ponds,
all perfectly arranged like words in a famous sonnet.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Blogging Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology: Volume 1, Part III: "The Triune Character," Chs. 10-12

This is part of a series blogging through Robert Jenson's two-volume Systematic Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). For more information, see the introduction to the series.

Chapter 10: "Jesus"

I. The Content of the Gospel

The next three chapters will deal directly with the claim of the gospel, "that Jesus is risen from the dead" (p. 165), i.e., who the man Jesus is that died on the cross and was raised from the dead. Jenson here offers what is almost a summation of his entire Christology: "[T]he gospel does not tell of work done by a God antecedently and otherwise determined, but itself determines who and what God is." But what does it mean for Jesus to be a historical character?

II. Jesus the Word as Narrated Eschatology

In order to understand Jesus historically as the Word of the Father, and just so as the Son, one must appropriate then work through the problematic created by Rudolf Bultmann's understanding of the "word-event." Bultmann insisted speech itself does something, opening up a future previously unknown or untenable; further, that historical events themselves are such instances, in which "something 'comes to word' that was not before amenable to language" (p. 166). In the event of Jesus what came to word was faith: proclamation brings about eschatological surrender, forgiveness and freedom from the past, a new future. Bultmann's failure, however, was twofold: disallowing the importance of any content to the one proclaimed, precisely because eternity and time stood opposed to each other and thus there allowing no narrative in the eschaton. Barth's critique of religion is so important, then, because while eternity and time remain opposed for him, they come together in the event of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and "as this difference is enacted in the death and resurrection of Christ, it constitutes God's identification with us" (p. 170). Therefore: "the eschatological proclamation needs the narrative of Jesus in order to identify the eschaton that in fact is proclaimed."Jesus is then the Word of God in that he is the content of the future God opens for us in the event of his life, death, and resurrection.

III. The Coherent Identity of the Historical Jesus

Bultmann made the mistake of severing the resurrection of Jesus from his life and death, so that the risen Lord has no continuity with, is somehow a different agent than, Jesus of Nazareth. If this is true, there is no resurrection faith because there is no continuity between the man prior to death and the man having been raised. If it is indeed the same one, however, "which" Jesus are we speaking of: a historical reconstruction, the one told of in the canonical gospels, or the one who meets us in proclamation and worship? This question remains dire only if Jesus is not risen: if he is risen indeed, then he remains an agent in history and thus is the one who supplies the content of his own identity. Though this is circular, it is exactly the church's faith: the Jesus who taught and healed in Palestine is the same Jesus who guides the church's life today, who (most importantly here) guided the hearing, remembering, retelling, writing, and sharing of the stories and teachings from his life. Modern knowledge, to be sure, complicates our understanding of the canonical documents with accounts of oral tradition, redaction, etc., and the Christian faith is unqualifiedly "historically vulnerable" (p. 174) in this sense. The church will therefore take much more seriously those "quests" and inquiries into Jesus' identity which conclude reasonably -- for example, that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet -- than those that do not, such as "more recent depictions of a New Age guru." Regardless, we see that the resurrection must belong to the telling of who Jesus was and is, and cannot be a secondary response on the part of faith; risenness is intrinsic to the identity of the subject of the gospel.

IV. A Bare Sketch of the Historical Jesus

"Jesus was an itinerant prophet and rabbi, the content of whose message was the immediate advent of the Kingdom of God" (p. 176). He enacted the Kingdom in his own life by calling all to repent, by healing the sick, and by welcoming those rejected or marginalized by the present (passing) age. In himself Jesus was, so to speak, the end of the line: his life would characterize, and could then even be equated with, the coming of the Kingdom. He could and did, therefore, speak in the role and with the authority of God himself, even calling God "Father" and himself God's "Son." Either his claim was true or he was a blasphemer; and just so he was executed by "the priests and the lawyers ... on a political charge of subversion ... as pretender 'King of the Jews'" (p. 178).


"Jesus the Christ, in his full historical reality of birth, life, death, and resurrection, is the Word of God in that he is the identity of the future opened by the Word of God. He is the Word of God in that he is the narrative content of the proclamation that, because it poses eschatological possibility, is the Word of God. He is the Word of God because he is the narrative content of the word-event that is the Word of God.

"A certain caution will be noted in this statement of Jesus' reality as word. This is appropriate, for he is not the Word of God in isolation as himself, nor is he first word and then the particular Word of God. Jesus the Christ is the Word of God, and so is word, as he is the content of the proclamation whose power is the Spirit and whose source is the Father. Otherwise stated, Jesus would not be the Word without the resurrection." (p. 171)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

Jenson once again laudably refuses to cede history to some external or prior reality to faith, recognizing and insisting that the historical narrative of the man Jesus is decisive for the reality and character of the one God. The way that he allows for historical inquiry without giving up the Gospels is especially potent in its nuance, but I wonder how that might be spoken in a different context vis-a-vis modernity's insistence on "did it happen exactly thus or no," and the consequent doctrine in the church of literal infallibility.

Chapter 11: "Crucifixion"

I. Crucifixion or Resurrection?

Why did Jesus die, and what were the effects of his death, if any? Such questions are important, and thus theology has reflected on the cross distinct from the resurrection usually grouped around what has been called the "atonement," but strangely the tradition has often placed such emphasis on Jesus' death that his resurrection has become an afterthought, something that happened to happen or had to happen merely because he was God. To think that Jesus' accomplishment somehow concluded with Golgotha, or was even primarily located there, is to ignore the evidence of the New Testament: the early proclamation in Acts by the apostles was that the one crucified was raised from the dead, not that something happened in the cross. It was the cross itself that proved a difficulty, that required an argument (and later a set of theories) that not only did Christ die, but his death was meaningful.

II. Possible Ways of Thinking About the Cross

To interpret the cross as belonging to God's salvific purposes requires God's having ordained it. We might say that the cross has meaning because the one who lived for others, in the end, died for them; or, with Luther, that Jesus had to die in keeping with the nature of a testament, for a will becomes final only upon death; or that the cross is the assurance that Jesus meant what he said, that he would go to the end, and that his Father would act to rescue him -- and "that is our salvation" (p. 181). But the New Testament does interpret the cross, looking backward, as somehow salvific even at the time of its happening, as part of God's saving purposes. What later theology must remember is that even this cannot be construed apart from the narrative unity of the crucifixion with the resurrection.

III. Dramatic Narrative Climax, and Reconciliation

The early church had two primary ways of interpreting the cross: as the dramatic narrative climax to God's history with his people as told in Scripture, and as reconciliation. The Gospel accounts are suffused with the interpretive lens of the Old Testament, such that Jesus or the Gospel writers can say that x or y event was done "to fulfill the Scripture" -- including Jesus' death. Not only did it fulfill Scripture, but it had to happen. The language used itself explicitly evokes the suffering servant of Isaiah 40-55 and the suffering voice of the Psalms. With regard to reconciliation, the cross is the act by and through which God acts to heal the brokenness of humanity both within itself in community and toward God. Jesus dies "for" others, and for others' sin. The "how" is not worked out by the New Testament witnesses; the "that" is assumed and stated as fact "by rich use of Old Testament language." Examples include "'ransom' ... sacrifice ... Christ 'bore our sins' ... a victory over the powers" (p. 185). Only when the gospel moves from the assumption, knowledge, and worldview of Israel's Scripture are theories called forth to explain the "how" of Jesus' crucifixion.

IV. The Promise and Failure of Atonement Theories

Some way of explaining and understanding the cross is of course required, although it is an incredible fact of the church's history that no "atonement theory" has ever been agreed upon. The one that has come the closest is Anselm's "satisfaction" account, but it both wrongly construes God's justice and fails to explain how Christ's death might "pay my debt" (p. 186). Moreover, it makes the atonement about changing something in God and not in humans. The alternative perspective has been what are called "subjective" theories -- the most laudable exemplification of which is Schleiermacher's -- whereby the cross tells us something "about" God or God's character or love without it actually doing anything. Finally, there is the classic Christus Victor theory, modeled profoundly in Gustav Aulen, in which the cross is God's victory over the powers. While commendable for not abandoning the narrative character of the passion, this theory actually ends up leaving the narrative of the Gospels behind for a "deeper" or mythical one "behind" the concrete events of history. No theory need abstract from the actual story found in the Gospels. Instead of thinking of the effects of the cross, stemming from a dualistic Nestorian Christology, "we must understand the Crucifixion, precisely as Jesus' human doing and suffering, as itself an event in God's triune life" p. 189). Is God the one, and the kind of God who would be, on the cross? The resurrection proclaims in the affirmative.

V. Liturgical Enactment

The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection are the true story for and about God and God's people in the world. The canonical narrative itself carries the meaning of the cross. Thus -- as theology must sometimes respond that the church do rather than think or believe something in order faithfully to witness to the gospel -- to understand the passion narrative is to embody it liturgically. Every year the church must celebrate crucifixion and resurrection together as a community in and through the reading of Scripture, prayer, and the Lord's Supper, and only in so doing embodies and enacts in its life together the meaning of the reconciliation wrought in the cross of Christ. This mandated regular event is of course sacramental.

VI. The Sacrificial Victory of the Death of Jesus

Jesus' death "is what it cost the Father to be in fact" -- and not just in theory -- "the loving and merciful Father of the human persons that in fact exist" (p. 191). Jesus' inclusion of his enemies in forgiving prayer means that to raise up Jesus is to raise up with him those included in his prayer. The Spirit's anticipatory resting on Jesus in his entire ministry retains the bond of love between Father and Son even in the abandonment of Jesus to his death. This death was sacrificial in the holistic sense of "sacrifice": not a mere propitiatory offering, but a prayer both spoken and embodied, an offering to God that is one's entire self. The execution of Jesus by the authorities is just such a sacrifice, bound up together with every spoken word and action in his life, an offering of the life that is Jesus of Nazareth; and the resurrection is the inclusive act to bring in, to make room for, the community gathered around Jesus in the triune life of Father, Son, Spirit. Finally, Jesus' victory in the cross was not mythic or somehow "deeper" than the actual historical events of the Gospel narrative, just because his victory was exactly in contest with the identifiable political and religious powers of Rome and Jerusalem, and their alliance with the same demonic evil that fled before Jesus' power all his life. The resurrection "determined" Jesus to be the Son of God, vindicated at last over against all rival claimants and actors.


"If the Christology of our earlier chapter is right, then we must understand the Crucifixion, precisely as Jesus' human doing and suffering, as itself an event in God's triune life. Its reconciling efficacy, most fundamentally and baldly stated, is that this is the event in God that settles what sort of God he is over against fallen creation. Just so the Crucifixion -- given the Resurrection -- settles also our situation as creatures.

"The Crucifixion put it up to the Father: Would he stand to this alleged Son? To this candidate to be his own self-identifying Word? Would he be a God who, for example, hosts publicans and sinners, who justifies the ungodly? The Resurrection was the Father's Yes. We may say: the Resurrection settled that the Crucifixion's sort of God is indeed the one God; the Crucifixion settled what sort of God it is who establishes his deity by the Resurrection. Or: the Crucifixion settled who and what God is; the Resurrection settled that this God is. And just so the Crucifixion settled also who and what we are, if we are anything determinate." (p. 189)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

The strengths of this chapter are manifold: a refocused emphasis on the centrality of the resurrection in early Christian proclamation; a refusal to back away from the stark, unruly narrative of the Gospels; a clear explication of the way the New Testament interprets the passion through the lens of Israel's Scripture; a lack of endorsement for one post-canonical atonement theory over another. All commendable in their own right.

But I have to say, this chapter is probably the most perplexing in a couple of places where Jenson lands. First, as N.T. Wright has written elsewhere, to construe the passion narrative as an event in the inner life of the Trinity, as opposed to later narratives or theories instead of or "behind" the Gospel accounts, is only to offer another narrative alien to the Gospels! The triune interpretation may be theologically true or edifying, but it is almost certainly not what the Gospel narratives are concretely describing.

Second, the way that Jenson construes the Father "abandoning" the Son to death, why the community is accepted by the Father in Jesus, and the role of the Spirit in retaining the bond of love between them, sounds perilously close to positing a God torn in all sorts of different directions: a Father angrily handing over Jesus and only grudgingly accepting those Jesus wants forgiven, all the while doing so only because the Spirit is (coercively?) connecting the two in (some kind of) love. I am all the more perplexed because Jenson's handling of these complex issues is so deft elsewhere in the work, but alternately confusing and even off-putting here.

This is a chapter I would like to go on further to explore critically rather than devotionally.

Chapter 12: "Resurrection"

I. Appearances and the Empty Tomb

The resurrection is "the predicate of the gospel" (p. 194). The disheartened and scattered disciples come to believe, days after their master was crucified and buried, that he is somehow yet alive. Two apostolic forms of witness come to us in the New Testament: appearances of the risen Jesus to those who knew him before, and finding the tomb where he was laid dead empty of any body. The former was and must be prior to and primary before the latter; thus theology must take up the question of what difference the appearances make versus simply finding the tomb empty.

II. What Were the Appearances?

The resurrection appearances were not visions in the sense of subjectively personal sightings that were merely inward experiences. Paul uses the language of God revealing, thus connecting the experience ontologically with Israel's prior apocalyptic prophets, "the fulfilling future of creation as it already now comes to the Father in the Spirit and as God therefore can, if he will, show it to us" (p. 196). This was not merely a private glimpse into the future, however, but a present appearing of a "known, actual personality" (p. 197), and thus was different in some way. Jesus did not return merely to take up the same space and time he did before, but by the power of the eschatological Spirit came forward from "God's final future" -- "an inhabitant of the age to come" -- to reveal himself to his followers. The ascension, whatever else it means, was the final of these (sorts of) appearances.

III. What Jesus' Resurrection Means

The meaning of Jesus' being alive again is that he is a free agent with us, for "the decisive difference between a living person and a dead one is that the former can surprise us as the latter cannot" (p. 198). Yet we know the identity of Jesus because his life, and thus the kind of God God is, is settled as "the life lived from Mary's womb to Golgotha" (p. 200), and therefore this is a freedom characterized by the free love of the alive Jesus. Is there, then, categorical proof of this person's new aliveness after having died? No, and theologically decisively so, for at this very point faith is called for. The one on the cross is the one raised to new, imperishable life not only because we do or must believe, but because this is the self-presentation of the unity of one God. And so the risen Son, living "in the glory of God," lives in the triune life that is heaven just because it is the future Kingdom "enacted and available as a stretch of this world's history" (p. 201).

IV. The Body of the Risen Jesus

Jesus' resurrection is bodily, and thus his body must occupy a place. Previously this was not a problem, but recent cosmological learning problematizes any notion of Jesus' risen body simply having "ascended" "up" into "heaven." Where is the place Jesus' body now occupies? Here Jenson extensively discusses the challenge of Johannes Brenz and his followers in Reformation Swabia made to any simplistic spiritualized understanding of Jesus' present "placement." But it is difficult to see in Brenz's explanation any notion of a "body" at all; turning instead to the New Testament, "the only body of Christ to which Paul ever actually refers is not an entity in this heaven but the Eucharist's loaf and cup and the church assembled around them" (p. 204). This is so because for Paul a "body" is the availability of a person to others and thus also an object for them. The church is then the availability of the risen Christ to others and to itself insofar as the church is gathered around and constituted by the bread and the wine by which the same Christ is offered to the community. This is not mere metaphor because the sacrament and the people truly are Christ's availability to the world, embodied in the life and worship of the church. The question of the empty tomb will be left for the quote below.


"The organism that was Jesus' availability -- that was his body -- until he was killed would have as a corpse continued to be an availability of this person, of the kind that tombs and bodies of the dead always are. It would have been precisely a relic, such as the saints of all religions have. Something other than sacrament and church would have located the Lord for us, would have provided a direction for devotion; and that devotion would have been to a saint, and so would have been something other than faith and obedience to a living Lord. The tomb, we may therefore very cautiously judge, had to be empty after the Resurrection for the Resurrection to be what it is. We can, of course, say nothing at all about what anyone would have seen who was in the tomb between the burial and the first appearances. If the tomb marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is indeed where Christ lay, then it is empty not by inadvertence but as the Temple of Israel was empty." (p. 206)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

Like other parts of the work, this chapter is both brilliant and demands further thought. Like Halden, it is concerning to collapse the risen Jesus into the church such that the church quite nearly becomes "a fourth member of the Trinity." More importantly, what are we to do with those parts of the New Testament that explicitly envision Jesus with the Father "at his right hand," to come from there in glory and power? What to do with the actual ascension? with Jesus himself exalted at this moment, not merely present in church and sacrament? Regardless, the chapter as a whole presents a powerful corrective in miniature of the modern church's largely resurrection-less, or resurrection-lite, faith. Without a doubt, we need to hear it.

[Images courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.]

Monday, June 22, 2009

Can Theology Be Done Truthfully, Humbly, and Hospitably Toward Others?: A Reflection on Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church

Barbara Brown Taylor is one of the most famous and influential Christian preachers in America. She remains a priest in the Episcopal Church and did parish work for more than 15 years. She grew up here in Atlanta, worked at a downtown church for a while, then moved to Clarkesville, a small rural town in northeast Georgia, in the early 90s. Toward the end of the decade she left parish work for good, and in Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith she details her journey from numinous childhood wonderings to bookish seminary exploration to full-time priesthood vocation and, finally, to stepping away from church life -- both as clergy and in general.

My wife and I will be attending Lipscomb University's Christian Scholars Conference this upcoming weekend -- the theme is "The Power of Narrative" -- and Taylor will be one of the four plenary speakers (alongside the master herself, Marilynne Robinson!). I had read previously her Preaching Life and When God is Silent, both startling and wonderful in their own ways, but wanted also to get a sense of her life experiences and of what she has been up to since leaving parish work, so I took her "memoir of faith" with me to the lake this past weekend as a primer for the conference.

From the beginning, I was enamored with Leaving Church, and after finishing it in a couple days I already picked up her most recent book, An Altar in the World, just to continue the story begun there. It is no surprise to say that Taylor has a gift with words, but going further, she has a way of seeing that only then comes through in her writing. She sees texts, she sees people, she sees creation in ways others simply do not, and through words she helps to open our eyes to see what she sees -- and, we hope with her, something of what God sees, too.

The primary insight, then, from her story in Leaving Church, is that she has been given the eyes to see -- and the freedom also required to act on such a vision -- God in the world as much as, if not more so than, in the church. Much of this vision is the final falling away of the scabrous scales of rigid doctrine, arrogant theology, and pointless, inhuman division, and the reawakening to see God as always bigger, always wilder, always more confounding than our propositions allow or our boxes can contain. Taylor is, like so much of the landscape of American religious sentiment today, tired of any one person's or any one group's claims to have "the" scoop on God. Whatever it may entail for Christian faith, the church, or religious truth in general, that is the starting point.

There is no need to feel required to follow Taylor down all her rabbit holes, as if she is merely attempting to lay down one more set path after which others should follow in lock step. The point of telling her story is that it is exactly that: her story, one telling of one human being's attempt to know and find and share God in embodied human life on earth. There is never "right" or "wrong" when telling a story. It is simply there to hear, and only afterward to interpret.

And in my own reading -- which was in all ways one of the most enjoyable reads I have had recently -- I felt myself continually called back to the question of the practice of theology. In a world that, like Taylor, is, in so many ways but especially in the realms of politics and academy, tired, tired of endless pontificating and abstract theorizing and dogmatic enforcing, what might it mean for the doing of theology to take into account this exhaustion?

It was especially illuminating to read Leaving Church while working my way through Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology, if only because Taylor and Jenson have wonderfully opposed views on most aspects of Christian tradition. One way to construe them might be to say "open" and "closed"; another, "coherent" and "not." It all depends on where you're standing.

More generally, I thought of the life of the local church, of the role of seminary, and of the tone of theological blogging. In all three, there are various truth claims being asserted, disputed, and negotiated, and all are attempting, ultimately, to be truthful: about God, about the world, about humanity's place in each.

What Taylor would have us consider, I think, is not to reduce our attempts at truthfulness, but to increase our attempts at humility -- which, in turn, just might enlarge the possibilities of our hospitality. There is a way, in other words, to believe without excluding trust; to learn without forgetting awe; to find without ceasing to seek. So that when we rehearse the creed or read from Scripture, we remember, too, that speakers of this creed and readers of this Scripture have done irrevocable violence to those who have refrained from joining us; that the cross has been weapon and not only symbol of love; that God's history always has been to vindicate those at the margins and to rebuke those at the center; that wilderness and land are never as cleanly demarcated as we would like; that Jesus welcomed those excluded by the religious establishment; that the Spirit blows where he desires, utterly free from human manipulation or prediction (however holy or well-intended!).

To remember such things even as we continue to work out what it means to live as believers and followers of the one called Jesus, is to learn what it might mean to be God's people in the world, to be God's people for the sake of the world. It will entail kinder words, increased listening, gentler postures, more complex and more careful language -- how hard it is indeed to refrain from absolutized speech, reactionary sarcasm, dismissive missives, and arrogant certainty! -- but such acts of humility, however seemingly small, relinquish the need to be God and instead rightfully claim the need (or answer the calling) to be human. Truly, to be fully human, as Barbara Brown Taylor so deeply desires, not only enables but requires such humility, for only when we loosen our tightfisted grasp on what we know-for-sure are we able to see the fellow person before us. He or she (or they) may not know-for-sure, or may in fact know-something-else-for-sure, but our loosened knowing opens up space to include their knowing, even to welcome their different knowing, and so, if only for a moment, to find the time for friendship, a knowing-of-another. And surely this is the best sort of knowing.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Mary Karr

My wife and I are headed out of town for the weekend, so no helpful introduction for these poems (you'll know when mine was written!) except their similar themes of seriousness wrapped in humor. Enjoy!

[Update: I have taken down poems I am in the process of submitting for publication. I apologize for the confusion and/or inconvenience!]

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Easter at Al Qaeda Bodega

By Mary Karr

At the gold speckled counter, my pal in white apron—
index finger tapping his Arabic paper,
where the body count dwarfs
the one in my Times—announces,
You're killing my people.

But in Hell's Kitchen, even the Antichrist
ought to have coffee—one cream
and two sugars. Blessings
upon you, he says, and means it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Blogging Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology: Volume 1, Part II: "The Triune Identity," Chs. 7-9

This is part of a series blogging through Robert Jenson's two-volume Systematic Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). For more information, see the introduction to the series.

Chapter 7: "The Patrological Problem"

I. The Questions Posed by God the Father

How can the Father be both the God of Israel and one of the three identities of the Trinity? The tradition has affirmed both statements. In answer the East has emphasized the "monarchy" of the Father, the "sole arche" (or "originating source") of the Father with regard to the Son and the Spirit, but this seems perilously close to subordinationism all over again. In contrast, the West has emphasized the simplicity of the divine ousia, wherein "the Trinity is the one God" (p. 116). Yet this too entails problems, particularly the blurring of distinctions between God's identities. Finally, is "the Trinity" God, such that "God" would equal "Trinity" and the three persons would somehow be expression or manifestations of "Trinity" -- thus reverting to a kind of modalism? Finally, then, is the Trinity personal or impersonal, an "it" or a "he"?

II. The Personhood of the Divine Identities

Personhood is not "an individual entity endowed with intellect" (p. 117), as the West has generally supposed, but rather is constituted by mutual address, by communication and conversation. Father, Son, and Spirit are thus clearly persons by this definition; more specifically, personhood may be seen in "role differentiation in narrative" (p. 118), which is exactly how God's identities function in Scripture. The three are persons of one divine substance, and so the three subsistent relations make up the very life of the one God, the address and response of Father, Son, and Spirit to and between one another.

III. The Personality of the Trinity in the Father

The Trinity as such is not an identity; the identities of Father, Son, and Spirit together are the triune God. For if the Trinity were another identity, there would be four, rather than three, with "the Trinity" added to the three. But does this entail the non-personality of the Trinity? The answer is no, precisely because there are multiple ways of being personal, and here the tradition is aided by postmodernity's deconstruction of the West's traditional understanding of selfhood. For just as Father, Son, and Spirit are "personal" because each may be addressed, and may respond to that address, the Trinity as a community may also participate in such address and response. And the Trinity may do so precisely in the person of the Father, for the Father as sole arche of the Son (as begetter) and of the Spirit (as breather) is in himself the source of deity and the object of our speech to God -- we pray to the Father as Trinity with the Son and in the Spirit. This is done, all-importantly, without sacrificing the Father's personhood, lest God collapse into a mere transcendent monad.

IV. Separating Identity and Personality

What cannot be forgotten is that the Trinity may be understood as a person only because "Father, Son, and Spirit [are] the poles of the inner life that makes him personal" (p. 123). And this understanding refuses the Western notion of selfhood in the "free 'I,'" the self contained in a consciousness, and instead posits God as ultimately and decisively self-opening, self-revealing, self-giving. "God is not personal in that he is triunely self-sufficient; he is personal in that he triunely opens himself" (p. 124).

V. Answer by Way of the Problem

The problem that began the chapter ended up being the solution, "by adjusting not the narrative but the connections" (p. 124).


"Is there a way, without unfaithfully abstracting ourselves from this envelopment, that we may so back away that we speak to the Father as the one triune God who envelops us?

"Surely there is: in pure doxology, we may and do address the Father as the begetter and breather of the Son with whom and the Spirit in whom we appear; we may glorify him simply in his triune role as arche of the deity into which we are taken up. We may praise the Father 'with' the Son, as it is the Father who is with the Son, so that the Son is with us. We may praise the Father 'in' the Spirit, as it is the Father is in the Spirit, so that we are in the Spirit. Thus we may praise the Father precisely as the unity of equal Father, Son, and Spirit, within which we stand." (p. 122)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

Two things I love in this chapter: First, that even in a liturgy-less church like mine, I know exactly what Jenson means when he speaks of addressing the Father both as one of three persons in the Trinity and as the triune God himself. The reason this is true is because liturgy comes from Scripture, and churches of Christ quite faithfully replicate the rhythms, logic, language, and patterns of Scripture. It is implicit that the way we speak "God" may be interchangeable with "Father," yet when we say "Jesus" or "Holy Spirit" we are not thereby speaking of lesser beings or "parts" of God, but rather only again of God himself.

Second, the notion of personhood both as individual and as communal is incredibly rich; it opens up the doctrine of the Trinity even more, such that God is in his own life a model and mirror (only from our point of view, of course) of human life: solitary, yet corporate. And the entire metaphor is built around conversation. This is a chapter I would love to use in a class discussion; it's so open to further exploration and interpretation.

Chapter 8: "The Christological Problem"

I. The Word Incarnate: One or Two?

Nicea dogmatically declared Jesus to be the Son -- the second person of the Trinity, and thus God -- incarnate. Whatever this meant for God's supposed impassibility, there was no turning back. The Alexandrian school stuck with the assertion, whatever it could mean: God the Son lived, suffered, died, and rose again. The Antiochene school could not accept the bare assertion and thus felt compelled to find in Jesus two separate identities: the human flesh, which did suffer and die; and the divine Word, which could not and therefore did not suffer and die. How to work this out?

II. Nestorius, Cyril, and Chalcedon

Members of the Antiochene school taught that in the incarnation there are in fact two subjects -- the divine Logos and the man, somehow conjoined -- and that because of the inseparable closeness of flesh and Logos both were to be worshiped together. This reached a head in Nestorius' preaching, as bishop of Constantinople, when he taught that Mary is not theotokos -- bearer/mother of God -- because what she gave birth to was human, not divine. Alexandria's premier theologian, Cyril, responded in sharp disagreement: whatever else one may say, the story of the incarnate Logos in the life of Jesus is the story of one subject, not two: it is God's own story that we read. To the extent that Jesus the incarnate Word satisfies every requirement of being both fully human and fully God, we may say he has two natures. The Council of Ephesus in 431, while not solving the issue, settled the Nestorian claim. However, Pope Leo and his Tome seemingly merely restated in different language the Antiochene position, and at Chalcedon in 451 the creed put forth ultimately only furthered the muddle by saying "one and the same Christ" subsists "in two natures," rather than "from" two natures. This satisfied few, and the church remained bitterly divided between Chalcedonians, Cyril's followers, and Nestorius' followers. In this sense, Chalcedon -- though properly interpreted and clarified by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 -- failed in its purpose.

III. Maximus the Confessor: "One and the Same"

Maximus the Confessor helped the church see what was at stake in Christological arguments: the very identity of Jesus as the Son of God as told in the narrative of the Gospels. Thus, caught up in the controversies of his time over whether Christ had "one will" or two, Maximus' emphatic insistence on Christ's two wills -- the one a participation in the triune divine will, the other one fully human in perfect obedience to the divine will -- "the Lord's historical human life is fully acknowledged in its soteriological role for the first time in technical Christology" (p. 135). The hypostasis of the human-divine Son is not a product of two natures, but rather "is each and both of the natures, and yet neither alternately or merely simultaneously, for the Cyrillean 'from which' stands" (p. 136). Thus we may without equivocation say that the human person of the Gospels is the Logos incarnate, who suffered and died and was raised again. This is important from the reverse perspective, that the risen Son encountered in word and sacrament is in fact human -- belonging at once to the communal life that is human history and to the communal life that is the divine story.

IV. The Pre- and Postexistence of Jesus Christ

We arrive at the "preexistence" of Christ, the Word "in the beginning." Yet this cannot simplistically be construed as a divine entity "before" becoming human, for it is the human Jesus who says, "Before Abraham was, I am." With Barth, we must say that because God himself is his eternal decision, therefore God's eternal decision to become incarnate in Jesus belongs to the life of God's eternity. The happening in time is grounded in the eternal happening of God's own eternal act of decision. This is possible because the triune life that is God is not a line, or one original point from which a descending line of other points come. "The triune God's eternity is precisely the infinity of the life that the Son, who is Jesus the Christ, lives with his Father in their Spirit. It is in that infinity that Christ precedes himself" (p. 141). The antecedence of the Logos in time, before the birth of the man Jesus, is then in the "narrative pattern" of the people Israel before the actual Israelite is to be born, that of "being going to be born to Mary." Similarly -- and clearly more importantly for the New Testament writers -- Christ's "post" existence must come into view: the future into which the risen Jesus is raised, from which he receives his eternal Sonship, is none other than the Holy Spirit. And the essential vision of this future-glimpsing in the present is the Transfiguration.

V. The Way of God's Triumph Over Suffering

No biblical writer could have imagined the God of Israel being subjected to time's contingencies. Yet how is God transcendent over them? The suffering of human life is taken up into the life of the Triune God: God the Son suffers and dies at the hands of imperial powers; God the Father raises him up (and this is not "dispassionately done" [p. 144]); God the Spirit is "the sphere of the triumph." God takes this event and makes it part of his own life, wringing good from it for creation, not remaining impassibly distant -- and only in this way does the one God transcend the suffering of creation in time. And conversely, in exactly this same way is Jesus the human being the bearer of the power of God among us, and the one we meet in worship and sacrament.


"What is surely required is to recognize that 'humanity' and, in a way we will later make more precise, 'deity' must be communal concepts. That Christ has the divine nature means that he is one of the three whose mutuality is the divine life, who live the history that God is. That Christ has human nature means that he is one of the many whose mutuality is human life, who live the history that humanity is. There is a difference between these propositions in that the three who live God's life make only one God, whereas the many who live humanity make many human beings; but that point we have considered before.

"It is 'one and the same' who lives both of these communal stories. This one, the one that Christ is, is dogmatically specified to be the Logos: Christ's identification as one of the Trinity and his identification as one of us are not ontologically symmetrical. Christ's human history happens because his divine history happens, and not vice versa. This means that Christ as a participant in human history is definitive for all other participants..." (p. 138)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

It was uniformly helpful for my reading of this and other chapters that I had church history with Lewis Ayres this spring, and thus was able to appreciate the way Jenson doesn't merely summarize or catalog the church's theological history, but rather reads and interprets and thus tells the story in a certain way -- which is, of course, the only way to tell a story at all. I appreciated his willingness to address Chalcedon honestly without backing away from its dogmatic authority, and for his clarity regarding what is at stake in Christ's one-or-two-natures.

What felt the most new, and thus profound and even startling, is the way Jenson not only reaches "back" into Christ's preexistence (although his reading of Christ "as" or "in" Israel leading up to his birth demands time to ponder) but forward into Christ's resurrected future as equally determinative for the life of God the Son. In a wonderful answer to my questions of how Jenson might suggest we teach this to and for the theologically uninformed or uneducated in the church, this week I picked up and read his Conversations with Poppi about God, which is made up of numerous recorded and transcribed conversations between Jenson and his eight-year old granddaughter about theological questions. It is a fascinating and helpful read, and probably should be required as a compliment to reading this!

Chapter 9: "The Pneumatological Problem"

I. Problematic Questions for the Spirit

The Western tradition notoriously has always had significant problems with the third person of the Trinity, and the East has pressed the issue constantly and rightly. The questions are numerous: If God is spirit, how is God's Spirit in any way separate from God? Does the Spirit proceed from the Father and from the Son? If the Spirit is primarily the gift of God, how did the Spirit exist "prior" to creation and thus someone or something to be given to? How does the Spirit proceed from the Father if not by being begotten like the Son? And how, if the Holy Spirit is in himself God's love -- the love between Father and Son -- is this gift given without thereby becoming, or overtaking, or becoming merely the possession of, the receiver of the gift?

II. The Filioque

One of the central and ongoing disputes between East (Orthodox) and West (Catholic) is the filioque, the addition the Latin West made to the creed, that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The West adopted the addition not to state something about the Spirit but about the Son; and while the addition was unfortunate because of the ensuing division, its meaning cannot be abandoned to the extent that the claim belongs to the biblical narrative. Most explicitly, in the Gospel of John, Jesus claims the authority to give, and enacts the giving of, the Spirit. However, the West must likewise listen to Orthodox criticisms. Thomas Aquinas described the triune identities as necessarily "opposing relations" of origin, and thus the Spirit cannot merely proceed from the Father but also from the Son as their mutual love. In severe disagreement, the modern theologian Vladimir Lossky describes this construal as making the Father and Son together an impersonal divine nature rather than separate identities -- not one arche in the Father, but two in Father and Son. This leads Lossky into "disaster," however, because he then explains that all terms for procession and origin are "inappropriate expressions for a reality alien" to what they are attempting to name (p. 152). This is grounded in Gregory Palamas' similarly disastrous project of distancing the divine ousia from external human participation, therein creating a "real" God behind the triune identities and once again securing God against contingent interference.

III. The Problem With Barth's "I-Thou" Trinitarianism

The issue with the Western tradition is that the Spirit simply falls off the map when describing the triune action. This is ably demonstrated in Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, in which at two different places where one would rightly expect to see explication of the work of the Spirit -- the objectivity of the gospel proclamation before subjective hearers and the role of "the Spirit's ecclesial reality" (p. 154) -- the Spirit seems strangely to collapse into the action or capacity of the Son. The Trinity is then seemingly a "two-sided" relationship, and "the Spirit is the fellowship itself and so not a partner thereof" (p. 155). This "I-Thou" Trinitarianism fails to see the central lesson to be learned from Hegel's insight on relationship: that as subject I must have you as my object while reciprocally being object to your subject, yet that this can only descend into mere power struggle unless there is a third party who is our liberator, who frees each of us for the other, "one for whom we are both objects, and whose intention for us is our love for each other" (p. 156). In marriage this is the child; in God, the Spirit. He is the love between Father and Son only to the extent that he is "antecedently himself," always revealing and presenting Father to Son and Son to Father as not only source or begotten but as object of love, as lovable.

IV. The Eschatological, Liberating Love of the Spirit

We know how Father and Son "stand over against" the others as separate: the Father is monarch, sole arche of the deity, and the Son "is not only God but as God also a creature, and so an other than God" (p. 157). What of the Spirit? The Holy Spirit is God's future, "the End of all God's ways (p. 157). In the biblical narrative he is synonymous with the coming of the Kingdom; he is the down payment for the future glory. He moves history and speaks promise into reality, and just so he is God's liveliness and power for the future. Thus Trinity is not merely protology, in that God is always and forever his own enduring source (in the Father's arche), but also eschatology, always and forever moving toward, forward to, fulfillment and unendingly non-static life. As the love between Father and Son, the Spirit is indeed a separate identity in that he frees the Father to be who he is, to be the Father of the Son and to love him, and just so proceeds from the Father "otherwise" than the Son. And again using the language from John 17 with regard to the Son, "the Spirit 'glorifies' the Son because he 'takes what belongs' to the Son and 'declares' it" (p. 158). Finally, then, what of the filioque? The Spirit indeed derives his being, his procession, only from the Father; but his energies, "his participation and agency in the triune life," is from the Father yet through the Son, for "the Spirit receives his existence from the Father, but lives eternally with and in the Son" (p. 159).

V. The Narrative Futurity of the Spirit

The gospel's God is not mere perdurance, for while the triune God is certainly constituted by origin -- there is no thing without origin -- we are not then finished in describing God. Narrative is determined by outcome, and the Holy Spirit is finally the Outcome of God's life. The missing link in much of the tradition is the eschatological aspect of God's identity, and as Father is arche of both himself and creation, the Spirit is Goal for God and for us. "The great occurrence of dramatic causality in God is the resurrection" (p. 160).

VI. The Personality and Relation of the Spirit

The Spirit is a person just because we address him, even if we often refrain from doing so. How is he personal? In that he is always the Spirit of someone, the ruach of YHWH, the one who finds his "I" in the Son just as the Father does, and so "the Spirit himself is nothing other than the Freedom that occurs in these relations" (pp. 160-61). Thus the relation of the Spirit is as the one breathed by the Father and, in the Father's eternal begetting of the Son, the one who liberates the Father for the Son and likewise the Son for and from the Father, "so reconcil[ing] the Father with the future his Spirit is" (p. 161).


"It is in that the Spirit is God as the Power of God's own and our future and, that is to say, the Power of a future that also for God is not bound by the predictabilities, that the Spirit is a distinct identity of and in God. The Spirit is God as his and our future rushing upon him and us; he is the eschatological reality of God, the Power as which God is the active Goal of all things, as which God is for himself and for those 'things not seen' that with us call for faith and with him are his infinity.

"When creedal articles for the Spirit end with resurrection and life everlasting, they merely specify what the Spirit in himself as person is. In himself, God confronts his own future; he confronts that Spirit who is the Spirit 'of' the Father, the novelty of a genuine narrative. The great occurrence of dramatic causality in God is the Resurrection. That the Son once slain would rise is, after the fact, an eternal certainty, but it was not beforehand, and also not for God." (p. 160)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

Jenson is open about the fact that much of his explication of the role and person of the Spirit has been missing in the tradition thus far, so it makes sense why so much of it feels new and difficult to comprehend. As I mentioned above, his Conversations with Poppi have been a happy compliment to the Systematic reading, and a favorite moment in one of their conversations was discussion of the Spirit -- as belonging to an individual or a group, as the liveliness of a person, as the forward-ness of life.

In the same way, it is a powerful recovery to teach eschatology, and not only protology, in the very life of God. It rescues the circular way of construing time and salvation, so that Eden is only our starting point and not our ending point, and similarly clarifies what it means for God to be his own End as much as the End of and for all creation -- and that this is a good end, not an arbitrarily selfish "and it's all for me." This in particular is amplified by God's Spirit being himself God's liberating love, the gift who in giving himself gives the gift of love. What a powerful notion.

[Images courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.]

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Blogging Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology: Volume 1, Part II: "The Triune Identity," Chs. 4-6

This is part of a series blogging through Robert Jenson's two-volume Systematic Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). For more information, see the introduction to the series.

Chapter 4: "The Way of God's Identity"

I. The Identifiable Particularity of the One God

The Exodus and resurrection events identify their agent not only as God, but as this God rather than that one, and this particularity may be called God's hypostatic being. Contrary to popular belief, "all aspects" (p. 63) of the triune God's hypostatic being are present in Israel's Scripture.

II. The Dramatic Coherence of God's Identity

The triune God is known through his story with his creatures. While the deities of religions are in general identified as transcendent removal from history, and as "death's amelioration" (p. 66), not so Israel's God. The story of the Old Testament is Israel's repeated insistence -- even in the face of that ultimate crisis, exile -- on identifying, re-imagining, and reinterpreting the protagonist, instigator, hope, and redeemer of its life and future as the one God who identifies himself exactly with history's contingencies. Similarly, this God is the enemy of death, and so in the death of the Son does not abandon or betray himself but gathers this focal crisis into his own life, so that crucifixion and resurrection belong to the triune life of God. Thus Israel knew beforehand that its God must inevitably deal with the threat of death in time.

III. The God Whose Being is Promised Anticipation

In contrast to deity as infinitely enduring sameness, Israel's God is defined by the future he enables, the anticipation he offers, the promise he speaks. Established order is the slavery of Egypt, is the bureaucracy of monarchy, is the captivity of temple -- and this God is only danger to such established limitations. From Abraham to Exodus to Torah to David to return from Babylon, Israel's God is in the business of unforeseen futures delivered as gift. The final eschatological realization of this future may be seen as image in apocalyptic prophecy, but ultimately only "by the Lord's intrusion" (p. 70) will the new age transform and overtake the old.

IV. The Role of Sin and Evil in God's Sovereign Purpose in Christ

Ineluctably God's people fall prey time and again to sin, to rebellion from the God who identifies with this community. But would death have come, and so would Christ have come, if there had been no sin? The question is too abstract and/or unhelpful precisely because it conceives of the incarnation as either "an emergency measure" or "construable apart from sin" (p. 73), neither of which theology may affirm. Somehow, sin and evil belong to the good long purposes of God for his creation in Christ.


"The crisis of the total biblical narrative is the Crucifixion. As the cry of dereliction laments, the one called 'Father' here hands the one called 'Son' over to oppositional and deadly creatures. Therewith it becomes problematic that anything specified by listing 'Father, Son, and Holy Spirit' can be one God and not rather a mutually betraying pantheon. If the phrase can still be the name of one self-identical personal reality, his identity must be constituted precisely in the integration of this abandonment. The God of crucifixion and resurrection is one with himself in a moment of supreme dramatic self-transcendence or not at all." (p. 65)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

Once again Jenson's relentless insistence on the story of God with his people and, centrally, the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, as that which identifies "which" God is in view and "how" this God is, is inexhaustibly substantive and edifying for the project of Christian theology. There are authors and thinkers who force you constantly to reorder, to refocus, the priorities and the worldview you hold. (I think of John Howard Yoder and Wendell Berry especially here.) Robert Jenson belongs to that category. It is impossible to read him and remain unchanged in one's thinking.

My only question has to do with the translatability of this chapter's content to, say, a Sunday morning class at church. How do we speak the language of God's eternity as anticipation, as enabling future, in sentences the average person understands? This question will reappear as we go along, but this is the first instance where it presses against the dividing wall between theology in the academy and theology in the church.

Chapter 5: "The Persons of God's Identity"

I. Dramatis Dei Personae

"A story has more than one agent" (p. 75); therefore God's identity -- because it is told by his story with creatures -- must be a plurality of characters in the drama of God. The oneness of Israel's God, however, is no contradiction to this observation, for the Shema is not metaphysics but "the slogan for a drama." The dramatis dei personae is mere explication of this all-important confession.

II. The Son of God

The trinitarian notion of the Son is not foreign to Israel. As the Shekinah -- all those terms and tales of the Lord as "settled" to Israel and its story, whereby God is represented by a messenger "of" or something other than himself, yet is himself present as participant in the proceedings -- Israel's Lord "is identified with Israel in that he is identified as a participant in Israel's story with him" (p. 77). Thus could Israel, or an individual Israelite like David, be called God's son. Similarly, the incarnation names the kind of God Israel's Lord is precisely because a wholly transcendent God of "pure spirit," unwilling to get his hands dirty in the muck of Israel's world, "would be the precise antagonist of Israel's God" (p. 78). The final Shekinah figure is the Word: "The word of the Lord" that comes to prophets and patriarchs is not a mere message for the moment; it is the very same reality which comes to Israel in all of its times and experiences, the effectual word that creates, that demands recognition and response, conversation between creature and Creator, even argument. This word is the very Logos of God, which both "is" God and is "with" God (p. 80).

III. The Servant of the Lord

Israel was called ebed, the servant in the house of the Lord. That this was the people as a whole yet also somehow a person belonging to the people is made evident in the Servant Songs of Isaiah 40-55. The fathers interpreted this by the totus Christus, "the total Christ" who is both the community and the one belonging within and to the community. Thus there is one of the community to die on behalf of the entire community, and just so one in the identities of God to die and "one before whom the death is enacted" (p. 82).

IV. King, Messiah, Immanuel

The kings of Israel embody this particular space: both belonging to the community and the savior of that community. And for Israel's eschatological hope to become fully realized in time, this dual-role person must somehow both be creature and participate in the divine life without abolishing either reality but sustaining each. Israel's hope, then, is in the anointed one, the Messiah, a coming King to right all wrongs and establish justice once for all. Even this King may be Shekinah come to earth: Immanuel, "God with us."

V. The Eschatology of the Resurrection

All of Israel's eschatological hopes are answered and bound up together in the resurrection of the Messiah Jesus. The forgiveness of sins, the age to come, and resurrection from the dead all cluster around the life, death, and resurrection of this man. Yet this "first" proleptic happening, in anticipation of the final end to come, while unexpected, coheres in the context of the Lord's mission for Israel from the beginning: "to be a blessing to all nations, who are to be gathered to her God. ...By Jesus' Resurrection occurring 'first,' a sort of hole opens in the event of the End, a space for something like what used to be history, for the church and its mission" (p. 85). Not only that, it makes room for a sinful people: their sinfulness is not looked over nor does God become sinful; rather, the Son of God so identifies with the community that, as the totus Christus, together they are both sinless and righteously judged for sin.

VI. The Spirit of the Lord

While the Son appears through various figures in Israel's story, the Spirit is present explicitly from beginning to end. The Lord's breath is absolute, either creating or destroying. It is the mover of history, God's "historical agency through Israel's leadership" (p. 86). It is the agent of prophecy, speaking and bringing a previously unknown future into reality, and later becoming the content of the future promise. These hopes were both messianic and communal: one would come on whom the Spirit would rest who, as bearer of the Spirit, would give the Spirit to all.

VII. The Bearer and the Community of the Spirit

Jesus of Nazareth is this promised bearer and giver of the Spirit. The coming of the kingdom is synonymous with the outpouring of God's Holy Spirit, and so Jesus claims the authority of God as giver of this Spirit. When Jesus is raised from the dead and ascends to the right hand of God, he pours out the Spirit at Pentecost, and so "the Spirit appears in his personhood; he shows his face" (p. 88). When the Spirit appears, the church is born -- the community of the Messiah, distinct from yet identified with the risen Jesus, the eschatological fulfillment of Israel's hopes, and so a people of both Jews and Gentiles. Yet for all the problems raised by Israel's continued disagreement with and separation from the church, the church has not thereby "superseded" Israel.

VIII. The Narrative Unity of the Triune God

The God of Israel is paradigmatically "in the beginning," the Spirit is the future-bringing mover of history, and "the Shekinah, in all its modes, is the mediation of the two" (p. 89). The poles of time occupied by the personae dramatis are what specifically characterize the triunity of Israel's God present throughout its history. This leads to a final mystery to be explicated later, that somehow the God of Israel is the one to whom Jesus looks as Father and names as the source and sender of the Son and the Spirit, yet also is only one amongst these three whose mutual life is the biblical God.


"Jesus addressed his God as 'my Father,' and with him we address the same God as 'our Father.' Jesus and we address God in this way as the God of Israel. But this God is the God of Israel as the one who allows himself to be claimed by her addresses, the one to whom Israel as one nation can address all the lamentation and adoration of her history. Thus the God of Israel can be the God of Jesus and his church just insofar as Israel is in one what Jesus and the church are together, just insofar as Israel is at once the Son and the community of the Son. It is, vice versa, this duality of Israel's history that itself becomes a historical event with Jesus the Christ and his community.

"How is God, as God settled to Israel and so as a participant within her story, to face Israel's death with Israel? As he must, if he is to be in Israel's time finally identified by Israel's temporal course? And how is he just thereby to assert that he is God? The Servant Songs may, again, direct our attention. Servant Israel sings of the individual Servant that in being sent to 'a grave with the wicked,' 'he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.' Within the confrontation of the totus puer domini with death, there is one to die and there is his community to be died for. Just so, there is among the dramatis dei personae one to die and one before whom the death is enacted." (p. 82)

Further Thoughts & Questions...

Jenson is a sight to behold when reading Israel's history. He faithfully walks the balance between respecting the historical integrity and particular witness of Israel without sacrificing the church's practices of spiritual exegesis and trinitarian reading. His analysis of the presence of the Shekinah and the Spirit in Israel's story is simply wonderful; I know that various Jewish scholars and theologians have engaged Jenson on this point, and I look forward to listening to those responses and seeing how faithful they feel he is.

My question is one I fully expect him to address in Volume 2, and which I know he has addressed elsewhere: the non-supersessionism of the church. It's such a tortured and labored question, but I have had trouble jumping on the recent bandwagon that (not just otherwise, but outright) spectacular theologians like Jenson, Douglas Harink, and (I believe) Stanley Hauerwas, among others, have put forward regarding Israel's coterminous existence as God's people alongside the church. More than anything I have yet to find a coherent explication of the argument that does not do violent injustice either to Scripture or to the church's witness, or both. I recently picked up Mark Kinzer's Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (endorsed on the back cover by both Jenson and Harink!), however, so hopefully that might offer some constructive clues.

Chapter 6: "Of One Being with the Father"

I. The New Testament's Trinitarian Logic

The Greek fathers did not Hellenize the gospel; rather, they did their best to submit their Hellenism to the authority of the gospel. The central evidence for this is in the trinitarian logic of the New Testament: "God" and "Christ" often prove interchangeable; Jesus is Lord; Father, Son, and Spirit "all demand dramatically coordinating mention" (p. 92) time and time again when speaking of the work and message of the gospel. Jesus' prayer in John 17 is central here, for unless construed as a window into the inner life of the Trinity the entire Gospel proves incoherent. After the apostolic age, the church's liturgy sustained the language of this inner logic even when it was unsure how philosophically to work out the details.

II. From the Apologists to Origen

In the midst of a culture which deemed "deity" equivalent to "impassible immunity to time," and thus in which the idea of a semi-divine mediator held sway, the gospel's earliest apologists sought to articulate the roles of Son and Spirit, sometimes only partially succeeding, but often enough proclaiming the gospel's nonconformist message even when it did not fit their preconceived notions of who or what "God" may be. For a time, then, Son and Spirit were thought of as in some sense "mediators." A different option was that offered my modalism: God remains above time but in different stages of history adopts roles through which to act on earth -- never, however, being affected himself nor identifying as any of these roles. Finally, another alternative came forth, that of subordinationism, wherein one of the three (the Father) could be identified as God -- and thus secured as safely removed from time's contingencies -- and the other two (Son and Spirit) as lesser deities allowed to operate in time. Origen's entrance onto the scene entailed a heightening and establishing of the triune structure of understanding God even if he still envisioned it as subordinate realities. His great gift to future Nicene dogma was the Logos' generation from the Father without temporal beginning, that is, eternally. The question "How divine is the Logos?" could then only lead to the more biblical question, "Is the Logos creature or not?"

III. Arius' Challenge: Nicea to Constantinople

Arius and his followers only stated the obvious: if God cannot and must not "stoop down" to human life, and if therefore the Logos is ontologically subordinate to God, then the Logos is a creature of some sort. And so Constantine called a council at Nicea in 325 and the church's teachers anathematized all who followed Arius' teaching by constructing a creed which he could not endorse. The Son is "God from God," "true God from true God," "from the being of the Father," "begotten, not created," "of one being with the Father." The God of the Bible is not undifferentiated uneventfulness, nor so distantly removed as to need a semi-god to mediate between himself and creation. Jesus the Son of God may never, in the one holy catholic church, be abstracted from the one true God, nor vice versa. In the next fifty or so years what was needed was articulation of just how the one God could somehow be "three" without then being three gods -- and the Cappadocians supplied the answer. The terminology became all-important: "hypostasis for an identifiable individual and ousia for what such an individual is with others of the same sort" (p. 105). Father, Son, and Spirit are each a hypostasis of the one divine ousia. The three may be identified individually yet it is their inner relations to one another by which they are one God: the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, who is the source of the deity of both Son and Spirit, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father as his future and as the enabling love of both Father and Son for the other. The Cappadocians' faithful minority stance was vindicated in the conclusion to the fourth century's frenzied theological disagreements at Constantinople in 381, which with Nicea was taken as one dogmatically verified creed by the council of Chalcedon in 451: Father, Son, and Spirit to be worshiped as one God.

IV. The Narrated Reality of Trinitarian Metaphysics

How does the subsistence of the trinitarian relationships actually work within the biblical narrative? Each identity of the godhead points away from himself toward the others and so constitutes the perfect love and mutuality that marks the deity of each and the unity of the three. The Father hands over all he has and is to the Son he sends; the Son directs others' gaze to the Father and acts in perfect obedience to him; the Spirit as sent by the Son speaks only what he hears in the loving discourse between Father and Son, taking all that is the Son's and declaring it to the world -- each coming to be seen as God exactly in his relentless love for, obedience to, giving of, sending of, and pointing to the glory of the others.

V. The Perfectly Mutual Action of the Triune God

In God's actions with and for creatures, it is not merely one persona who acts but the undivided agency of the Trinity. Augustine had trouble understanding this concept and so thought "Father, Son, and Spirit must simply do the same thing, or simply different things; the possibility of a mutually single act cannot occur to him" (p. 111). This collapses the Trinity in on itself and in so doing evacuates any meaning of the triune relations either for God's life or for his actions toward creatures. "The identities' agencies ad extra do not achieve an undivided work because they are indistinguishable but because they are perfectly mutual" (p. 113). This is not metaphysical acrobatics but intrinsic to the plot of the biblical narrative, which is the story of God's life with God's people.


"As nearly instinctive as they were, the Nicene decisions are the church's most decisive dogmatic achievement to date: they clearly differentiate the God of the gospel from the God of that culture through which the gospel entered its world mission, and in some descent from which the author and most readers of this work still live. Nicea teaches dogmatically: the true God needs, and the gospel provides, no semidivine mediator of access to him, for the gospel proclaims a God who is not in fact distant, whose deity is identified with a person of our history; antiquity's struggle to overcome a supposed gulf between deity and time is discovered to be moot in light of the gospel. Vice versa, any pattern of thought that in any way abstracts God 'himself' from this person, from his death or his career or his birth or his family, or his Jewishness or his maleness or his teaching or the particular intercession and rule he as risen now exercises, has, according to Nicea, no place in the church." (p. 103)

"We may indeed think of the Arians on the pattern of biblicists generally: on the one hand, they often put the more conceptually sophisticated to shame in their grasp of certain necessities of the gospel; on the other hand, precisely the conviction of their own faithfulness to Scripture can blind them to their captivity to the culture." (p. 100n71)

Further Thoughts & Questions...


This was the chapter that both entranced and perplexed me. Even writing out the summaries is difficult without quoting straight from Jenson himself. A few thoughts:

My favorite part of the chapter was the clear-headed, straightforward explication of the New Testament's trinitarian logic. For all of the difficulties of trinitarian belief, the language of the apostles is by far the most undeniable cog in the Nicene wheel. You simply cannot get away from it.

What might it mean to deny the need for a mediator in the light of 1 Timothy 2?

The connections drawn between modern "biblicists" and Arius' followers were superb and right on the mark.

Finally, I am constantly confounded by academic or professional theology's line of demarcation, below which "legitimacy" is not conferred and above which whatever trends or work done is the source of serious engagement and cultural influence. For example, at multiple points Jenson decries the nagging tendency of Christians throughout history -- and for examples he offers prominent theologians and writers -- to give in to the whims of culture, and immediately following to give up trinitarian faith. But what of the normal people on the ground, or the popular authors and preachers, or the pastors in the churches -- all of whom seem to remain trinitarian in the midst of so much turmoil above their heads?

For example, authors will refer to renewed interest in and exploration of the Trinity in recent decades. Okay ... but aren't these just the "respectable" or "sophisticated" cases? C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, Jonathan Edwards, and so on, going backwards from the mid-twentieth century, all wrote on and taught and spoke of the Trinity, and were not lost in unitarian disarray until Barth or Moltmann or whoever showed up to right the ship. On which churches or groups of people or individuals was someone like (the Trinity-denying) Schleiermacher truly influential, not including academic theologians and cultured non-Christians? I'm sure I'm out of my element here, but it is probably the one nagging annoyance of the academy's over-inflated estimation of its own importance. If books haven't been published focusing on the Trinity, the church must have lost the faith! In my experience -- which, admittedly, is an atom of a grain of sand on a seashore of the smallest beach on the planet -- it is not the academy-occupying scholars who sustain the church's faithfulness in dogma and deed (though their vocation as teachers is essential -- I plan to be one!), but instead the everyday Christians who make up the churches themselves.

In other words: Let those of us devoted to the task of theology douse ourselves with a bit of humility in the process. The cleansing would be a great gift to our work and to the church.

[Images courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]