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Holy Saturday

Our first time through the story, we despair:
All you came to do and be and save,
All love and peace and hope lies with you there,
Cold and dead and buried in the grave.
Our next time through, the light of Sunday’s sun
Reaches back into the darkness passed,
Expelling Friday’s shadows. So we run
Headlong into Easter all too fast.
We cannot hear the story twice the same
Could both be true, though locked in contradiction?
Could each narration speak a single name?
The Risen Lord; the man of crucifixion.
We find you on this day between the days:
The man exalted; God within the grave.

Holy Saturday 2014
Inspired by the work of Alan Lewis

Note: If you want to read some truly beautiful and deeply profound poetry, I cannot recommend the work of Malcolm Guite highly enough. He frequently posts his poetry on his blog. I found his sonnet sequence on the Stations of the Cross especially moving. His book, Sounding the Seasons, is a gem in my library.


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Continuing my lenten blogging project, I now turn to Robert Jenson. For me, Jenson ranks among those theologians whose writings never fail to capture my attention, the sort whom I will read on any subject—whether or not I am particularly interested—just to see what he has to say on it. I should also say that probably no other writer produces in me such strong feelings of simultaneous agreement and doubt, inviting endorsement while demanding critique. For the present, I will try to leave both endorsement and criticism aside (although comments in either direction are welcome!), restricting myself to description and paraphrase.

The doctrine of God, for Jenson, begins with the divine identity, specifically the God identified by the biblical narrative. Throughout both testaments, God is identified by certain key events in time. Centrally, for Jenson, “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt” (Systematic Theology, 1:63 [hereafter: ST]). This way of identifying God more or less corresponds with Jenson’s summary of the gospel message: that the God of Israel has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Thus, for Jenson, God’s identification by the events narrated in the biblical text is inextricably tied up with the content of the gospel itself.

Though this may seem like an innocuous and perhaps unremarkable observation, Jenson goes further, making a conceptual move “from the biblical God’s self-identification by events in time to his identification with those events” (ST 1:59). In other words, God is in himself who he is for us in history. Since historical events are the only means by which God has revealed himself, if God’s inner-being in eternity differs in content from God’s being-for-us in time, then we could never know God truly. “The revealing events would be our clues to God, but would not be God” (ST 1:59). And any concept of revelation as a divine pointer that is ultimately void of divine presence is what the Bible calls idolatry (ST 1:60).

Jenson thus operates with something very much like Rahner’s rule—that the immanent trinity is the economic trinity and vice versa—but with a particular emphasis on the way in which God is identified by narrative—not to mention an unflinching willingness to follow this rule to its logical conclusion. In Jenson’s view, “the doctrine of the Trinity is but a conceptually developed and sustained insistence that God himself is identified by and with the particular plotted sequence of events that make the narrative of Israel and her Christ” (ST 1:60). And he does not shy away from the implications of this statement. The eternal being of God is determined by the contingent history of God with God’s people, and specifically the history of Jesus Christ. This determination is, to be sure, God’s own self-determination to be the God he is. Yet if this eternal decision is a decision for a history with human beings, that is, to constitute his identity in relation to historical human creatures, then we cannot construe historical contingency as alien to the eternal being of God. When God makes promises on the twin bases of his past deeds (“I am the one who…”) and his revealed name (“I am the Lord”), God “explicitly puts his self-identity at narrative risk” (ST 1:65). God is in himself who he is to us in human history, not merely by reflecting his eternal being into history, but actually by allowing his actions in history to determine who he eternally is.

A Jensonian theology of Holy Saturday would thus require careful thought about how the historical event of Jesus Christ lying dead in the tomb identifies the biblical God—not just as an example of his character, but as his own historical and contingent basis of establishing his eternal identity. As Jenson says,

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. (ST 1:65)

Put briefly, “the gospel does not tell of work done by a God antecedently and otherwise determined, but itself determines who and what God is” (ST 1:165). To put it another way, God does not merely demonstrate who he is in history; he makes himself who he is.

For Jenson, there is no story behind the crucifixion that is somehow more “real” than the event itself. It does not conceal an invisible transaction between God and the devil or Father and Son, nor is it a historical mask worn over a mythic event. The crucifixion is “an event in God’s triune life” (ST 1:189), and it is so precisely as a human and historical event. Specifically, it is the event wherein God determines and establishes his relationship to fallen creatures, and as such determines and establishes fallen creatures’ relationship to him. It is important to note that Jenson refuses to view the cross apart from the resurrection. Consider the following:

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. (ST 1:189)

When God raises Jesus from the dead, he is saying of this crucified man, “Yes, that is who I am.” The three-day story of crucifixion, grave, and resurrection narrates the central drama in which God becomes who he eternally is. We might therefore say instead that in the act of raising Jesus from the dead, God says, “I will be who I will be, and that is who I will be.” That God says this of the crucified one must be cause for careful reflection; that God says this by means of resurrection must be cause for great rejoicing.

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I realize I’ve taken a rather lengthy hiatus from blogging, but with my seminary studies some months behind me, with no professors or looming deadlines to fear, with the stress of school and the shock of completion now quaint memories, I just may be ready to take it up again. Or maybe I’m just pining for evenings spent with friends over white Russians and German theologians. In either case, I thought Lent would be an appropriate season to devote some time to theological reading and writing, to reflect specifically on a very lenten theme: God in the grave.

Alan Lewis, in his stellar book, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday, takes up these reflections with a narrative reading of the three-day story of cross, grave, and resurrection. The day between the days, Holy Saturday, the day of the grave, is mostly overlooked, glanced over in the rush toward Easter. Yet this is the day in which Lewis situates himself. As the boundary between the cross and resurrection, Holy Saturday is an ideal vantage point to understand both.

When we hear the story for the first time, Saturday is not the “day between the days.” It is the day after the last day, the first day after the catastrophic failure of the cross, the beginning of a life whose meaning has been lost in the grave with Jesus. Whoever we though Jesus was, we cannot now deny that he is the Crucified One, numbered with the worst of sinners:

What do we see if we make the effort and muster the courage to examine the cross of Jesus Christ from the second-day frontier, looking back without knowledge of the future? The sight is melancholy, terminal, disastrous. Yesterday a man suffered hellishly and died; was buried; and is now perhaps in hell. That makes today a day of godlessness and putrefaction. What are we to make of his death after all he did and said and was in life? (43)

Hearing the story for the first time forces us to pause at the cross, to weep at the graveside of the dead and buried Jesus with no hope of the pain being miraculously shattered the day after.

Easter heralds indescribable joy for those who were stuck in the story the first time around.  It overturns the verdict of the cross, vindicating the one who appeared as nothing but a common criminal or a failed revolutionary the day before. Our “No!” to the one God sent has been overwhelmed by God’s ultimate “Yes!” to him. The Crucified One is also the Risen One.

Returning to the story the second time around, we cannot disarm ourselves of foreknowledge. Try as we might, the drama will not unfold afresh, and we cannot quite proceed as if we don’t know what will follow. Yet far from blunting the vexation of Holy Saturday, the knowledge of Easter intensifies it. Now we mourn at the grave of the Crucified One whom we know to identify as the Risen One, yet whose upcoming resurrection does not negate his current status as dead and buried. Even if Jesus will be risen as Lord and saviour, nevertheless that same Lord and saviour now lies behind the stone that has not yet been rolled away. If Jesus was one with his Father, was his Father one with him in the grave?

Lewis, with his narratival pause at Holy Saturday, does not shy away from the nearly unthinkable thought: “in the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth between his crucifying and his raising, God lay dead” (255).

Precisely how—if at all—this scandalous idea might be thinkable is something that I will take up in later posts. (Lewis himself draws heavily on the work of Barth, Moltmann, and Jüngel.) However, for the time being it is worthwhile to pause on the day after the cross, to reflect on what it might mean if we dare to think along these lines. And Lent is an especially good time for this.

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Sometimes it’s hard to know how to go about writing a paper. I thought some of you might find it useful if I posted a graphical representation of my typical process. Hope it helps!

Grade over Time

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As Rick’s last post indicated, Jeff and I graduated last weekend. The weekend gave me a sense of finality, even though I still have some course work to finish up. It might be appropriate to offer some post-graduation reflections here, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of any. So instead, I thought I would post my (finally) completed thesis, in case anyone felt the need to slog their way through it. It’s about the relationship between theological anthropology (theological account of what it means to be human) and Christian ethics in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The full title is: Life in the Humanity of Christ: Theological Anthropology in the Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I realize that it’s much longer than anything I would expect anyone to read in their spare time. If you’re pressed for time, but you still want to look it over, I think you could easily skip the second half of the introduction (pp. 14–24, the lit review) and most of chs. 2–3 (pp. 25–61; pp. 66–68 briefly summarizes the crucial parts of both chapters). Chapters 4–5 are more central, and the final chapter tries to draw out some practical implications. As usual, I would gladly welcome any comments, questions, or criticisms—assuming anyone reads far enough to have any!

All of my fellow bloggers here deserve thanks for helping me get through this. Each one has sustained lengthy and probably taxing conversations with me about my topic—both in person and online; and Jeff even took the time to read through it (!) and offer his insights. Thanks guys!

Life in the Humanity of Christ

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These aren’t exactly polished thoughts, but I was wondering if any of you had any insights (or heretical labels) to offer on this. Much of what follows is highly indebted to Robert Jenson’s 2009 Burns Lectures delivered at the University of Otago. They can (and should) be viewed here. (The quotations in this post come from his first lecture, “Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation.”)

The word of God is none other than Jesus Christ. I don’t think this is a controversial claim in Christian circles. Anything else we call “God’s word” must somehow derive this status from Jesus Christ. The question about the word of God, then, can only be framed as a “Who?” question. If our doctrine of the word of God cannot be related to the person of Jesus, then we are off track. So the most appropriate question about God’s word is not, “What is it?” which usually entails the follow up, “What can we point to today and say, ‘That is God’s word’?” The question is, rather, “Who is it?” which entails a more appropriate follow up question, “Where is the concrete form of this One in the world?” Of course, when we ask about the concrete form of Jesus Christ in the world, our first and most obvious answer is: incarnation. But how do we answer this question now, that is, after the resurrection and ascension? Where is the concrete form of the incarnate, crucified, and risen Jesus Christ in the world today? And to what extent can we identify it as the concrete form of God’s word in the world today?

If we identify the word of God as the second person of the Trinity who became incarnate in space and time, then it becomes necessary to posit a direct connection between the divine logos and Jesus’ human body. “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The bodily presence of Jesus simply is the presence of God’s word to the world. Thus, to ask how God’s word takes concrete form in the world today is to ask how we can speak of Jesus’ embodied presence today. Considering Paul’s statements about the body of Christ, I think that we need to answer this question ecclesiologically and sacramentally. To skip to the conclusion of these reflections, can we not say that the concrete form of God’s word in the world is the church-community? That the word God speaks in the world today is spoken concretely not only through this community but as this community?

This brings me to the question of the authority of the New Testament in the church. (I must leave aside for the moment the question of the Old Testament, because its place and role in the church has a much different history.) The New Testament canon, as we know it today, did not exist in the earliest days of the church. Yet the church existed, thrived, and grew. What brought about the need to gather and preserve these texts we now know as the New Testament? As Robert Jenson observes, “Any community that intends to be around for more than a moment, that hopes to remain itself through some palpable stretch of yesterday, today, and tomorrow will have to deal with the fragility of a life thus stretched across time.” He offers the following phenomenological description of scripture: “A religious community’s scripture is a body of literature that is fixed in some medium that preserves it—and that may simply be trained memories—and that in that fixity is necessary for the perdurance of the community for its self-identity through time.” Canonical Holy Scripture for the church thus functions as an authoritative set of texts designed to preserve the church-community as church through time.

The basic thesis I’m trying to test out is this: The New Testament is authoritative insofar as it functions to preserve the identity of the church-community through time. (I’m not suggesting that happens automatically or as a result of “applying” the text; it only happens as the Holy Spirit takes up the texts and uses them to enliven and shape the life of the community that the New Testament can function this way.) Thus, it is the church, not scripture, that is the concrete form of God’s word in the world, because it is in the form of this community that Christ’s body lives on earth.

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Approximately one year ago, our former professor Chris Holmes released his excellent book, Ethics in the Presence of Christ (London: T&T Clark, 2012). I thought I would post a review I wrote on it (slightly modified from its original form as a class assignment), if only to remind those of you who haven’t had a chance to read it yet to do so, and hopefully to encourage those who aren’t aware of it to check it out.

Ethics in the Presence of Christ, by Christopher Holmes, is a profound and refreshing exploration of the foundation of Christian ethics. I say foundation because Holmes devotes little space to the practical “application” of his ethical vision (for reasons which will become clear below) and even less to specific ethical issues. Instead, he lays fresh groundwork for Christian ethical reflection, following in the theological footsteps especially of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and T. F. Torrance. He writes from the conviction that Christian ethics must not only begin with Jesus Christ, say, with his teaching or his example; it must be a function of Christ’s presence. Thus the title of his book encapsulates his overall vision: ethics occurs in the presence of Christ, which means it is participant in the reality established and revealed in him. An ethic that does not rely on Jesus as the One who is present, that can make due with Jesus’ teachings or his example alone, is inadequate for the Christian because it treats Jesus as if he came to offer humanity “something that lies beyond himself” (24). It results in moral maxims and static ethical principles which have no basis in the identity of Jesus and therefore can be abstracted from his person and work. This is problematic, because it fails to account for the resurrection, ascension, and session of Jesus who is thereby alive and active in the world today. If Jesus is really present to humanity through the Word and by the Spirit, human behaviour ought to participate in his contemporary ministry. Holmes thus rejects the question, “What would Jesus do?” to ask instead, “What is Jesus doing?”

As far as I can discern, Holmes’s ethical account grows out of at least four key convictions. (1) The presence of Jesus Christ is the basis of Christian ethics. This basic insight is the kernel of Holmes’s essay, one that he unpacks meticulously and methodically throughout, with particular reference to the presence of Christ in his ongoing ministry of power, truth, and love. (2) The presence of Jesus Christ is determined by the being or identity of Christ. Christ is not other than what he does; he does not appear to us in one way while concealing another sort of identity behind his actions. He truly is in eternity who he appears to us in time, and he is present to us today as the One he truly is. (3) The presence of Jesus Christ is guaranteed by the resurrection. Apart from the resurrection, Christ’s actions would remain dead in the past. Because of the resurrection, Christ’s presence is an ongoing reality. (4) The presence of Jesus Christ means that human action does not need to (nor could it possibly) bring about a new reality that God desires. God’s will is already reality in Christ, and all human action can do is bear witness to and participate in God’s reality in Christ. (Here, Holmes is particularly close to Bonhoeffer.) The revelation of Jesus thus functions as a “reality-indication” (38, a term Holmes borrows from John Webster), a disclosure of the way things really are.

Holmes’s basic method is a seamless integration of biblical exegesis, theological exposition, and pastoral reflection. His main chapters are structured as follows: (1) Starting with a key text of scripture (in this case, a portion of John’s Gospel), he describes the nature of Jesus’ ministry of power, truth, or love in its historical particularity; (2) interacting with this picture, he develops the christological significance of Jesus’ economic ministry for his immanent being; (3) with this understanding of the being and identity of the Son, he describes how Christ is still present in ministering his own being as power, truth, or love; (4) finally, he reflects on how ethics is a participation in the contemporary ministry of Christ in the presence of his power, truth, or love. Holmes thus takes us from the gospel narratives about Jesus of Nazareth, to the identity of Jesus Christ as revealed in history, to a description of the eternal identity of Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, to a description of the contemporary ministry of Jesus as ministering his own being to humanity by the Spirit, where we finally have the “presence of Christ” that forms the basis for ethical action. This summary probably obscures Holmes’s logic, which is really quite straightforward: the Jesus who is present today is the same Jesus narrated in the gospels, so by attending to who Jesus is shown to be in the New Testament witness, we come to know the one who is present and active in the world today.

He concludes his book with a chapter on his hermeneutical method. He argues that Holy Scripture is not a book of timeless truths waiting to be brought across the hermeneutical gap and applied to a new time and context. Rather, Scripture testifies to the living and active God, the God who is active precisely through the Word of Scripture insofar as he takes it up by his Spirit and uses it as his chosen instrument to testify to himself. The truth of Scripture thus cannot be divorced from the One who is the Truth, a Truth that is dynamic and alive. Scripture, in Holmes’s words, “construes ethical reality.” It testifies to the One who is, the One who is only as One who is present, the One whose presence implicates human beings in response. Scripture, in other words, points to Jesus Christ and says, “This is the way things are”—a message that cannot be heard and believed apart from a response.

Though Holmes’s account seems to remain rather abstract and theoretical, it fits with his initial intention, stated in the very first sentence of the book: “In this essay I present a descriptive account of the presence and ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ, specifically the character of his power, truth and love, and the import of this power, truth and love for ethics” (1). In this, he has succeeded. The three main chapters offer a robust “descriptive account” of the ongoing presence of Jesus, even if they are thin on ethical “application.” The application is thin precisely because of Holmes’s convictions about the nature of Scripture. Scripture cannot be “applied” because this implies a fundamental gap between the text and our world, as if we need to take something from the text and figure out how it works in the “real world” (by which we mean our contemporary context). Holmes insists that “talk of applying suggests that Scripture might well tell us how things are, but it is nonetheless we who are responsible for bringing what it discloses into being. . .” (146). For Holmes, Christ’s presence and ongoing ministering relativizes the “hermeneutical distance” between the Bible’s world and our own. The Bible is a testament to reality, and “reality . . . cannot be applied. It can only be heard and obeyed” (148).

This is not a book for those seeking an ethical guide to provide particular examples of what sorts of actions are morally right or wrong. Indeed, the standard question, “Is this right or wrong?” (with its exegetical corollary, “Does the Bible say that this is right or wrong?”) is, for Holmes, an inadequate model. It assumes ethics is about appealing to eternal moral laws and that the Bible contains statements of these moral laws, if only we have eyes to see them. All of this has no need of a living, an active, and, crucially, a present Jesus. Holmes has driven home the point, for me at least, that ethics must begin with the assumption that, however I may choose to act in any given situation, Jesus is already acting, and he does so in accordance with his identity and his will for humankind, an identity and a will that are attested in Scripture and activated by the Holy Spirit. In testifying to Jesus Christ, the Bible testifies to ethical reality, revealing the way things are in a way that implicates me. Ethics is not blind obedience to a static moral code but the dynamic life lived in accordance with who Jesus is and in participation with what he is doing.

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