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The God of the GospelScott R. Swain, The God of the Gospel: Robert Jenson’s Trinitarian Theology (Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013). Paperback, pp.258.*

This volume belongs to a wider series (Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology) intended to “foster interaction within the broader evangelical community and advance discussion in the wider academy around emerging, current, groundbreaking, or controversial topics.”

This particular volume is related (though distinct) to its author’s (Scott Swain) PhD dissertation from TEDS in 2002. Swain has made a helpful contribution to the study of the inner trinitarian life by careful engagement with the work of the under-appreciated theologian Robert Jenson. In order to frame the work of Jenson, Swain begins with a critical discussion of work of Karl Barth (and Barth’s context) as providing the initial conversation for Jenson’s own project. Swain’s guiding question is stated as follows: “[T]rinitarian theology after Barth demands that a consistently evangelical doctrine of God wrestle with the implications of divine election and divine incarnation for the being of God’ (32). Thus, how do we know God as God? In what manner is the economic trinity (in election and incarnation) revelatory of the inner being of the trinity?

In Barth (as in Jenson), Jesus Christ is both object and subject of God’s election. For Jenson, the “grammar” of God is historicized in the event of Jesus Christ and it could not be otherwise. What is considered innate to God’s inner being can only be known in the revelation the man Jesus Christ who was both endowed with God’s Spirit as God’s Son. In the electing and election of Jesus, God is revealed wholly: Father, Son, and Spirit. This means a historicized boundedness for the knowledge of God and more than simply the knowledge of God, but also the very being of God. What is revealed is what is reality with God’s own being. The act of God reveals the being of God, but not as if this can be known from the beginning, but only with anticipation of the consummation. This is the essential premise of Jenson’s project and thus what Swain lays out in the context of the OT, NT, and dogmatic story (each of which form a chapter with the last being separated into the trinitarian structure of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”). He closes the framing of Jenson’s work with a brief but specific discussion of the current leading Barthian scholar Bruce McCormack’s work in relation to developing the theological reflection of Karl Barth on this topic. This at least allows for an alternate voice attempting to follow and answer the question of BarthThroughout his project, Swain attempts to carefully articulate the proposals of Barth, Jenson and McCormack all the while offering his own brief comments toward the direction he believes the conversation should go.

The key features to note in the theology of Jenson (which Swain elicits well) is the narrative approach to understanding and confessing God as God. Any abstractions are (at the least attempted to be) put aside and a careful reading of the story of God with and on behalf of Israel (specifically the Exodus story as paradigmatic) and as true Israel (specifically the story of Jesus). This narrative trinitarian approach is helpful in recognizing the storied nature of God’s self-revelation, but for Swain it fails to address the true ontic relationship of God’s self and instead only appeals to the economic trinitarian (pro nobis) relations, but not fully to the in se of God’s being. For Jenson, the Gospel’s God is God in God’s true inner being…what one finds in Jesus as the Son of the Father and the baptizer in the Spirit is who God truly is and none other. Swain argues against this reading of the Scriptures because of the difficulty suggested by the potentially contingent nature of God’s inward being if it is dependent upon creation, redemption, and re-creation. This is certainly a dilemma that needs addressing, and Jenson has attempted to do so in his later writings (which Swain notes throughout).

Outline

Introduction

1. The Question stated

2. The State of the Question

Part One: Robert Jenson on the Gospel’s God

3. The Way of God’s Identity According to the Old Testament

4. The Way of God’s Identity According to the New Testament

5. The Triune Identity

Part Two: Toward a Catholic and Evangelical Account of the Gospel’s God

6. ‘A Father to You’: God’s Fatherly Self-Determination in the Covenant of Grace

7. Immanuel: The Son of God’s Self-Identification with Humanity in the Incarnation

8. ‘Deluged with Love’: The Spirit and the Consummation of Trinitarian Fellowship

9. Grace and Being: Bruce McCormack on the Gospel’s God

Conclusion

10. Concluding Reflections on the Question

A few reflections:

Swain’s work offers a helpful contribution to the doctrine of God and an overdue appraisal of Jenson’s theological contributions to theology proper and dogmatics specifically. Swain is to be commended for this work. Trying to appropriate the narrative theological work of Jenson contributes to a more well-rounded appraisal of the revelation of God given in the Scriptures testifying to this God in Christ Jesus. It is hoped that more theologians and Biblical scholars will similarly take such care in reading Scripture to discern the contours of God’s being and move away from philosophical speculations which have tended to obscure the God of the Gospel for some God of creative philosophical imaginations.

The style of writing is definitively for trinitarian scholars and few others. It is doubtful that this volume would prove helpful to students unless they are either very well-versed in trinitarian dogmatics (and its concomitant language) or have ready access to a theological dictionary. The use of untranslated Latin terms throughout the project does not lend itself readily to a wider readership. It is certainly understandable that such terms were not translated (as this would just add further to the bulk of the book), but some sort of footnoted translation would have been helpful as well as perhaps some glossary of terms.

There were a number of errata which should have been corrected: footnote 47 double cited on page 27, double “that” p.61.

_______________

*I received a copy of this book to review from IVP Academic (for which I am grateful), but I was not financially compensated in any way. The opinions expressed are my own and are based on my observations while reading this volume.

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English: The title for Being Human.

English: The title for Being Human. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here I was preparing to blog some trite thoughts about “being human” and Joel goes and blogs his whole Master’s thesis. 🙂 Nice.

So, despite my inadequacy to speak to this subject (I’m hoping Joel will correct me if I’m whacked out), I was meditating further on the topic of “being human” because of my congregation’s adult Sunday school class this week.

The discussion of holiness was brought up. Someone mentioned that “we know we will sin, because we are all humans after all”. This struck me in light of Bonhoeffer’s statement that popped into my mind at that moment (which Joel helpfully saved me from having to look up because he opens his thesis with it): “While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human and we must recognize that God wills that we be human, real human beings” (Ethics p.84, emphasis added).

We blame our humanity for our sinfulness. It struck me that Paul never does this, John never does this, and Peter never does this. The Scriptures blame our sinful or “fleshly” nature. And, perhaps surprisingly, this should not be confused with being human, truly human. The reason being that Jesus is True Man and all else is but a pale image of the true, being marred by sin. Our sinfulness deprives us of our humanity, because it is only in obedience to the Father that one is truly human in the fullest sense. And this can only come about by the regenerating work of God’s Spirit (the spirit of adoption crying “Abba, Father!”) conforming us into the image of the Son, who Himself is the true image of God.

So what are some potential outcomes of this change of perspective:

(1) To be human is to be taken up into Christ. It is to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God which are acceptable and pleasing. It is the humanity of God in Christ taking up our sinful humanity and glorifying God through the obedience of redemption. To be truly human is to be counted as those who are in Christ: the righteousness of God and the First Adam.

(2) To be human is to set aside excuses for sinning. We can no longer say that we will continue to sin because “we are just human after all”. NO! We have been delivered from death to life. The Spirit of Christ Jesus now lives in us. We have been baptized with Christ and our sins have been once for all dealt with. We are not the children of the devil, but the children of God who no longer are slaves to sin and death. We are slaves of Christ Jesus our Lord and have been delivered from death to life! Therefore, to be “real human beings” is to live by the power of the Spirit! To live free! Free of the bonds of sin.

(3) To be human is to live free for the other and free for God. There is no constraint, but the one to love. This is the greatest commandment and all it entails: humanity unleashed from the bonds of self-serving, self-loving rebellion against God and God’s will for creation. The true human is the one who lives for the other because of being made in God’s image. Therefore, the other who is made in God’s image becomes the one by which we grow into the image of God in communion as those created and purchased by God.  As those bearing God’s image, by God’s Spirit we reflect ineffable God in Christ. Unbounded love for God and for the other: this is being truly human.

So I would charge you fully to embrace your humanity; God did!

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Snoopy TheologySo says Marc Vandersluys (who should be blogging this here, but instead I’m reblogging a snippet with a link 😉 ).

For many, “theology” is a field of the academic world, out of the mental reach of the average person, and not really all that valuable in day-to-day life. It’s certainly true that much of what is known as theology is often written in nearly impenetrable prose. In this respect it really is “the science of God”, because people who “do” theology for a living (I’ll call them “vocational theologians”) have created specialized terminology in order to make dialogue between vocational theologians a little simpler: they could string a bunch of verbs and adjectives together when talking about God or some concept relating to God, or they could come up with a single word that encapsulates all of them. The one-word option makes communication much less cumbersome and less confusing within the field, just like the latin names of plants and animals may be a more efficient form of communication for botanists and entomologists (or for me to say “entomologist” instead of “guy or girl who studies bugs”). But to the rest of us, this also makes theology seem like the exclusive field of vocational theologians.

But here’s the thing: theology is simply “thinking about God” or “words about God”. Theology is what we do when we try to come to grips with who God is or understand what God is doing in the world, when we ask “Who is God?” or “What is God like?”. And we all do this. All of us. Even you. When you say, “Jesus loves you,” you are doing theology; when you say “God is love,” you are doing theology; when you confess that “Jesus is Lord,” you are doing theology. Even if you say “There is no God” or “God doesn’t care about the world anymore,” you are in some sense doing theology….

Marc has quite a bit more which he shares (and you should read the rest), not least of which is why we should take care to think through doing the theology we all are doing anyways. He even manages to work in a discussion of Barth’s Church Dogmatics (which I joined him in mob-pressured purchasing…okay…so I may have been more the pressure-er rather than pressure-ee ©).  Great post Marc! Keep ’em coming!

And, yes, I did just “copyright” the terms “pressure-er” and “pressure-ee”…just protecting my personal intellectual property…or as I prefer to call it my “persintelperty” ©. Look at me…I’m a creative  etymologist. 🙂

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Cover of "Surprised by Hope: Rethinking H...

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N.T. Wright just has a way with words.  Regarding the “work of salvation, in its full sense,” he summarizes that it is

“(1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply about the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us.” (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, NY: HarperOne, 2008, p.200, original emphasis)

Salvation is not simply about any notion of saved “souls”, but about saved “wholes” (p.199) [make sure that one is read and not simply heard…or its homophone might make for a humorous aside].  God is working out the redemption of creation…not simply disembodied “souls” nor even simply of some chosen, but removed few.  The whole world (cosmos) shall be renewed, even as it is already underway through the reconciling work of Christ by His indwelling, empowering, life-giving Spirit.

In relation to this, he discusses the “kingdom” and thus God’s reign over all which is being carried out in the present (though awaits final consummation and revelation).  He writes,

“God longed…to re-establish his wise sovereignty over the whole creation, which would mean a great act of healing and rescue.  He did not want to rescue humans from creation any more than he wanted to rescue Israel from the Gentiles.  He wanted to rescue Israel in order that Israel might be a light to the Gentiles, and he wanted thereby to rescue humans in order that humans might be his rescuing stewards of creation.  That is the inner dynamic of the kingdom of God.” (p.202, original emphasis)

This is salvation…the work of the kingdom now as foretaste of the kingdom come.  The salvation of all we are…the salvation of creation groaning for redemption and the “revealing of the sons of God” (Rom.8:19).

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Jesus resurrected and Mary Magdalene

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I have had several conversations over the last few days with different individuals about the notions of faith and historicity.  In one of those conversations the issue of Bonhoeffer was brought up.  This individual stated that they had heard Bonhoeffer denied the resurrection.  This, of course, took me aback and I quickly rebutted that I had never heard (nor read) such a thing either about or by Bonhoeffer.  So they directed me to his Christology lectures (DBWE12-Berlin: 1932-1933, pp.299-360).  So I looked up the references and discovered where this reading came in.  Bonhoeffer refutes the notion of Christian faith resting in the historicity of the resurrection.  This is considered under the rubric of the “stumbling block” to our believing.  His approach (from my reading) suggests that there can be no naked knowledge of the historicity of the resurrection.  One must still come to confess the Risen Lord because they have in fact encountered the Risen Lord.  An empty tomb is not a matter of historicity leading to salvation…it is a matter of faith that is testified to by the historicity of the events.  At no point does the historicity (one way or the other) actually determine our faith since it is the living and present Risen One who is determinative for faith.

I had come to similar sorts of conclusions as I was preaching on the final chapters of John this last year.  In my reading, there is no way to get behind faith in the living Christ and somehow found our trust on the historicity of the empty tomb.  While I take it as a matter of historical trustworthiness that indeed the tomb was empty, this does not in itself constitute faith in Christ (e.g., the soldiers who were bribed to not speak of it and instead spread lies about the removal of the body).  What really did it for me was recognizing that the there were no witnesses to the resurrection event itself…only witnesses to the resurrected Lord.  The moment of resurrection was hidden (as it were) from historical inquiry and belongs to the work of God incognito.  As such, even the resurrected Jesus belongs to such, but of a different nature than the moment and act of resurrection itself.  There is no verification process by which we may be “certain” of the testimony of the resurrection apart from the experience of the Resurrected One in our midst (and all of this in the testimony of the Spirit through the Scripture).  While I believe that the evidence for the resurrection passes historical testing, my faith does not rest on such at its foundation.  It is simply affirmed as true.

The question I was asked was how does this not devolve into a Bultmannian conception of faith apart from historicity?  An interesting question to say the least.  What are your thoughts?  Have I gone too far towards a form of existentialism akin to Bultmann?  Does the resurrection necessarily need historicity on its side to be believed?  Or does historicity become a false foundation for faith in Christ (even accepting the historical nature of the events recorded)?

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Karl Barth

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Reading Barth is like taking in a breath of fresh air.  One would not naturally think this should be so when reading a book with “Dogmatic” in the title (as that word has taken rather negative connotations).  Not that Barth does not create difficulty with the breathing (its quite a struggle and rather slow going working through the Latin portions).  What I found so refreshing today was the following statement: “Dogmatics must always be undertaken as an act of penitence and obedience” (CD, I.1, p.22).  I am humbled to take up the task of theology and be reminded by Barth that this task always necessarily involves “penitence”.  Any orthodox theology must recognize that in some way or another we are speaking about what we do not fully understand and may speak amiss.  Theology (“dogmatic” as well) recognizes it speaks of God…the ineffable and invisible.  While God has made Himself known in and through His Son and by His Spirit, yet we think and speak now as with distortion.  Yet by faith we make confession of what we do not fully understand and we hold to the confession of that faith in obedience…though for now we see “as through a glass darkly.”  Thank you Karl for reminding me of my need for humility in theology and confession!

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In reading Barth…one cannot help but be confronted by his notion that only God can reveal God.  For instance,

Who can reveal God except God Himself? Neither a man that has been raised up nor an idea that has come down can do it.  These are both creatures. (CD I.1 p.406)

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach. The Protestant...

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Barth moves from this “creatureliness” of the “idea” and “man” to the “creatureliness” of Christ who yet must be also fully God in order to actually reveal God Himself.   This is certainly not the only place where Barth argues for the necessity of God revealing God (and he follows Calvin and Luther in this).  But my question is simply what one is to make of all of this in our modern world that believes God is revealed all about us and is to be found in every culture and religion?  Certainly things have not changed so much since Barth’s day…

Luther actually postulated what he termed “deus absconditus“, that is, “the Hidden God” (altering the term from how Aquinas before him had used it) who is not open to philosophical perceptions and vague religious inclinations, but remains hidden apart from special revelation provided by God Himself.  This is what Barth speaks of.

I guess what I’m really wondering is…if we’ve perhaps lost a sense of the deus absconditus in our contemporary Church setting and if so how do we recapture this in order to recapture the glory that belongs rightly only to the One who is THE Glory and Image of the Father…He who alone makes God known?  Is our “god” too accessible by creaturely perceptions and intuitions or does our God remain yet hidden and require the revelation of Himself apart from which we can know nothing truly of Him (though we are still counted guilty of our transgressions against Him)?

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