March 31, 2013

Christ the Lord Is Risen Today

Ye choirs of new Jerusalem
Your sweetest notes employ
The Paschal victory to hymn
In strains of holy joy.

How Judah's Lion burst his chains,
And crushed the serpent's head;
And brought with him, from death's domains,
The long-imprisoned dead.

From hell's devouring jaws the prey
Alone our Leader bore;
His ransomed hosts pursue their way
Where he hath gone before.

Triumphant in his glory now
His sceptre ruleth all,
Earth, heaven, and hell before him bow,
And at his footstool fall.

While joyful thus his praise we sing,
His mercy we implore,
Into his palace bright to bring
And keep us evermore.

All glory to the Father be,
All glory to the Son,
All glory, Holy Ghost, to thee,
While endless ages run. Alleluia! Amen.

-N. T. Wright

March 30, 2013

A Meditation for Holy Saturday

Here's the opening chorus from N.T. Wright's Easter Oratorio, a meditation of hope for this Holy Saturday.

On the seventh day God rested
in the darkness of the tomb;
Having finished on the sixth day
all his work of joy and doom.
Now the word had fallen silent,
and the water had run dry,
The bread had all been scattered,
and the light had left the sky.
The flock had lost its shepherd,
and the seed was sadly sown,
The courtiers had betrayed their king,
and nailed him to his throne.
O Sabbath rest by Calvary,
O calm of tomb below,
Where the grave-clothes and the spices
cradle him we did not know!
Rest you well, beloved Jesus,
Caesar's Lord and Israel's King,
In the brooding of the Spirit,
in the darkness of the spring.

March 29, 2013

Athanasius on the "Conquest of the Cross"

Easter is around the corner. So, I thought I'd share this gem from St. Athansius' On the Incarnation
A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing and prefer to die rather than deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die, they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection...So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample as they pass and as witness to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, "O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?"
We often focus on the importance of Christ's work on the cross in purchasing our forgiveness for sin. It is that, and we must not ignore that. However, Athanasius would have us see the implications of the cross more  broadly. Christ's death and resurrection is nothing less than the defeat of death, and followers of Christ now deride it as no terrible thing, for it is utterly defeated. Gospel indeed!

March 28, 2013

360-Degree Holiness: @calvintsamuel Lectures @WesleyBiblical (#andcanitbe)

I finally got around to downloading and listening to the Chamberlain Holiness Lectures delivered last fall by Rev. Dr. Calvin T. Samuel at Wesley Biblical Seminary. I'll say first that I wish had not waited so long. Anyone interested in what the Bible has to say about holiness needs to listen to these talks - multiple times. Samuel is Director of the Wesley Study Centre in Durham, England, and his work in these lectures is winsome, wise, relevant, and scholarly. These talks have challenged and illumined my thinking on biblical holiness in a variety of ways. Here's a quick overview and a couple of points that I found particularly important.

The first lecture takes up a variety of introductory issues related to the importance of holiness, what holiness looks like, and how it is attained. If you only listen to one of the talks, be sure it is this one. It will give you a good introduction to the significance of holiness not only in our readings of scripture but in all of life. The second lecture provide a rich picture of holiness by tracing the motif in the Old Testament through the priestly, prophetic, and wisdom traditions. The third looks at holiness in Paul, and the fourth takes up the relationship between holiness and purity in the ministry of Jesus. All in all, Samuel demonstrates an impressive knowledge of holiness in both testaments and in the secondary literature that will push us to think more carefully about the way scripture deals with the topic. 

Missional Holiness
I greatly appreciated what Samuel calls "360-Degree Holiness", which is also the name of the lectures. By this, Samuel means that God's sharing of his own holy character with us should transform us in such a way that we engage the world in mission to further spread God's holiness. One of the ways Samuel fleshes this out is by contrasting holiness as a defensive posture with holiness as an offensive posture. A defensive attitude toward holiness seeks to protect holiness from the things that defile it. In contrast, an offensive attitude toward holiness sees holiness itself as an agent that transforms the unclean into that which is pure. This offensive posture, Samuel argues, characterizes the ministry of Jesus. When Jesus touched a dead body, he wasn't worried about becoming ceremonially unclean. Rather, the dead body was transformed into a living body. That which once defiled has become pure by means of his touch. This raises questions with regard to our own posture toward holiness. Do we see holiness as something that needs to be protected? Or do we see it as a powerful agent that transforms the world?

The Eschatological Nuance
One particularly important topic that Samuel takes up is what he calls the eschatological nuance. This is a way of getting at the tension in scripture (and particularly in Paul) that we live in a time of tension in which the reign of Christ and the kingdom of God have been inaugurated even though sin and death have not been finally exiled from God's good creation. Samuel emphasizes that holiness belongs to the age to come and is experienced presently only in anticipation of the consummation of the kingdom.

This is something Wesleyans need badly to wrestle with. We tend to refer to entire sanctification as full salvation. However, all holiness is an anticipation of the ultimate (and full) salvation that will be ours when Christ comes and raises our bodies from the dead. The perfection of our holiness in the present serves to point forward to the magnificence of God's transforming power that will be fully manifest when he transforms our bodies from humility to glory and from death to life. The present transformation of our character points forward to the final transformation of our whole self, including our bodies. As far as I can tell, and I've looked into it a bit, this is not something that Wesleyans have generally taken on board in the way we talk about holiness. It is, nevertheless, the way the Bible talks about holiness. In this way, Samuel's work in these lectures challenges Wesleyans to constantly ground our vision of holiness in biblical revelation. 

These are just a couple of ways these lectures have impacted my thinking with regard to holiness. They can be downloaded from the WBS podcast page. Scroll down until you see the four entries titled "Chamberlain Lectureship Series." Or, if you prefer, the transcripts can be downloaded from the main event page; the transcripts include footnotes which will aid you in tracking down the sources with which Samuel interacts. If you are at all interested in holiness - and you very well should be! - attend to these talks with care. 

March 25, 2013

Review: The Quest for the Trinity (@ivpacademic) by Stephen R. Holmes

We continue in the midst of what has often been called a "Trinitarian revival," but with The Quest for the Trinity, Stephen Holmes argues that the revival would be more properly termed a revision. He writes:
I argue that the explosion of theological work claiming to recapture the doctrine of the Trinity that we have witnessed in recent decades in fact misunderstands and distorts the traditional doctrine so badly that it is unrecognizable (xv).
Having spent the last several years dipping into the literature on the doctrine of God, both ancient and modern, I was, to say the least, somewhat jarred by this claim. The so-called revival has been received with enthusiasm by many in all the major Christian traditions, and welcomed as a promising foundation for ecumenical dialog. After all, if there is one thing Christians can agree on, it is the Trinity. That Holmes would challenge the consensus by arguing that the contemporary debates are in fact a departure from the historic formulations of the doctrine of God points to the value of this book. Whether or not one agrees with Holmes, anyone interested in the doctrine of God and the way it has been handled by modern theologians will have to engage the argument of this book.

That argument begins with a survey of 20th century treatments of the Trinity including the particularly noteworthy contributions of Barth, Rahner, and Zizioulous (chapter 1). Among the contemporary writers Holmes finds a common interest in locating the doctrine of God in the gospel narratives, a focus on the personal nature of God, the entanglement of the life of God with world history, and the univocal use of language with regard to God and the created order. Chapter 2 takes up the biblical material and provides a critical analysis of the way the relevant texts have often been read. The rest of the book (chapters 3-9) traces the way the doctrine of the Trinity has been handled from the Patristic period to the present.

Holmes finds general consensus with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity up through the time of the Reformation. He even casts doubt on the oft repeated idea that the doctrine of the Trinity was lost prior to the present revival of interest. Even during the anti-Trinitarianism of the Enlightenment, there were numerous theologians arguing for the historic doctrine. From the ancient church through to the Reformation, Holmes identifies a common interest in using all of scripture (not just the gospels) as a basis for Trinitarian thinking, an insistence on the ineffable and simple unity of the divine nature, and the recognition that language about God could be adequate, though always inexact. When compared with the many and various approaches to the Trinity in the modern period, Holmes finds these concepts generally absent and sometimes even rejected. As a result, he sees the extensive interest in and writing on the Trinity as a departure from the historic doctrine. Holmes certainly recognizes what is at stake if he is right about the irreconcilable differences between the ancients and the moderns. If the more recent formulations are right, then "we need to conclude that the majority of the Christian tradition has been wrong in what it has claimed about the eternal life of God" (2). 

In my judgment, Holmes is correct that many modern theologians depart in substantial ways from the historic formulations of the Trinity, though I am hesitant to issue a blanket statement that all recent writers commit such a departure. I think we must recognize that the task of modern Trinitarian theology is not quite the same as that of the ancients. The ancients had the great responsibility of forging language that accurately reflected the truth about God in scripture and the worship of God in the church. Theirs was a foundational task, and we do not have to repeat the work that they have already done so well. The task of Trinitarian theology in the present is to explore the implications of the historic doctrine. It sometimes sounds as if Holmes is suggesting that anything other than a repetition of the ancient formulations is a departure from them; but is it not the case that we can stand on their work to consider further and unforeseen implications?  Holmes is certainly right that some modern writers completely revise the doctrine of the Trinity. However, the charge is less clearly substantiated against others. Each new contribution must be weighed on its own merits and evaluated with regard to the degree that it faithfully builds on those who have gone before.

The Quest for the Trinity has much to commend it. Holmes' detailed account of the doctrine of God from the early church up to the present will greatly benefit anyone interested in understanding the historical development of Trinitarianism and will make it a valuable text in courses on the doctrine of God and historical theology. The summaries of the historic formulations give us a criteria to help us judge the degree to which new contributions stand in continuity with or break from the central components of the doctrine. All in all, this is a very valuable book that will help us approach the doctrine of God with heightened care and increased critical awareness. 
*Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for a complimentary review copy of The Quest for the Trinity.

March 22, 2013

Practicing Freedom: A Lenten Reflection

My homily from Ash Wednesday has been published at Seedbed and can be found here. This reflection was born out of reading Douglass Campbell's work on Romans 6. Here's the key quote: 
Freedom is not a matter of sheer choice…but of an incremental creation of new possibilities for bodily action that must be learned and internalized...Freedom is therefore complex, communally mediated, and embodied. Above all, it is learned and hence taught, much as someone is only free to play a violin beautifully after years of practice and instruction (Four Views on the Apostle Paul, 132).
What a remarkable thing to say. Campbell's description of freedom cuts against the grain of the way we usually think about freedom as the ability to choose one option or the other. It's not clear to me that such an approach deals adequately with the biblical insistence that we come into the world as slaves to sin and that we are only freed through the gracious act of God in Christ and on the condition of faith in him. Neither does the typical understanding of freedom deal adequately with activities that require the cultivation of a particular skill through extended training and discipline. I am free to play the guitar, but I am not free to play it as well as those who have instructed me over the years. A student who has just learned to form the C chord is not free to play like Robert Johnson. I wonder if this is not one reason that the Christian life and discipline is so difficult for so many of us. Do we recognize that a relationship with the God who formed us in his image cannot be reduced to single moment of choice? Is not our walk with Christ and the freedom that is found in him something that must be practiced? Something in which we must have ongoing training? 

I'm interested to hear from you. Does the Campbell quote challenge the way you think about freedom?

March 21, 2013

James Dunn on Biblical Holiness (#AndCanItBe)

I was struck by this quote from James D.G. Dunn on holiness in the Bible:
I still want to maintain that wherever the concept of 'holiness' appears in the biblical material, underlying it is the sense of the mysterious otherness and aweful power of the divine, of God, and that the holiness of people, places and things is essentially derivative from that primary source of holiness, 'holy' as related to the divine, to God (169).
This is from Dunn's chapter entitled "Jesus and Holiness: The Challenge of Purity" in Holiness: Past and Present (ed. Stephen Barton; T&T Clark, 2003). A couple of reflections:

  • Holiness is essentially mysterious in the sense that, apart from divine revelation, it would remain hidden from us. It is other than us and alien to us. Thus, any holiness that is manifest in the life of a human being is derived; it is not absolute. God alone is perfectly holy. God alone is the origin of holiness, the "primary source." We can only be holy if God shares his essential holiness with us.
  • This means that the character of true holiness is not up for debate or negotiation. God is who he is, and God's holiness is what it is. If we want a part in the holiness of God, we must accept it as God gives it. We do not have the authority to define holiness as we like, and any attempt to do so is a departure from true holiness.
  • That holiness necessarily comes from God highlights the reality that the holy life is a work of grace. We can actually be holy because it is something God does in us. "Now may the God of peace sanctify you completely...He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it" (1 Thes 5:23-24).
  • Taken this way, holiness must also be understood in relational terms. If God alone is holy, and if holiness in us comes only from God, then we must be properly related to God in order to receive his holiness. The people who are in covenantal relationship with God are holy and are to be holy.

March 18, 2013

Embodied Orthodoxy: In Reply to @umjeremy (#AndCanItBe)

One of my tweeted excerpts from Tom Noble's essay on authentic Wesleyan theology has met with some interesting response. Here's the tweet in question:
Our UMC must listen to Tom Noble: "When they abandon Nicaea & the Reformers, they cease to be 'mainline' & become sidelines."
The replies to that post were varied (and which can be read here), and that exchange has elicited a somewhat more lengthy response from Jeremy Smith, a United Methodist pastor in Oklahoma. Jeremy's concern appears to be twofold. First, he is critical of my view that a joint website to propagate Wesleyan theology ought to have a statement of faith that reflects not only Wesleyan distinctives but historic Christian orthodoxy as well. Second, Jeremy is concerned by readings of Wesley that (he charges) over-systematize his thought. He is also worried about what he sees as "creedal zeal" among some present day interpreters of Wesley, which, Jeremy contends, was foreign to Wesley's own theology. He writes:
Wesley gave us more than Creeds. Wesley gave us more than a systematic theology to ascribe to. He gave us journals, commentaries on the bible, sermons and letters: the lived realities of faith as a model for us to build on. A lived faith-a practiced faith-is closer to John Wesley than any Creed could possibly be (bold original).
A "lived faith", we are to understand, more accurately authenticates Wesleyan theology today, and certainly more than any creeds. I hope I've accurately summarized Jeremy's view, and let me say here that I'm grateful to him for this post. Anytime someone takes the work of another seriously enough to engage with it in an extended way (regardless of the extent to which they agree) it is to be appreciated. I aim to take Jeremy's points with likewise care and seriousness.

To the first of the above criticisms I'll simply say that, were a joint website to come into being, the desirability of some sort of statement of faith or statement of unifying beliefs has been suggested and commended by a number of people involved in the #andcanitbe discussion. This idea is not uniquely mine, and I cannot take the credit, regardless of how much I might like to have it and of how deeply Jeremy desires to grant it.

I want to engage the second concern a bit more deeply. But first we need to be sure we are clear on the nature of the disagreement. The story is told of how Matthew Arnold once fielded the critique that he was becoming as dogmatic as another fellow named Carlyle. Arnold replied, "That may be true; but you overlook an obvious difference. I am dogmatic and right, and Carlyle is dogmatic and wrong." I am defending creedal orthodoxy (with a Wesleyan accent), which is an activity sometimes (and often unfairly) maligned as unhelpfully dogmatic. But when two people are disputing one another's claims about authentic expressions of a particular theological perspective, the question is not of who is being dogmatic but of who is right. As Chesterton said, "Truths turn into dogmas the instant they are disputed," and we are certainly in the midst of dispute. Clarity about the nature of the disagreement will go far in keeping it a charitable one.

Jeremy objects dogmatically to the boundaries by which I define authentic Wesleyan theology. He has an alternative definition with necessarily alternative boundaries. What must not be missed is that we agree that boundaries exist; we agree that not every voice gets it right; we also agree that those voices that get it wrong should be corrected. Otherwise, we wouldn't be writing these long essays on why the other one is wrong. Jeremy's concern results in a double criticism of (1) the way I define authentic Wesleyan theology and of (2) my critique of those who, in my view, use the label inappropriately. What must be recognized is that Jeremy is liable to his own critique. I understand "Wesleyan" like this and not that. He wants it like that and not this. He is worried that my view excludes voices that are properly Wesleyan, but his view is likewise exclusive; the difference is which group gets excluded. He wants me to be more open; I'm asking the same of him.

Now on to the matter of creeds and their alleged contrast with a lived faith. Leaving aside for the moment the issue  of "faith" and "creed" being virtually synonymous (a reality that only elevates the peculiarity of the supposed contrast), I would argue that Jeremy unnecessarily creates a dichotomy where none truly exists, between doctrine and life, creed and experience.

To set the "lived faith" of Wesley as manifest in his sermons, letters, journals, and commentaries over and against "Creed" is problematic and misleading if only because Wesley's many and various writings, those "lived realities of faith" that he modeled for us so well, are full of creedal and doctrinal language. The suggestion that Wesley was more interested in the lived experience of faith than he was doctrinal formulation is at best an over-simplification and at worst a false dichotomy. He was interested in both. He gave us both.

This double gift can be seen in the way Wesley's lived faith was intertwined with creedal language and doctrinal formulation. Commenting on the well-known opening verses of the Gospel of John, Wesley speaks of the "unity of essence" between the Father and the Son. This is language that anyone acquainted with the development of the ecumenical creeds will recognize as drawing directly on the homoousios of Nicaea. I agree with Jeremy that when Wesley gave us these commentaries, he gave us a lived experience of faith. And it is in that very place of Wesley's lived experience that he also gives the Nicene Creed. 

Jeremy also points to the sermons as evidence of Wesley's non-creedal lived faith. But one need only peruse the table of contents to find homiletic titles like "Justification by Faith", "Original Sin", "On Divine Providence", "Of Hell", and "On the Trinity". Would a man uninterested in passing along creed and doctrine give his sermons such doctrinally formulaic titles? Wesley's sermons were certainly about the lived reality of authentic faith, and they were full of dogma and creed. This is a good place to point to Wesley's interest in placing himself firmly within the stream of the Protestant Reformation. In Sermon 20, "The Lord our Righteousness", Wesley gives extended quotes from Calvin's Institutes to substantiate his commitment to a Protestant formulation of justification. The sermons are precisely where his dogmatic material is to be found. 

Perhaps most telling is Wesley's published Journal. Every seminarian knows of Wesley's strangely warmed heart at the meeting on Aldersgate Street. Perhaps no other passage from Wesley presents us more clearly with "the lived realities of faith." And yet there we also find doctrine. Here's the famous quote from May 25, 1738, with the underlying doctrines added in parentheses:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface (influence of the Continental Reformers) to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart (the new birth) through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation (salvation by faith); and an assurance (the witness of the Spirit) was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death (justification by faith).
That Wesley published his journal for public reading may even suggest that he wanted the reader to pick up on these underlying doctrines. It wasn't mere reflective happenstance; he put it this way on purpose. Wesley intentionally described what is arguably the most important experience of his life with the very language we find in his articulations of key doctrines. These few examples (and there are many more) show clearly why Tom Noble can say that any authentic expression of the Wesleyan tradition will embrace both Nicaea and the Reformers. 

So, Jeremy's assertion that "a lived closer to John Wesley than any Creed could be" falls rather flat because it perpetuates a false dichotomy that cannot stand up to scrutiny when measured against Wesley's own writings. Rather than setting life and creed against one another, Wesley weaved them together into a magnificent tapestry that tells the story of transformation and renewal. Wesley's lived faith embodied historic Christian orthodoxy. He brought the Creeds to life in his preaching and writing. For him, experience and doctrine were inseparable. Indeed, we might even say that, for Wesley, experience brought doctrine to life, and doctrine gave him the language to articulate his experience of God's kindness. 

John Wesley did not abandon creed in favor of the lived realities of faith. He transmitted the catholic faith line by line in the many pages that came from his pen. On every page he calls us to experience the very One of whom the creeds speak, the One who is "one in being with the Father," and who "for us and for our salvation...came down from Heaven." Wesley would have us enjoy the life given only by him who "rose again on the third day," and he would have us seek the kingdom that "will have no end." And just as Wesley longed to see renewal in the Church of his day, he would likewise have us encounter afresh "the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life." There is no lived experience of faith apart from the confession: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ his only Son." Soli Deo gloria