Arguing from Silence in the Early Church

This summer Luke Stamps and I had a relatively brief interaction about penal substitution and its catholicity. One of the common objections to penal substitution is that it is not found in the early church’s theological reflection. While we gave some brief examples in our posts of where it might be found, at least implicitly, there is a larger problem with this kind of approach to the Patristic period. We often use the early church in one of two problematic ways: either to proof-text in support of our position or to make an argument from silence against a position we oppose. While methodologically speaking the former is a bit easier to confront, the latter seems more prevalent these days (at least in my reading). Our hermeneutics classes have warned us of proof-texting enough that I think it’s easier to reject that approach not just biblically but historically. What is harder to reject, but what is just as problematic, is citing the silence of the Fathers as proof that a doctrine isn’t biblically or theologically warranted.

This is methodologically suspect on at least two levels. Historically, it ignores the fact that Christian doctrines develop over time. Theology does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it worked out in all its loci all at once immediately after the last apostle passes away. It should be clear to those who have studied church history that the Patristic and Medieval periods are given over to working out the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology. Soteriology and ecclesiology are the focus of theological reflection in the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, while anthropology and eschatology (to name just two) are being worked out in much more detail in contemporary theological discussions. To ask a second century apologist to speak about the Triune God with the same level of exactness as fifth century Christians is anachronistic. And to argue that a particular understanding of the atonement (e.g. penal substitution, or justification by faith alone) is not warranted because the Fathers do not mention it[1] is to miss the point that soteriology is largely assumed and not worked out with particular fervor or exactness until the Reformation. In other words, historically, this “argument from Patristic (or Medieval) silence” is an error of anachronism.

The “argument from silence” is also theologically problematic. For Protestants, the ultimate doctrinal standard is not a particular period in church history or how early or late a particular doctrine is widely attested, but whether or not a particular doctrine is faithful to Holy Scripture. While we certainly want to pay attention to any belief’s development, our assessment of it, if we are to be fully Protestant, should rest finally with whether or not it conforms to God’s Word. As Protestants, we affirm that the church can and does make mistakes, ethically, interpretively, and doctrinally. Just because the first, second, or third (etc) generations of Christians after the apostles believed something does not make it automatically true, nor does their lack of attestation to a belief make that belief necessarily false. Sola Scriptura demands that we make those judgments ultimately from Scripture, not via picking a particular period of church history as more important than another.

That said, there is a reason we often look to the Patristic period for validation of our beliefs – it is important both historically and theologically. Historically, it is most immediate to the apostles and their teaching. More importantly, perhaps, is that, theologically, the conclusions of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon are accurate summaries of biblical teaching about the Trinity and about Christ, and therefore can be used (penultimate to Scripture’s authority) to assess whether or not later doctrinal developments are faithful to the good deposit of Scripture and the church’s summary of it in the three ecumenical creeds. So it is not as though I am arguing that the early church is unimportant in theological reflection. By no means! But I am saying that arguments from silence are not proper method, either historically or theologically.

[1] I’d argue they do, but it is still a very minor theme in their discussion of salvation when compared to its prominence in contemporary evangelical theology.

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Sexual Identity and Theological Anthropology

In their recently released Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), Cornelis van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink offer a view of biological sex and sexuality grounded in theological anthropology. They focus particularly on the connection between sex and the relational aspect of the imago dei, and do so in order to argue that our sexual nature (that is, that we are made as “male and female,” with a biological sex) is not limited to or only realized in marriage and procreation. While the family unit may be the “primary and prototypical manner in which this basic desire for bonding and solidarity is expressed” (285-86), it is nevertheless not the only way in which this fundamentally relational aspect of our humanity can be realized. van der Kooi and van den Brink differentiate, for the most part, between “sexual” and “sexuality,” the former denoting our human nature as “male and female,” the latter referring to sexual activities.  A few choice quotes in this regard:

Sexuality is not everything, and those who are hardly, or not at all, involved in sexual activities can be excellent and complete human beings (281).

Our sexuality [here they mean sexual nature] is not a kind of secondary embellishment of what is at root asexual. An asexual human being is an abstraction. We do not have a genderless or bisexual core that relativizes our male or female state, but from the very first God created as thoroughly physical, sexual beings: male and female God created us (282).

Admittedly, there are intrinsic differences between men and women, and neither persons nor societies will function optimally when they are ignored. But…much of what we consider to be typically male or female is undoubtedly culturally determined (283).

…it is not correct to regard procreation as the only purpose of our sexuality. If that were the case, a major part of humanity (including Jesus of Nazareth) would not be fully fledged humans (284).

This seems to me to be a very balanced section on sexuality and sexual identity. On the one hand, the authors acknowledge the “fact of nature” (284) of our sexual nature as human beings, and therefore that God made us male and female. In doing so, they also acknowledge that heterosexual marriage leading to procreation is the “prototypical manner” (286) in which this sexual nature is expressed. They also importantly, though, leaven the lump, so to speak, and say with Jesus that marriage is relativized in the eschaton, with Paul that singleness is a gift from God, and with modern studies in theological anthropology that we cannot reduce “male and female” to unbiblical cultural norms. They are also careful to speak about ways in which our sexual nature can remain relational, since it is part of the imago dei, without requiring sexual activity.

Unfortunately, though, the authors punt at the end of the section on the issue of same-sex marriage. This is not uncommon for this book; on most of the major issues in theology, one is left asking for more of the authors’ own perspectives and arguments. Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that it is intended to be an introductory textbook, but there are places where taking a stance seems to be required. In my mind this is one of them. I wish they had.

Is Nicaea Enough?

A sentiment with which I sympathize and which I hear often is that “Nicaea is enough.” By this people seem to mean that, when trying to articulate boundaries for orthodoxy and, thus, for who is and who isn’t a Christian, the Nicene Creed, or more often the Apostles’ Creed, serves as the arbiter. In this model, someone who affirms historic Christian teaching on the Trinity, the hypostatic union, the necessity of Christ’s work for salvation, the church as the people of God, and the expectation that Christ will return in glory should be considered a Christian. I sympathize with this approach because, well, look at that list! It covers many issues that are vitally important for the Christian faith.

But often when I hear or see people say, “Nicaea is enough,” it appears to me that what they mean is that we don’t need to hold others to doctrinal or ethical standards beyond what was laid down in the fourth through eighth centuries. On the former, I am not talking about those working toward an evangelical ecumenicity, like Timothy George; I am referring, rather, to those who seek to elide and escape doctrinal convictions beyond what is taught in the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. So, for instance, bibliology is not addressed in the Creeds; therefore, according to this “Nicaea is enough” way of thinking, Christians can believe a whole host of different positions about Scripture. The latter rationale for “Nicaea is enough,” the ethical, is the more popular these days, though. In this respect “NiE” is used to say that, for instance, sexuality is not addressed in the Creeds, and therefore Christians can believe a whole host of different ideas about gender and sexuality. To be frank, it seems to me that “NiE” is used most often not as a genuine attempt at doctrinal catholicity but rather as a euphemism for giving in to our current cultural climate regarding sexuality. Rather than an attempt at a catholic (small c!) orthodoxy, this sentiment is more often used to sneak in non-traditional ethical or doctrinal teachings through a supposed creedal gap.

What can we say to this? As a Protestant and evangelical, I think there are at least four responses we can give to this sentiment and ultimately claim that Nicaea, or even the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils all together, is not enough to measure what is properly Christian.

  1. Creeds and councils are not the ultimate measure of Christian doctrinal and ethical faithfulness; Scripture is. The first and most important point to make here is that the creeds and councils are not the ultimate arbiter of what counts as properly apostolic. That position, from a Protestant perspective, lies ultimately with Scripture alone. While creeds and confessions help codify, at a particular historical moment, the church’s ministerially and derivatively authoritative summary of Scripture, it is Scripture alone that holds the primary place. Therefore, even if we do not have a creed that addresses an explicit departure from Scripture, it is still just that – a departure from Scripture. And Scripture is clear that there are simple errors and then there are departures; the former, mistakes to be corrected, the latter, clear rejections of biblical teaching that results in communal exclusion (see point #2).
  2. There are a number of teachings, including permitting sexual immorality, that Scripture identifies as “false teaching” and enough to cast one out from the ecclesia. The idea that only those issues addressed by the early church warrant excommunication misses the force of many scriptural statements about casting out false teachers. And while many assume that “false teaching” is only directly related to doctrinal issues, like John’s forceful argument against docetism in 1 John 4, Scripture does not limit false teaching to doctrine. For instance, Jesus threatens covenant exclusion for those in the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira who follow, respectively, the Nicolatian and Jezebel-ian teachings about sexual immorality (Rev. 2:14-15; 19-23). We could add to this the instances where Paul addresses excommunication and ties it explicitly to divisiveness (e.g. Titus 3:10). The point is that exclusion from the covenant community is not limited in Scripture to doctrinal issues, or to some kind of arbitrary doctrinal ranking system. Instead, it covers doctrinal, ethical, and communal rejections of biblical authority.
  3. The “NiE” sentiment wrongly assumes that everything doctrinally or ethically important was settled in the first five centuries of the church’s history. This ignores both the function and history of creedal statements. Regarding the latter, it should be obvious from studying church history that, while the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology were relatively settled by the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils, these are not the only doctrines that caused first-order controversies. One only needs to remember the Reformation to realize that, in that case, the doctrines of soteriology (esp. justification) and ecclesiology still needed to be clarified at an ecclesiastical level. For Protestants, the five solas of the Reformation function creedally, even while they are not technically formalized in a creed. The point is that, as important as the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils are, they did not address every doctrinal issue that could be considered of first importance. And this brings us back to the former aspect of creeds and confessions that “NiE” ignores: they arise out of specific socio-cultural situations where certain doctrinal controversies must be addressed. In the providence of God, the church first had to deal with the Trinity and Christology. But this doesn’t mean that controversies surrounding other doctrines are not of first-order importance. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every controversy is of first-order importance. But it does mean that some deviations from traditional Christian teaching are. The Patristic and early Medieval period addressed the Trinity and Christology; the Reformation addressed soteriology and ecclesiology; and it seems to me that, today, we need to address bibliology and anthropology. The way to tell if modern deviations from traditional Christian teaching are first-order departures brings us back to point #1 – does it clearly depart from the apostolic deposit, Holy Scripture, and in such a way that it can be characterized as a rejection of Scripture’s authority? (FWIW here’s my attempt to describe what counts as “biblical.”) Yes, people can come to different interpretive conclusions, but this does not make them all correct. And as Protestants, our theological method calls us to return to Scripture again and again.
  4. “Orthodox” is not the only term we can use to communicate what counts as Christian teaching and what does not. But if we use another term, as Derek Rishmawy and others have argued, it had better have enough force to communicate that deviation from it warrants exclusion from the Christian community.

We could add other points here, like the fact that the entire Christian tradition has assumed a particular anthropology, which includes a particular sexual ethic, for the first two thousand years of its history. But I think these four points summarize the methodological problems with the “NiE” sentiment, even if we could say more about particular doctrinal issues and how to argue for the properly Christian position on them.

 

The Grammar of Messianism

I want to extend my congrats to my friend, Matt Novenson’s new book The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users (Oxford University Press, 2017). Matt is a Senior Lecturer at New College, University of Edinburgh and is a well respected Pauline and Christian Origins scholar. But more importantly (to me at least), he’s a great human being. If you are considering doing a Ph.D in Pauline Studies or Christian Origins, Matt needs to be at the top of your list for potential supervisors.

For the release of the book, Matt gave two interviews (here and here) at the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins (New College) blog that gives in depth descriptions about the project.

And then finally here is a description of The Grammar of Messianism, from the OUP site:

Messianism is one of the great themes in intellectual history. But for precisely this reason, because it has done so much important ideological work for the people who have written about it, the historical roots of the discourse itself have been obscured from view. What did it mean to talk about “messiahs” in the ancient world, before the idea of messianismbecame a philosophical juggernaut, dictating the terms for all subsequent discussion of the topic? In this book, Matthew V. Novenson gives a revisionist account of messianism in antiquity. He shows that, for the ancient Jews and Christians who used the term, a messiah was not an article of faith but a manner of speaking. It was a scriptural figure of speech, one among numerous others, useful for thinking kinds of political order: present or future, real or ideal, monarchic or theocratic, dynastic or charismatic, and other variations beside. The early Christians famously seized upon the title “messiah” (in Greek, “Christ”) for their founding hero and thus molded the sense of the term in certain ways, but, Novenson shows, this is nothing other than what all ancient messiah texts do, each in its own way. If we hope to understand the ancient texts about messiahs (from Deutero-Isaiah to the Parables of Enoch, from the Qumran Community Rule to the Gospel of John, from the Pseudo-Clementines to Sefer Zerubbabel), then we must learn to think in terms not of a world-historical idea but of a language game, of so many creative reuses of an archaic Israelite idiom. In The Grammar of Messianism, Novenson demonstrates thepossibility and the benefit of thinking of messianism in this way.

Again, congratulations on the release of the book, Matt.

Canonical Hermeneutics and Systemic Injustices

I watched the #PhilandoCastile dash cam video about an hour ago and am still horrified. This case appears to me to be a miscarriage of justice on every level, from the 50ish stops in 14 years to which Castile was subjected, to the actions of the officer, to the acquittal of the officer by the jury.

What is also puzzling to me is the continued insistence by some that Christians ought to concern themselves only with preaching the gospel and not with issues of systemic injustice in our societies. There are various reasons why I think some deny either that policing is a systemic issue to be addressed or that, more broadly, Christians should be engaged in confronting systemic injustice. Here I only want to briefly suggest that one of the reasons for this is a truncated canon.

My training is in biblical theology, and specifically in canonical criticism. I have been taught and have subsequently tried to teach others to read the Bible as a whole, as one book. And yet, evangelicalism continues to be what I would consider a mostly Pauline stream of Christianity. There is, of course, nothing wrong with Paul – I love Paul! I love the five solas of the Reformation, I love the explanation of the gospel of Christ followed by the ethical exhortations (indicative –> imperative), I love the rich imagery that Paul uses for God’s salvation of his people. Paul’s writings are just as inerrant and inspired as the rest of Scripture, and therefore just as important. But when we shrink our Bibles down to Paul, and specifically down to Romans and Galatians, we miss out on a lot of what the Bible has to say about justice.

The Mosaic Law, Israel’s prophets, and the wisdom literature all address justice in ancient Israel. And that material repeatedly connects justice with social issues, and particularly with the treatment of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Often (though, of course, not always), the marginalized are in that position for some ethnic reason, whether it is Israel being mistreated by a foreign nation or Israel mistreating foreigners and strangers in their midst.

When we come to the Gospels, Jesus also repeatedly speaks about how his followers ought to treat the same groups of people: the poor, the oppressed, and marginalized. And again, we see that “marginalized” has ethnic overtones. The same concern for the social implications of the gospel are found in Paul, albeit more so in Philemon than in Romans or Galatians. Still, his commands about husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves, and other such social relationships would have been radical compared to societal norms in his day. James is concerned that Christians treat the poor, orphans, and widows with the love they are due as God’s image bearers. And the book most avoided by expository preachers, Revelation, stands at the end of the canon with a hard word for the church. If Christians participate in or support the unjust systems of this world, they ride the Beast along with the Harlot.

The Bible shows that God confronts systemic injustice through his Word. Of course, the necessary caveat here is that what the Bible says is just for society is not always what society believes is just. With this caveat in mind, though, the point still stands: God cares about justice, and about the systemic injustices that occur in our societies. Perhaps if we moved beyond our (selective) Pauline canon within a canon we would see this a bit more clearly.

The Pattern of Sound Words: Some Brief Thoughts on the Semantics of Orthodoxy

One of the reasons why I believe the consensual tradition of Christian orthodoxy deserves so much deference is that its theological language has been time-tested. It has been tested in the laboratory of Christian history and Christian experience. It has passed through the crucible of ecclesiastical conflict and has been vindicated by lay Christian consensus across time and space. The challenges of translation and contextualization still remain, but the semantic categories passed down to us have survived for a reason.

Calvin once mused about a scenario in which no extra-biblical language would be needed in order to communicate what Scripture clearly teaches about the nature and works of the Triune God. But, as Calvin rightly conceded, Christian theologians must employ extra-biblical terminology, not because the language of Scripture is insufficient, but because it is so often distorted.

This is also why I am so wary of newer categories that have little to no precedent in the Christian tradition. The historical categories of Trinitarian orthodoxy–hypostasis and ousia, procession and mission, inseparable operations and appropriation–have been tested and tried–biblically, theologically, philosophically, and pastorally.  They have, as a result, a kind of sturdiness and reliability that can’t be found in the newer categories of so many recent evangelical treatments of the Trinity–like the granite walls of Yosemite compared to loose shale. The newer terms–relationship, role, functional subordination, eternal relations of authority and submission–are, at best provisional, and must undergo a significant probationary period in order to test their biblical and theological utility. In some cases, their incommensurabilty and inconsistency with the traditional ways Christians have interpreted Scripture and the Triune mystery at its heart are more than apparent.

So for my part, its better to tread the old paths of orthodox terminology, with all of their careful and intricate beauty and rationality, than to begin afresh with newer and less tried alternatives.

Typology

Southern Seminary recently came out with their latest issue of their journal, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology and for this issue all of the essays are centred around typology. I think one of the strengths of SBJT is that the essays typically have a particular focus or a uniting theme. It is a bonus to see my friend Matt Emerson as one of the co-contributors in his and Peter Link’s essay “Searching for the Second Adam: Typological Connections between Adam, Joseph, Mordecai, and Daniel.” With five girls, I don’t know how he does it.

With an issue like typology, there is much disagreement. Stephen Wellum’s opening editorial essay helpfully notes that Christians do read the Scriptures typologically, but that they disagree about how it should be done. Not every essay in the journal approaches a typological reading in the same way, but Wellum tries to describe the broad contours in which the contributors work.

First, Wellum defines typology as “the study of the relationship between Old Testament revealed truths of persons, events, institutions which God has specifically designed to correspond to, and predictively prefigure their intensified ‘anti-typical’ fulfilment in Christ and his people” (p. 6). And second, he argues that typology is rooted in history and text, prophetic and predictive, escalates, and progresses covenantally.

Wellum’s description raises a question for me on whether there is a difference between the typological reading that Wellum proposes and what I call narrative patterning, where an author or authors pattern narrative plots and characters after previous plots and characters as a way to provide implicit commentary. Because they seem very similar. For example, Adonijah’s attempt at assuming the throne during David’s waning years is explicitly shaped after Absalom’s attempt at taking the throne from David (cf. 1 Kgs 1:5–6, 9 with 2 Sam 14:25; 15:1; 17:17). It is difficult to imagine this as being prophetic or escalating. It seems to be a way to implicitly comment on Adonijah’s actions.

So is typology then an explicitly Christological reading? And therefore, a kind of a narrative patterning that is Christological in focus but also must be understood as prophetic and predictive, escalate, and progress covenantally?

A Book Review on Eugene Merrill’s 1–2 Chronicles Commentary

I’m a bit late in posting this (actually very late). But I thought some might be interested in reading my recent book review of Eugene Merrill’s commentary on 1–2 Chronicles that was published in the latest Themelios journal. Especially helpful are discussions on three theological themes in a redemptive-historical framework that are central to the Chronicler’s theology and purpose: David’s historical and eschatological reign, the renewal of an everlasting covenant, and the restored temple as a symbol of a renewed people (pp. 57–68).

Merrill’s work has been a great benefit to students of the Old Testament for many years. And his work on Chronicles can help remedy one of the most neglected books in the Bible.

You can read my full review here.

David Foster Wallace on Turgidity

I was encouraged and exhorted yesterday by Fred Sander’s post on writing tips. Last night I also read a few essays in David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, including his review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time (“Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” pp. 51-58 in CtL). The review is scathing, to say, the least, and full of detailed critiques of Updike’s writing that I don’t need to repeat here. But toward the end of the essay, Wallace gives a summary what he calls the “turgidity” of Updike’s prose (p. 57-58), a summary which I believe is applicable to any writer in any genre.

  1. “so many modifiers” – Wallace first critiques Updike for constantly modifying nouns and verbs. I see many younger writers (including myself) give in to this particular temptation by loading up sentences with adjectives and adverbs that we’d probably never use in real life. And I’d guess that many times we overload readers on Twitter or in articles and books to make what we’re saying sound more profound than it really is.
  2. “so much subordination” – Wallace’s point here is that Updike constantly subordinates clauses in the middle of sentences. Again, I see (and do) this frequently. Sentences don’t always have to be short, but they should be clearly follow-able. Subordinating clauses decreases the reader’s ability to follow the grain of a sentence.
  3. “so much alliteration” – According to Wallace, Updike gets too cute by half with alliteration. But trying to make all your modifiers start with the letter “p” or some such isn’t the only way we try to doll up our sentences: using weird sentence structures or formatting (as if we’re trying to be the next e e cummings), giving the reader a heavy dose of modifiers (see #1), using words that everyone knows we found in a thesaurus or a GRE Study Guide and not in our own vocabulary, and the like are all ways that writers (including me) try to make their sentences and paragraphs look better than they actually are. As we say in the Deep South, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

These were helpful to me to consider. Maybe they’ll benefit some of you as well.

Combating Creedal Amputations of the Descent Clause

Tomorrow is Holy Saturday, that liminal temporal space between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. For many evangelicals, Holy Saturday has lost all meaning, while for others it is associated with Catholic and Orthodox notions of the Harrowing of Hell. Because of this latter association, where Christ goes into Hades (Hell) and brings out either virtuous Jews and pagans (Roman Catholic) or all humanity (Orthodox), some evangelical theologians have even argued that we should cut the line referencing it from the Apostles’ Creed (“he was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose…”).

Aside from the methodological problem that is one individual attempting to surgically dismember an ecumenical creedal clause, I want to suggest here four reasons why we should avoid cutting the descent clause from the Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds.

1. It is historically important.

While I agree with evangelical theologians that a Roman Catholic or Orthodox understanding of the descent clause should be rejected, this has not been what the clause has always meant. The “Harrowing of Hell” view arose toward the middle of the Medieval period, but before that the early church simply affirmed ubiquitously that Christ descended to the dead – that is, in his human nature he experienced death as all humans do, his body in the grave and his soul in the place of the (righteous dead), and in doing so by virtue of the hypostatic union the God-man conquered death. He also announced (“preached”) his victory to all the dead – good news for the righteous, bad news for the unrighteous. In other words, Jesus in his humanity experiences human death, and by virtue of his divine nature he conquers it. He also lets all the dead know he’s the conqueror.

2. It is biblically important.

Of course, as a Protestant the key to affirming any doctrine is not ultimately its historicity, no matter how ancient, but its foundation in Scripture. And the understanding of the descent outlined above is thoroughly biblical (as the ancient Christians also understood it to be). Jesus is said to have experienced human death in both body and soul in e.g. Matt. 12:40; Acts 2:24; Rom. 10:7, and, I’d say, Eph. 4:9-11. He also conquers death through this experience in Rev. 1:18, and I’d also say 1 Pet. 3:18-22 teaches the same thing. I realize Grudem’s exegesis of that latter passage is influential, as is Augustine’s, but as Augustine recognized, the doctrine of the descent does not rise or fall with the interpretation of 1 Pet. 3:18-22 (see on this Justin Bass, The Battle for the Keys, who presents the most compelling biblical and historical case for the descent from an evangelical in print).

3. It is theologically important.

The descent is not a minor doctrine. For the early church, it was one of the most important ones, in fact. This is because much hinges on it – our nature as human beings and Christ’s full redemption of it; the beginning of Christ’s exaltation as the Lord over all things, even the last enemy, Death; the communion of saints; and the nature of Paradise as dwelling in the presence of God in Christ. It impacts our understanding of doctrines like soul sleep (and whether its even a viable possibility), the Sabbath and Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s hope, ownership of the Promised Land, the millennium, and the extent of the atonement.

4. It is pastorally important.

My Aunt Jane passed away last month. At her funeral, my most comforting thought was that, because she trusted in Christ’s atoning work for forgiveness, I know that Christ is with and for her, and in more ways than one. First, yes, our deceased Christian loved ones are now in the presence of the risen Christ, and yes that is comforting. We should acknowledge that this soul-ish life in the presence of Christ is due in part to Christ’s own soul-ish descent, a descent that, while the end point of his suffering, is also the beginning of his exaltation in his resurrection and ascension. This is a pastoral implication of the descent, to be sure.

But another often overlooked pastoral implication is that Christ, too, experienced death as we do on Holy Saturday. His body lay in the grave, beginning to rot. He experienced the ultimate sting of death, the body’s failure and the soul’s departure from it. He experienced the liminal space between death and resurrection pro nobis – for us. We can thus tell those who have lost Christian loved ones not only that there is light at the end of the tunnel in the resurrection of the dead, and not only that they experience Christ’s presence now – both supremely comforting, to be sure! – but also that Christ himself experienced what they experienced now and conquered it. And they, too, will be conquerors one day with all of us who live by faith in the died-yet-risen Son of God.