Canonical Parameters for Talking about the Cry of Dereliction

Last week I posted about some dogmatic parameters for talking about the Cry of Dereliction. In this post I want to add to those parameters some boundaries given to us by the text of Scripture. Jesus’ guttural utterance from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34) ought to be taken in its immediate, surrounding, and, ultimately, canonical contexts. Here I only want to outline some of these; as with the previous post, this one could be expanded into at least an article if not a monograph. And nobody has time for that in a blog post.

  1. Mark’s Gospel – The first contexts for the Cry of Dereliction are its immediate and surrounding contexts in Mark’s Gospel. He and Matthew (27:46) are the only Gospels that include it, and Mark includes no other sayings of Jesus from the cross in his Gospel. Regarding the immediate context, there are a few things to say. First, the Temple veil is torn in two (Mk. 15:38) and the Roman centurion confesses that “truly, this man was the Son of God” (Mk. 15:39) immediately after Jesus’ cry and subsequent death. Second, this cry stands as the culmination of “the hour,” spoken of repeatedly in Mark 13 and fulfilled in the events of Mark 14 (see on this Peter Bolt, The Cross from a Distance). This “hour” is for “the Son of Man,” who will come riding on the clouds in glory” (Mk. 13:24-27).  Third, the cry from the cross is answered preliminarily in his royal, Jewish burial at the hands of Joseph of Arimathea (Mk. 15:42-47) and ultimately by the empty tomb (Mk. 16:1-8). Regarding the surrounding context (i.e. the context of the entire book), Jesus’ reference to Ps. 22:1 stands as the culmination of a long line of references to the Old Testament’s Suffering Servant in Mark’s Gospel. Most of these come from Isaiah, but in both the Psalms and Isaiah the Suffering Servant songs are intended to convey lament over present circumstances in the context of trust in God’s covenant promises, and specifically his promise to bring Israel’s New Exodus through the Suffering Servant. In other words, in Mark, the Cry of Dereliction, a cry of pain, anguish, suffering, and abandonment, is couched within the self-identification of Jesus as the divine and royal Son of Man, trust in God’s covenantal promises, the fulfillment of those promises in the penal substitutionary death of the Messiah, and the vindication of his death as a substitute for sinners in the Temple curtain’s tearing, the centurion’s exclamation, Jesus’ royal burial (rather than a criminal’s burial) at the hands of Joseph of Arimathea, and ultimately the empty tomb.
  2. The Fourfold Gospel Corpus – In addition to Mark’s context, we also need to pay attention to the canonical context of the four Gospels, and specifically to Jesus’ other sayings from the cross. I am here not so concerned about chronological order for the seven sayings as I am about how to read them together. Jesus cries “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?” in the context of also saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), (to the thief) “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” (Luke 23:43), “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother” (John 19:26-27), “I thirst,” (John 19:28), “It is finished” (John 19:30), and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Notice a few things about these other sayings. First, the initial and final sayings are prayers to the Father. While Jesus experiences abandonment here, it is not in such a way that he believes that the Father will not hear his prayers. Second, whatever we say about abandonment needs to include not only Jesus’ continued prayers to the Father but also his continued speech to those around the cross. He cares for his mother and friend (John 19:26-27), and he speaks to the soldiers (“I thirst”). Third, and most importantly, these other sayings indicate that Jesus’ actions are intended as a propitiatory, acceptable sacrifice (John 19:28, John 19:30). Therefore at death, in anticipation of the ultimate vindication of the resurrection, Jesus’ righteous life and sacrificially satisfactory death will be vindicated when he enters the intermediate state in the righteous place of the dead, Paradise (Luke 23:46).
  3. Psalm 22 – A third canonical context for the Cry of Dereliction is Psalm 22. While we should affirm that Jesus quotes this in a moment of intense suffering, and therefore has the abandonment mentioned in 22:1 fully in view, the NT authors (and Jesus in his ministry) often quote Scripture metaleptically. That is, when they quote one verse they have the entire context of that one verse in view. Given both Mark’s use of the Suffering Servant motif and the other sayings from the cross, as well as a proper understanding of the lament genre, it is likely that Jesus has the entirety of Psalm 22 in view even though he only quotes v. 1. When we look at Psalm 22, we find that this righteous man who suffers unjustly is ultimately vindicated and that his feeling and experience of abandonment to death take place in the context of the covenant faithfulness of God.
  4. The Old Testament Story – Finally, we need to understand that Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction stands at the apex of the biblical story, which is Israel’s story. Israel is promised exile in the Old Testament. They are told that, on the Day of the Lord, God will send them out of the Promised Land. God departs from the Temple at the beginning of Ezekiel in anticipation of its and Israel’s destruction. In other words, exile is divine abandonment. It is judgment on sin. Israel deserves it because they have not repented and trusted in YHWH. But when we look at the narratives concerning exile, YHWH is not only the God who judges but also the God who saves. As he sends Israel’s enemies to crush them and to remove them from the land, he also remains with them. He abandons Israel in 1 Samuel 5, when the ark is taken by the Philistines. But he also in that story is working on their behalf, going into exile on their behalf and defeating their enemies for them in the midst of that self-imposed exile by knocking over the idol of Dagon. In Ezekiel, as he pronounces judgment on Israel by abandoning the Temple, his presence goes with Israel into exile. Exile is real, but so is the promise of return. And in God, mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). Return triumphs over exile. Resurrection triumphs over death. The judgment that takes place on the cross is real, but it is judgment in a covenant context that anticipates vindication through resurrection.

As I said in the previous post, I wholeheartedly affirm penal substitution. God pours out his wrath toward sinners on Jesus at the cross. Those who repent of their sins and believe Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9) receive death instead of life because Jesus took the curse that we deserve (Gal. 3:13). Jesus became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). In all these ways I affirm penal substitution. But in describing this mystery we need to make sure we do not cross the dogmatic boundaries of Nicaea and Chalcedon or the canonical boundaries of Holy Scripture.

The Anointing at Bethany

Today is Wednesday in Holy Week, a day traditionally used to commemorate Mary’s anointing of Jesus at Bethany (John 12:1-8). Mary’s act of breaking the alabaster jar and pouring the ointment on Jesus’ feet is “wasteful” and “useless,” to use Malcolm Guite‘s description, and Judas chastises Mary for exactly that. But, as Guite goes on to point out, following Jesus often results in actions that the world considers a waste.

In my American context, filled to the brim as it is with pragmatism and practicality, I need to hear Jesus’ words in response to Judas – what Mary did was a “beautiful thing.” When Christ calls a woman or man, he bids her or him to come and die, and I think this call to die includes dying to my American cultural pragmatic insistence on tangible results.

What are some examples of this? Guite talks about a mother providing prolonged care for her severely disabled daughter, describing the act as “pouring out every day the unreturnable love and care that so many in society think, like Judas, was a ‘waste,’ but was, somehow, in spite of everything, renewing a beauty and a hope” (The Word in the Wilderness, 162). What comes to my mind is the rush to application in both preaching and theology. What use is a sermon if it isn’t “practical”? What use is a doctrine if it doesn’t provide me with some “practical” skills or steps to improve my life? I often hear, and have in the past asked myself, the latter question with respect to the Trinity. What use is the doctrine of the Trinity?

Of course here we could mention that the doctrine of the Trinity is vital because the goal of theology is to know God. But Judas’ question to Mary (“why wasn’t this sold and the money given to the poor?”) and our questions about the usefulness of theology demand something more than contemplation – we want tangible results! I think the story of Mary reminds us that the contemplative life is a “beautiful thing,” not to be divorced from all Jesus’ calls to action on behalf of others but also not to be jettisoned for the sake of “usefulness.”

 

Parameters for Talking about the the Cry of Dereliction

It’s Holy Week, which means most Christians have their hearts turned toward Golgotha. There is so much confusion about one biblical passage that describes the crucifixion – the cry of dereliction, Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22:1 from the cross. When we ask what it means for Jesus to say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we need to bear in mind a few parameters. In my view, any statement about it needs to be thoroughly Trinitarian, non-Nestorian, and Messianic. Here’s a brief explanation of what I mean. Surely someone else has done some of the heavy lifting here.

  1. Trinitarian: Anything we say about the cry of dereliction needs to retain the oneness of the Godhead, both with respect to rejecting any ontological or relational division between Father and Son and with respect to affirming inseparable operations. The cross does not produce division between Father and Son, and it is not only the Father who acts in the crucifixion. It is appropriate to talk about the Father pouring out is wrath, but, according to the doctrine of appropriations, ascribing an action to one person of the Trinity does not deny that the other persons are acting inseparably. It is not only the Father that pours out wrath; the Son and the Spirit, as the other two persons of the one God, also pour out the one wrath of the one God.
  2. Non-Nestorian: Anything we say about the cry of dereliction needs to retain the oneness of the person of Jesus Christ. He is one person with two natures, divine and human, and he goes to the cross as one person. In other words, the Son cannot die in virtue of his divinity, but by virtue of the hypostatic union we can also say that God dies on the cross in virtue of his humanity.
  3. Messianic: Anything we say about the cry of dereliction needs to retain the covenantal and therefore relational unity between God and his Messiah. Psalm 22 is a lament psalm that ends with a confession of covenantal hope. Jesus in quoting Psalm 22 is doing so (most likely) metaleptically, i.e. quoting one line of the psalm but assuming its entire context. Jesus’ lament comes in a covenantal context, a context in which he is the Messianic Son chosen by YHWH to deliver his people Israel by suffering on their behalf. God pours out his wrath on Jesus, yes, but as his anointed Son who suffers in his people’s place.

None of these parameters deny penal substitution. I want to state clearly that I affirm penal substitution. Jesus bore the wrath of God that sinners deserve on the cross. But our description of how that happened – the crucifixion’s metaphysical mechanics , so to speak – need to fall within the parameters listed above.

Early Christian Interpretation and Classical Christian Theism

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that there were quite a few major movements in twentieth century theology, from a variety of theological streams, that concerned themselves with overturning or significantly revising classical Christian theism (CCT). Influences as varied as biblical theology, apologetics, philosophy, church history, and the history of interpretation have contributed to the suspicion, revision, and rejection of CCT. These rejections, revisions, and suspicions have resulted in everything from process theism to denials or thorough revisions of, for example, simplicity and impassibility. The basic gist of objections to these and other CCT-related doctrines is that they are unbiblical and philosophically untenable. And, at bottom, that basic objection rests on the assumption that CCT developed via reflection on God through the lens of Greek philosophy rather than through the lenses God’s Word or his actions in history.

This kind of gross mis-characterization needs to stop. The early Christian theologians were just as concerned as, say, 21st century conservative evangelicals, with demonstrating that their doctrinal formulations were thoroughly biblical. The distinction between pre-modern and modern exegesis and theology is not that the former is philosophical and the latter is biblical, but between what counts as “biblical” in either period. For pre-modern interpreters, “biblical” meant considering passages in their original historical and literary context, but it also meant considering those passages in their canonical, narratival, and metaphysical context.

One example of this kind of holistic theological method is found in Maximus’ Ambiguum 7:

For it belongs to God alone to be the end and the completion and the impassible.

Maximus in this section is discussing God’s impassibility, and his foundational metaphysical principle is that, on the one hand, “Nothing that came into being is perfect in itself and complete,” and, on the other hand, “That which is perfect is uncaused . . . [and therefore] free of passions.” In the immediately prior paragraph he says this slightly differently:

. . . nothing that comes into being is its own end, since it is not self-caused. For if it were, it would be unbegotten, without beginning and unmoved since it has nothing toward which it can be moved in any way. For what is self-caused transcends what has come into being, because it exists for the sake of nothing [other than itself].

The logic here is simple – Anything that has a prior cause (namely creation) has a purpose – “an end” or “telos” to use Maximus’ language. And because it has an end, which it has not already reached, it moves, or is passible, until it reaches that end. That which is unmade (namely God) is necessarily immovable since it is the end in itself. To put it simply, God has no greater end to move toward. This is why Augustine can famously say, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee” – he’s drawing on impassibility. God is immovable because he is uncaused and therefore the true end, or goal, toward which all creatures are designed to move. There is no greater goal toward which he moves. Impassibility is thus directly related to telos – God is already complete, has no telos (movement towards completion), and therefore is without movement (passions).

All that may not sound very “biblical” since I have yet to provide a prooftext or even a citation. But Maximus’ logic here is filled with biblical quotations, citations, and allusions. After the second block quote above, Maximus goes on to quote, cite, or allude to Gen. 2:9, 17; Deut. 12:9; Ps. 16:15; Ps. 42:2; Phil. 3:11; Heb. 4:10; and Heb. 11:39. The point in all of these texts is that human beings are created to move toward their rest, namely rest in God. And then the kicker passage comes with his citation of Matt 11:28 – “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Christ himself, as God incarnate, is the telos, the goal, the rest toward which all creatures move. And while Jesus in his human nature experiences sleep, hunger, temptation, and death, Maximus here draws on the classic hermeneutical move of early Christian writers, partitive exegesis. (Augustine calls this the “form of a servant” / “form of God” distinction.)

We could also go on to talk about how, for Maximus, Jesus is not only the center of Scripture but also the center of the universe (again, he backs this up repeatedly with biblical citations). It’s an important point in understanding why Maximus ends with Matt. 11:28 and not, say, OT texts that talk about YHWH as Israel’s rest. Nevertheless, the point here is merely that before evangelicals (including myself) knock the Great Tradition, either hermeneutically or theologically, we should recognize that in the last half century or so our own tradition is largely untrained in the history of interpretation and historical theology. There is a thoroughly biblical, metaphysical logic behind classical Christian theism and pre-Enlightenment Christian interpretation that should be understood on its own terms before we consider rejecting it. That means returning ad fontes, reading primary sources in full and not just proof-texting them, and doing the hard work of understanding how our own hermeneutical assumptions differ from theirs.

Four Myths About Christ’s Descent to the Dead

The doctrine of Christ’s descent to the dead, expressed by the clause “He descended to the dead” in the Apostles’ Creed, might be one of the most unpopular doctrines in evangelical churches today. I haven’t done a scientific poll to support that, but I’m pretty sure if I took one the descent would be down at the bottom with angelic metaphysics (“how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”). Instead of a biblically supported and Christologically important doctrine, many view the descent more like a medieval myth. But when I encounter opposition to the descent, the reasons given are more accurately called myths, since they don’t accurately describe the doctrine. Below I want to address four myths about the descent that are commonly (and incorrectly) employed to reject this doctrine.

1. The descent means Jesus was tormented in Hell.

Many evangelicals reject the descent because they believe it means that Jesus experienced torment and separation from the Father in Hell. This just isn’t true of the early Christian and medieval views of the doctrine. For the early Christians, Jesus’ descent to Hell (a term which was synonymous for them with “the place of the dead”) was victorious and the beginning of his exaltation. He was not tormented there, but rather went to the righteous place of the dead (Paradise) in his human soul. In other words, the doctrine first affirms that Jesus experienced death as all humans do: his body was buried in a grave, and his soul dwelt in the (righteous portion of the) place of the dead. But, second, by virtue of the hypostatic union, he descended as the God-Man, and so his descent is not just vicarious but also victorious. In experiencing death as the God-Man, he defeats it. Thus it is not a part of his humiliation, which culminated in the crucifixion, but is the beginning of his exaltation, which culminated in his ascension.

2. The descent entails either inclusivism or universalism.

A second reason evangelicals reject the descent is because they believe it necessarily supports a universal, or at least inclusivist, understanding of salvation. Some of this suspicion is, admittedly, warranted. The Eastern Orthodox view has developed along these lines, understanding the descent as the complete of Death and Hell and thus the completed rescue and healing of Adam’s race. Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, came to view the descent as the inaugural event for the existence of Purgatory, so while they would deny universalism, they still see the descent as the means for their doctrine of inclusivism. We should acknowledge that these are problematic elements of the doctrine as held by Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. But the myth here is that the EO and RC understandings of the descent are equal to the early Christian understandings of it and the meaning of the creedal clause. On the contrary, while outliers like Origen saw the descent in universalist terms, giants like Augustine, Jerome, and Chrysostom are explicit that the descent’s effects (and Christ’s work generally) are only for the faithful. Neither inclusivism nor universalism are integral to the descent; they arose as aspects of the doctrine much later in the EO and RC traditions and are rightly rejected by the Reformers and now by (most) contemporary evangelicals. But rejection of aberrations of a doctrine doesn’t mean we have to reject the doctrine itself. In other words, don’t throw the descent baby out with the inclusivist/universalist bathwater.

3. The descent clause is a late addition to the Apostles’ Creed.

Often evangelicals cite the lack of attestation of the descent clause in the earliest version of the Apostles’ Creed in support of their rejection of it. Again, there’s a hint of truth to this objection; myths tend to have at least a tenuous connection to reality. But once again this objection distorts the historical facts. The descent clause is found as early as 390 AD in the confession of the Council of Sirmium, only nine years after the Council of Constantinople affirmed the Niceno-Constantinopolitan (Nicene) Creed. There are a few other clear attestations in the textual history of the Apostles’ Creed, but many point to its inclusion in a 650 AD version as the clear demarcation of when it is clearly and finally inserted.

There are two ways to interpret this. First, we could argue, as this myth does, that the clause is just a later addition that was inserted as this doctrine was invented toward the end of the sixth century. The other option is that the early church did not dispute this doctrine or doctrines related to it and so felt no need to explicitly include it. We are not left without evidence in this regard. The famous quote of Rufinus, that “he descended to the dead” is synonymous with “he was buried,” clarifies the situation. Contrary to the misinterpretation of this Rufinian prooftext by Erasmus, Calvin, Schaff (great historian as he was), and Grudem, Rufinus does not mean here that the descent is just a reference to bodily burial. On the contrary, what he means is that the phrase “he was buried” was understood by the early church to contain within it not only an affirmation of bodily burial but also an affirmation of the descent doctrine.

The descent was ubiquitously affirmed from the second century. In other words, it is one of the earliest and least contested views of the ancient church. It didn’t need to be parsed out in a creed because it wasn’t contested, but it was also implicitly included in the Apostles’ Creed from its inception in the clause, “he was buried.” The probable reason for its explicit inclusion at the places where we see it further clarified (i.e. 390 AD, 650 AD) is that it is at precisely these moments that the church is combatting Apollinarianism. This heresy maintained that the Logos assumed only a human body, not a human soul, or mind. What better way to combat this doctrine than to bring out in an explicit clause an ancient belief of the church that necessitates that Christ have a human soul? Far from a situation in which the church gradually came to believe this doctrine, the history of the creedal clause is one in which an ubiquitous and ancient doctrine was implicitly affirmed in “he was buried” but then explicitly brought out in “he descended” in order to combat a persistent and pernicious heresy. [1]

4. The descent has no biblical support.

Of course, for evangelicals, the most important critique of the descent is that it has no biblical support. Many would point to Augustine’s rejection of 1 Pet. 3:18–22 as teaching the descent, and, assuming that this is the only text on which the descent stands, see it as warrant for rejecting it wholesale. The problem is, again, twofold. First, the descent does not stand or fall on 1 Pet. 3:18–22.[2] It wasn’t even cited in support of the doctrine until 200 AD, and at that point the descent was already being affirmed by the likes of Ignatius, Polycarp, Melito, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr. These second century theologians, along with ones throughout the early Christian period, did not turn primarily to 1 Pet. 3:18–22 to understand and support the descent. Instead, they turned to texts like Matt. 12:40; Luke 23:53; Acts 2:27; Rom. 10:7; Eph. 4:9; and Rev. 1:18. 1 Pet. 3:18–22 certainly wasn’t ignored, but it also wasn’t the crux of the doctrine either.

It would take longer than we have space for here to exegete each of these texts. Suffice it to say that they all refer to Jesus going to the place of the dead. In Second Temple Judaism, this had a clear meaning – the place of the dead was a compartmentalized (at least two, righteous and unrighteous) place where all human souls went upon death, waiting for the universal judgment and general resurrection. When these texts talk about Jesus in Hades, the lower parts of the earth, the abyss, Paradise, and the like, they aren’t just references to the grave. They’re references to the place of the dead, where human souls reside. And in fact, at this point, we could add a biblical pattern in support – Christ in the incarnation assumed our entire human nature and experience, including our composition as body and soul and our experience of death. The descent affirms this and that, in doing so, Jesus defeated death. Praise God!

There are, of course, other topics to discuss with respect to the descent, such as what it would mean for Christ to “preach” to the dead, what it would mean for him to “release” Adam and Eve, how the descent is connected to other dogmatic loci, and why this doctrine matters for believers. I’m hoping to address those in my forthcoming book on the doctrine. In the meantime, Justin Bass’ The Battle for the Keys is an excellent resource for a biblical and historical explanation of Christ’s descent to the dead.

[1] The argument made in this section is in many ways a summary of an excellent article published last year, Jeffrey L. Hamm, Descendit: Delete or Declare? A Defense Against the Neo-Deletionists,” WTJ (2016): 93 – 116.

[2] The argument in this section is dependent upon Justin W. Bass, The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ’s Descent into the Underworld (Paternoster Biblical Monographs; Wipf and Stock, 2014), especially 45–96.

The “Scripture and…” Seminars in Boston

I say it every year, and I mean it every year – my favorite events of IBR/SBL are the Scripture and Hermeneutics, Scripture and Doctrine, and Scripture and Church Seminars. These seminars attempt to combine rigorous biblical study and philosophical and theological reflection in an ecclesial context. This year, the SAHS and SADS seminars will continue their themes from last year, the Kingdom of God and Divine Action in Hebrews respectively. The SACS seminar will discuss the theme of the Kingdom of God from an ecclesial and liturgical perspective. I’ve listed the program, including date, time, and location, below.

If you’ll be in Boston, I’d encourage you to sign up for these seminars (links to SADS, SAHS, SACS sign-ups), as well as for the dinner on Saturday night. That meal is the absolute highlight of the entire week, for me, and this year the cost has been reduced – so please join us!

SCRIPTURE AND DOCTRINE SEMINAR

11/17/2017
1:00 PM to 3:15 PM
Room: Back Bay C (Second Level) – Sheraton Boston Hotel (SB)

Benjamin Quinn, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Presiding

Steve Harris, Hamilton, ON, Canada
Hebrews in Historical Theology: The Contours

Craig Bartholomew, KLICE, Tyndale House, Cambridge
Creation, the Ongoing Priesthood of Jesus, and Divine Action in Hebrews

Gareth Cockerill, Wesley Biblical Seminary
The Present Priesthood of the Son of God

Luke Stamps, Anderson University
“No One Greater”: Hebrews and Classical Christian Theism

Scott Hahn, Franciscan University of Steubenville
Covenant, Sacrifice, and Divine Action in Hebrews

Q & A Panel with Presenters
Discussion

Q & A Additional Panelists
Michael Rhodes, Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies, Panelist
Amy Peeler, Wheaton College, Panelist

SCRIPTURE AND HERMENEUTICS SEMINAR

11/18/2017
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: 306 (Third Level) – Hynes Convention Center (HCC)

Heath A. Thomas, Oklahoma Baptist University, Presiding

Jason Hood, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Boston Campus
God’s Empire: Exploring the Structure of the Kingdom in the Gospels

David J. H. Beldman, Redeemer University College
“Where Now Is Your King?” The Kingdom of God in Judges

Lynn H. Cohick, Wheaton College (Illinois)
“The Kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph 5:5): Kingdom in Ephesians and Philippians

Julien Smith, Valparaiso University
The Transforming Image of the Ideal King: Paul’s Apostolic Defense (2 Cor 2:14-4:6) in Light of Greco-Roman Political Ideology

Walter Strickland, Southeastern Seminary
Interpreting the Kingdom of God: The Ethics of Black Liberation in James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts

Discussion

SCRIPTURE AND CHURCH SEMINAR

11/19/2017
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: 103 (Plaza Level) – Hynes Convention Center (HCC)

Michael Wagenman, Western University, Presiding

Vince Bantu, Covenant Theological Seminary
Biblical Interpretation and Liturgical Performance in Global Christian Perspective

Peter Leithart, Theopolis Institute
The Kingdom of God and Everyday Liturgies in the Old Testament

Ruth Padilla-deBorst, Boston College
The Kingdom of God and Everyday Liturgies in the New Testament

Dru Johnson, The King’s College (New York)
Placebos, Elevator Buttons, and High Powered Lasers: How Ritual Ethics Enable Us to See the
Kingdom of God

Discussion

Welcoming Brandon Smith to Biblical Reasoning

On behalf of the two Luke’s (both of whom, oddly enough, are technically “Lucas”…), I’d like to welcome my friend Brandon Smith to the blog. It’s a shame he doesn’t have a Gospel writer somewhere in his name. Oh well.

Brandon is moving his blogging efforts here after spending a number of years writing elsewhere, most recently at Patheos. He is pursuing a PhD at Ridley College under the direction of Mike Bird on a Trinitarian reading of the book of Revelation. Brandon is also the editorial director for a project Luke Stamps and I both are passionate about, the Center for Baptist Renewal. I’m excited to have Brandon here given our many shared interests and longtime friendship.

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.

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.