Incarnation Anyway?

A couple of years ago I read through Edwin Chr. van Driel’s important work, Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology. In it, van Driel explores the question, would God have become incarnate even if there were no sin from which to rescue humanity? Or, to state the question differently, in the eternal plan of God, is God’s decree to become incarnate in Christ logically anterior to his decree to permit the fall (supralapsarian)?

Van Driel admits that in the Western traditions, the answer to this question is (for the most part) decidedly, no. Calvin is representative on this point:

One such [vague] speculation is that Christ would still have become man even if no means of redeeming mankind had been needed…But since all Scripture proclaims that to become our Redeemer he was clothed with flesh, it is too presumptuous to imagine another reason or another end. We well know why Christ was promised from the beginning: to restore the fallen world to succor lost men….In short, the only reason given in Scripture that the Son of God willed to take our flesh, and accepted this commandment from the Father, is that he would be a sacrifice to appease the Father on our behalf (Institutes 2.12.4).

But van Driel suggests that this line of reasoning begs the question in some important respects. Is it actually the case that Scripture gives us no reasons for the incarnation other than those tied to Christ’s work of sin-bearing atonement? For example, does Scripture not also speak of the incarnation in creational and eschatological terms that transcend (without occluding) the incarnation’s redemptive rationale?

But what would a scriptural case for the “incarnation-anyway” position look like? What Scriptures have proponents of this view marshaled as evidence for their position? Many supporters of the position have pointed to the sweeping Christological claims of Ephesians and Colossians with regard to Christ’s place in God’s creational agenda. Ephesians 1:10 maintains that God’s purpose in Christ was “a plan for the fullness of time to unite (anakephalaioo; recapitulate) all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Likewise, Colossians 1:16 speaks of Christ—not just the Son of God as such, but the incarnate Christ—as the one through whom and for whom all things were created. So it appears that the incarnation has a creational, not merely a redemptive, dimension.

Van Driel also makes three interrelated theological arguments in favor of the incarnation-anyway position. He suggests that there are a number of goods that we would not have apart from the incarnation:

  • The superabundance of the eschaton. The eschaton (the final state) is not merely a return to the proton (the first state). It transcends Adam and Eve’s experience in the garden because it involves an eternal, permanently sinless, face-to-face encounter with God in the face of Christ.
  • The vision of God. Relatedly, when we are transformed in the eschaton, we will experience the beatific vision. But how so? First John explains that the glorified saints will be like Christ, because they will see him as he is (1 John 3:2). Our experience of God will not merely be one of intellectual contemplation, but we will see our God in his incarnate state. As embodied creatures, we will know God in an embodied way.
  • Divine friendship. As van Driel argues, “for friends, presence is what counts.” God is not content to remain at a distance, but he makes himself “maximally available” to his creatures. This he accomplishes finally and fully through the incarnation.

So we have these superadded gifts only in light of the incarnation. But do we really want to say that these eschatological goods are entirely contingent upon the presence of sin? Was the fall, then, actually a felix culpa, a happy fault, that was necessary in order for God to bring about these final purposes for his creation? This view is problematic for van Driel, because it seems to make God’s good purposes dependent upon evil. Instead, van Driel maintains that these creational purposes were intended by God all along, with the added necessity of redemption entering into the picture posterior to the decree to permit the fall (I use the word “posterior” rather than “after” because we must remember that the decree of God is eternal; it is not as if the fall took God by surprise and only then did he determine to send a Savior; the decree to permit the fall and provide redemption was willed “before the foundation of the world” no less than the decree to create. So we are not dealing with a temporal but a logical priority here).

So what are we to make of this case for the incarnation-anyway position? I admit that I find many of these biblical and theological arguments quite compelling. The New Testament, especially Paul’s cosmic Christology, does seem to teach what Myk Habets has referred to as the primacy of Christ–that the incarnate Christ is preeminent in all of God’s purposes, for creation and consummation no less than redemption. But it should be noted that the overwhelming majority of texts that speak of the incarnation do situate it in terms of God’s redemptive work. And there may be other problems for the incarnation-anyway position that I need to think through more carefully. But at the moment I am inclined to think that incarnation has primacy in the eternal decree of God. So perhaps–wonder of wonders–God in his infinite love determined to be Immanuel, God with us, all along.

“An Invasion of God”

nativity-icon

Everything in Christianity centers on the incarnation of the Son of God, an invasion of God among men and women in time, bringing and working out a salvation not only understandable by them in their own historical and human life and existence, but historically and concretely accessible to them on earth and in time, in the midst of their frailty, contingency, relativity, and sin.

-T. F. Torrance

In other words,

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

-1 John 1:1-4

Basil and Augustine on 1 Cor. 15:28

In defending ERAS, many proponents point to 1 Cor. 15:28 as one of the primary texts that supports it (in addition to, say, 1 Cor. 11:3, John 6:38, and Matt. 26:39). In this passage Paul says,

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

The  explanation of this passage from an ERAS framework is that, given the Son’s (supposedly divine) future subjection to the Father in this passage, it must also therefore be true that the Son has always submitted to the Father, even before the Lord’s acts of creation and redemption.

This is not how the early church, and particularly the pro-Nicene theologians who formulated the homoousion and its subsequent developments in the Nicene period, read this and other such passages. For instance, Basil says in Against Eunomius of 1 Cor. 15:28 that,

“If the Son is subjected to the Father in the Godhead, then He must have been subjected from the beginning, from whence He was God.  But if He was not subjected, but shall be subjected, it is in the manhood, as for us, not in the Godhead, as for Himself.”

Note that Basil actually agrees with ERAS proponents in theory – if this passage speaks of the Son’s submission to the Father in his divinity, then it means that the Son has been subjected to the Father eternally. But Basil notes the temporal aspect of this passage (in other words, he’s being exegetically rigorous) and says that, given that the subjection takes place in time, it must therefore be referring to the Son’s actions in the temporal order, i.e. in his incarnate state.

Augustine speaks a number of times to this particular passage in De Trinitate, and expands on Basil’s understanding of the text as speaking to Christ’s submission in his humanity, not in his divinity.

“So there need be no hesitation from anyone in taking this to mean that what the Father is greater than is the form of a servant, whereas the Son is his equal in the form of God (I.15).

Note that Augustine here distinguishes between Christ’s humanity and divinity using the terms “form of a servant” and “form of God.” This tactic is employed in a number of other places, including other passages in which he discusses 1 Cor. 15:28. For instance, in Book I, section 20, he says:

So inasmuch as he is God he will jointly with the Father have us as subjects; inasmuch as he is priest he will jointly with us be subject to him.

And finally, in speaking about creatures seeing God face to face on the day of judgment, Augustine says in I.28,

This is to be a face to face seeing . . . when every creature is made subject to God, including even the creature in which the Son of God became the Son of man, for in this created form “the Son himself shall also be subject to the one who subjected all things to him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28; emphasis mine).

The point is that, along with the other pro-Nicenes, Basil and Augustine eschew any hint of subordination within the Trinity, other than that of modes of subsistence (alternatively called taxis, or order). For the pro-Nicene theologians, there is no difference in authority, there is no submission, there is no functional subordination, except as it occurs in the humanity of the incarnate Son.

The Good News of Holy Saturday

In Protestant American churches, and particularly in evangelical ones, Easter, along with Christmas, is the highlight of the church year. Pastors exhort their congregations to invite their neighbors, the worship leader may prepare some special music, and families will gather together afterward to eat some/a lot of New Covenant ham. In between these two poles of celebrating Christ’s birth and resurrection, though, many evangelical congregations have lost a sense of the rest of the Christian calendar. Even when a pastor mentions Holy Week, the most an evangelical church might do is have a Good Friday service.

One day in particular that suffers from this apathy towards the traditional church calendar among evangelicals is Holy Saturday. While Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and some mainline Protestants still practice the Holy Saturday evening liturgy, both the practice and theological impact of the Great Sabbath have been lost in many evangelical churches. So what does Holy Saturday mean? Why is it important not only that Christ “died, and was buried,” but also that “he descended to the dead”?

First, when I affirm that Christ descended to the dead, what I mean – and what I think the Bible teaches – is that Jesus experienced the fullness of death as the incarnate Son. In other words, his human body went down to the grave, his human soul went to the place of the dead (and more particularly, the place of the righteous dead, Paradise), and both of these occurred while his human nature was all the while hypostatically united to the divine nature of the Son. So the God-man experiences death – not just in a moment, but the state of death, remaining dead for three days. I think, then, we can point to at least three aspects of Christ’s time in the tomb that are good news – part of the gospel.

  1. Holy Saturday is Jesus’ Sabbath rest. Jesus declares on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and, as the Triune God rests after the work of creation is finished, so Jesus rests after his work of new creation is finished. Saturday is the seventh day, the day of rest, and Jesus is resting after completing his work of redemption. Of course, we’re still waiting on the resurrection – without Easter Sunday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday mean nothing. But Jesus’ mission is effectively completed when he gives up his spirit at the crucifixion.
  2. Holy Saturday is when Jesus experiences death for us. The Nicene Creed declares that Jesus came “for us and for our salvation,” and his time in the tomb is part of what he does for us. As the God-man, Jesus experiences death. He has not just died for a moment and then received life again, nor did he revive after being placed in the tomb and then just chill until Sunday morning. Jesus remained dead. I think this is particularly comforting for those facing death, or who have loved ones facing death – Jesus has experienced this with us and for us. We have nothing to fear because Christ our Brother has faced and experienced the same death we all face.
  3. Holy Saturday is Jesus’ victory over death. Again, we’re still waiting on the consummation of Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection on Easter Sunday, but in a very real sense the fact that Jesus remains dead for three days is in itself defeating death. He doesn’t just experience death for us; by experiencing it as the God-man, he also defeats it for us. Death therefore has no sting or victory anymore (1 Cor. 15:55). In the early church, Holy Saturday was when Jesus declared his victory to all the dead, righteous and unrighteous, since he was in the place of the dead with them. So we can say on Saturday Jesus’ announced victory and on Sunday he demonstrated it.

The Biblical Basis for Christ’s Descent to the Dead

I’ve written a few times here, and last week at TGC, on the clause in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended to the dead.” I also presented a paper on the topic at this year’s Los Angeles Theology Conference. In each of those venues, I’ve concluded similarly that 1) the phrase should continue to be used in the Creed and 2) the theological meaning of the phrase is that Christ experiences death with us and for us in his humanity. His burial is vicarious, victorious, and eschatological, in that in it he experiences death with us and for us, defeats death, and gives us hope for own intermediate state between our death and his second coming. While I believe these conclusions are biblically supported and grounded, my focus in those posts and essays has not been on demonstrating the biblical foundation for the doctrine but instead on articulating the meaning and importance of the creedal phrase. Here I want to address that lacuna and walk through the exegetical rationale for my understanding of what Jesus was doing during his time in the tomb.

First, let’s look at the key New Testament texts that discuss Jesus’ burial and/or death:

Matthew 12:40

40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Acts 2:25-32

this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 25 For David says concerning him,

“‘I saw the Lord always before me,
    for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
    my flesh also will dwell in hope.
27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
    or let your Holy One see corruption.
28 You have made known to me the paths of life;
    you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

29 “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.

Romans 6:3-4

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Romans 10:6-7

But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

Ephesians 4:8-10

Therefore it says,

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
    and he gave gifts to men.”

9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Hebrews 2:14-15

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

1 Peter 3:18-22

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

I realize that 1 Peter 3:19 is usually dismissed by evangelicals today as not referring to Christ’s burial but instead to the pre-incarnate Son preaching through the Spirit to Noah. I find Grudem and Feinberg’s exegesis unconvincing on that point, but nevertheless for the sake of argument let’s move on and grant their point. What do these other texts teach about Christ’s death, and particularly his being dead/burial?

1. Christ goes to the place of the dead.

Christ’s human body is in the grave; on that all Christians agree. What is sometimes not articulated, though, is that Scripture indicates that Christ’s human spirit goes to the place where all human spirits go upon death – Sheol. This is taught particularly in Matt. 12:40; Eph. 4:8; and Rom. 10:6-7. In the Gospel text, Jesus compares his time in the tomb – “the heart of the earth” (cf. Ps. 71:20) – with Jonah’s 3 days in the belly of the great fish. In Jonah 2:1-2, the prophet explicitly links “the belly of the fish” (v. 1) with “the belly of Sheol” (v. 2). Jonah views his time in the fish’s belly as synonymous with being in Sheol. He is, in his piscene prison, experiencing what all humanity experiences in death. When Jesus in Matt. 12:40 says he will be in the “heart of the earth,” he is equating the grave with Jonah’s travel in the fish’s gut, just as Jonah did. To say it another way, Jonah equates the fish’s belly with Sheol, and Jesus, in comparing himself to Jonah, is saying he is going to Sheol.

Perhaps even more explicit are Eph. 4:8 and Rom. 10:6-7. These verses have been explained away as referring to the incarnation, but their allusions to the Old Testament make it clear that the “descent” language is a reference to a descent to the place of the dead (“Sheol”), not to the Son taking on flesh. Eph. 4:9 alludes to both Ps. 63:9 and Isa. 44:23, each of which use “the depths of the earth” as a synonym for the grave, or Sheol (remember Jesus’ “the heart of the earth” in Matt. 12:40?). Rom. 10:6-7 conflates “abyss” and “the place of the dead” – the latter of which ought to make the reference explicit enough! – and “abyss in the OT many times is synonymous with the Sheol.

Jesus goes to the place of the dead. By this the NT means that his body is in the grave and that, therefore, his human spirit also is in the place of the dead. Notice the twofold division of Acts 2:27-28 that supports this – Jesus’ soul is not abandoned, and his flesh does not see corruption.

I won’t get into the divisions of Sheol in this post. Suffice it to say that when Jesus says to the thief on the cross “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43) I take it to be a reference to the side of Sheol that is for the righteous dead (e.g. Luke 16:19-31). Hades is typically used to refer to the side of Sheol that is for the unrighteous dead.

In any case, the point is that Jesus’ human body and spirit experience death in the same way that all human bodies and spirits experience it – the body goes to the grave, the soul goes to  Paradise (or Hades if one is not justified before God – which is not true of Jesus, obviously).

2. Christ conquers death by experiencing death.

This seems to be the clear point of Acts 2:24-25 and Heb. 2:14-15 (and Col. 2:14-15). Death and the devil are defeated by Christ, the second person of the Triune God in flesh, touching death and thereby swallowing it up in life.

3. Christians are united to Christ in his death.

This is the point of Rom. 6:3-4. Just as Jesus died and was buried, thereby putting to death Death, Satan, Sin, and the Grave, so we now are united to him in his death that we might put to death our own indwelling sin.

This is what I mean when I recite the Apostles’ Creed and affirm that “we believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who…descended to the dead.”

Is Jesus Victorious Over Death? My thoughts on @FaithTheology at #LATC15

The Thursday night plenary address at the 2015 Los Angeles Theology Conference was given by Ben Myers, Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Charles Sturt University and blogger and tweeter extraordinaire. Myers spoke on “Atonement and the Image of God,” and in his paper he focused on the Patristic model of the atonement. Myers argued that, for the Fathers (and Mothers via Macrina), Christ’s experience of death is the mechanism of the atonement, and its primary accomplishment is the restoration of the image of God in human beings, which was lost in their collective fall into sin. This experience of death is not an action on Christ’s part but a passive experience of, as Myers referred to it, the point at which humanity is sliding into non-being (i.e. death). Because, via the hypostatic union, God the Son “touches” death by being united to the humanity of Jesus, the privation that is death is swallowed up in the essence of being that is God. Further, because God does via the hypostatic union, the second Adam, Jesus, represents all humanity in this act and therefore heals all of God’s image bearers.

This very brief summary does not do justice to the intricacies of Myers’ argument, nor do I wish to argue his main point. I think that he is correct in his portrayal of the Patristic model of the atonement, in the sense that the main point for the early church is Christ’s role as the last Adam and therefore his ability, through his vicarious death, to take on the consequence of sin, death, and render it null and void. He thus heals humanity through his death for all human beings.*

The one point of Myers’ argument that continues to nag at me is his contention that, because the Fathers’ metaphysical belief about sin and death is that it is privation (not an ontological something, but simply the absence of good), they cannot be taken as giving a model of the atonement when they speak of Christ’s death as “victory.” They were careful to avoid Gnostic dualism, and so language about Jesus wrangling with sin and death as if they were endowed with being would be contrary to this anti-Gnostic understanding of Christ’s work. Victory language cannot be anything but metaphorical for the Fathers. Gustav Aulen, among others, is therefore incorrect to assume that the Fathers taught a “victory” model of the atonement since this would require a dualistic concept of good and evil, with God in Christ wrestling with evil in the Passion.

Myers’ point is well taken that the early church theologians were careful to avoid Gnostic conceptions of cosmology and metaphysics and that their metaphysical understanding of sin and death is that they are privation of the good and of life. I still am not convinced, though, that this restricts us, or the Fathers, or the New Testament, from speaking of Christ’s death as victorious over death and sin. Below I will simply list some texts, both from the NT and from the early church, that seem to emphasize Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil. I cannot see at this point how dismissing the word “victory” from our models of the atonement given these texts is plausible, even if I agree with Myers about the metaphysics of the early church (and Scripture) with respect to sin.

New Testament Texts

1 John 3:8 – “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”

John 12:31 – “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.”

Colossians 2:15 – “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”

Hebrews 2:14 – “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”

Acts 2:24 – “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it”

Romans 6:9 – “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”

1 Corinthians 15:54-55 – “‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'”

2 Timothy 1:10 – “and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”

(Note also Revelation 19 and 20, where the Unholy Trinity, the Harlot, Death, and Hades are thrown into the Lake of Fire.)

Early Church Theologians

Cyril of Alexandria

Comm. Lk. 9:18-22 (Serm. 49) – “For that he utterly abolished death, and effaced destruction, and despoiled Hades, and overthrew the tyranny of the enemy, and took away the sin of the world, and opened the gates above to the dwellers upon earth, and united earth to heaven: these things proved him to be, as I said, in truth God.”

Odes of Solomon

Ode 42 – “Sheol saw me and was shattered / and Death ejected me and many with me.”

Melito of Sardis

On Pascha 102-3 – “I am the one,” says the Christ, “I am the one that destroyed death / and triumphed over the enemy / and trod down Hades / and bound the strong one / and carried off man to the heights of heaven; I am the one,” says the Christ.”

New Fragment III, 5 – “By the cross death is destroyed, and by the cross salvation shines; by the cross the gates of hell are burst, and by the cross the gates of paradise are opened”

Hippolytus of Rome

The Apostolic Tradition, 4, 4-13 – “Who fulfilling your will and gaining for you a holy people stretched out his hands when he was suffering, that he might release from suffering those who believed in you; who when he was being handed over to voluntary suffering, that he might destroy death and break the bonds of the devil, and tread down hell and illuminate the righteous, and fix a limit and manifest the resurrection, taking bread and giving thanks to you, he said/ “Take, eat, this is my body that will be broken for you.” Likewise also the cup, saying, “This is my blood that is shed for you””

Origen

Commentary on Romans, V, 1, 36 – “Thus by his own resurrection he has already destroyed the dominions of death”

Commentary on Romans, V, 10, 11-12 – “Then at the opportune time he binds the strong man (Mt 12:29) and despoils his powers and principalities (Col 2:15) and leads away the captives (Eph 4:8; Ps 68:18) which had been seized and were being held by the tyrant.
It was certainly in this way, then, that Christ also emptied himself voluntarily and took the form of a slave and entered the dominion of the tyrant, having become obedient unto death. Through that death he destroyed him who was holding the power of death, i.e., the devil (Heb 2:14r-15), so that he could liberate those who were being held fast by death. For when Christ had bound the strong man (Mt 12:29) and triumphed over him by means of his cross (Col 2:15), he even advanced into his house, the house of death in the underworld, and from there he plundered his possessions, that is, he led away the souls which the devil was keeping.”

I’ll stop here, but we could go on into the fourth century and beyond and continue to find such texts.

*I’m not saying  I agree with this model, but am only describing Ben’s description of it.

He Descended to the Dead

Recently a relatively neglected doctrine in Protestant thought, Christ’s descent to the dead, has received some renewed attention. There was an ETS paper devoted to this (Jeffrey L. Hamm, “Descendit: Delete or Declare? A Defense Against the Neo-Deletionists”), and Reformation21 has published three separate posts on the doctrine in the last 5 days. Rick Phillips, leaning on Nick Batzig’s articulation of Vos’ position, started the conversation by arguing for omitting “He descended to the dead/hell” from the Apostles’ Creed, to which both Mark Jones and Eric Hutchinson have responded by saying that the phrase should be retained. For my part, I am presenting a paper at the Los Angeles Theology Conference next week which in part seeks to demonstrate the eschatological implications of Christ’s vicarious burial.

The descent clause is tricky because there are so many options for how to interpret it. Greek Orthodox Christians confess this doctrine to say that Christ descended to Hell to liberate all of death’s captives by healing Adam’s sin and leading he and his progeny (all humanity) out of the grip of Death and Hades. Roman Catholics see a similar liberating motif in the doctrine, but instead of Christ leading out all humanity he leads out only those in the supposed limbus patrum, inhabited by virtuous pagans and faithful Jews who lived and died before Christ’s first advent. The Roman Catholic version, often referred to as the Harrowing of Hell, has a more substitutionary and legal basis than the Orthodox “healing” view. Christ suffers the pains of Hell, the final judgment, on behalf of those who repent and believe.

Protestants have by and large rejected both the implied universalism of the Orthodox view and the delineated stages of the afterlife in the RCC view, but they have not rejected the doctrine altogether. Calvin (and later, Barth) viewed this phrase as articulating Christ’s endurance of the Father’s judgment on behalf of those united to him, but for Calvin this occurs on the cross and not during Jesus’ time in the grave. Luther, on the other hand, believed that the phrase denoted Christ’s conquering of Hades after his resurrection but before he exited the tomb. His interpretation of the clause focuses solely on liberation, in that by his descent Jesus conquered Death, Hell, and the Grave.

More recently the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has attempted to synthesize the RCC view and the Calvinian position, arguing that Christ’s descent occurs on Holy Saturday and that in it Jesus in his hypostatically unified divinity and humanity experiences the final judgment, separation from the Father, on behalf of humanity. This has been met with serious opposition from many fronts, but has also been argued by at least one RCC theologian to be a legitimate interpretation of Catholic doctrine.

As an evangelical Baptist, what am I to do with this phrase?

Given my understanding of the atonement and of the afterlife, I do not see the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Balthasarian (new word!) views as compatible with the biblical data. Further, as much as I appreciate Calvin’s substitutionary emphasis and his distinction between the suffering Christ endured in his humanity and what he experienced in his divinity, I do not think that relegating the descent to the cross makes sense of the Creed’s order. Every other phrase in the Creed occurs in chronological order, so I don’t think it makes sense to go with Calvin here.

Luther’s interpretation seems the most appealing to me because I think it is the most biblical. Passages in the New Testament like Acts 2:24; Eph. 4:8, and Rom. 10:7 seem to refer to Christ’s descent as a descent to the place of the dead. Many Protestants prefer to interpret the Ephesians and Romans passages as referring to the incarnation, but in those texts Paul appears to be relying upon Old Testament texts that are clearly speaking of Sheol or the place of the dead (e.g. Job 28:22; Ps. 68:18; 71:20; 107:15-16). Additionally, Jesus’ statement about the sign of Jonah (Matt. 12:40) is a clear reference to a descent to the place of the dead, and in Jonah 2 this place is called the abyss, or Sheol. You could also point to Jesus’ statement in Luke 23:43 about Paradise as an indication that upon his death he descends to the place of the righteous dead, i.e. Paradise, a view of the afterlife corroborated by Luke 16:19-31. Jesus in descending is not passive, but defeats Death through his own death (Heb. 2:14-15; cf. Col. 2:15). Christ’s burial is thus victorious, part of his atoning work that stretches from his birth to his second coming and that includes not just his crucifixion and resurrection but his life, teaching, ministry, burial, ascension, and gift of the Spirit.

Forgotten Saturday

I am knee deep in research for my LATC paper in January on the relationship between the burial of Jesus and eschatology. The day between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, or Holy Saturday, was until recently, in my experience and thought, relatively unimportant. Mark Davis’ words capture my, and perhaps many Christians’, view of this middle day.

. . . even when the burial remains in a church’s reading as part of the Passion Sunday or Good Friday lection, it is overlooked in lieu of the crucifixion itself, or of the hints of the resurrection found in the elaborate detail of guards and the Chief Priest’s anticipations of foul play with Jesus’ body by the disciples. After all, touching though it is, one is tempted to see Joseph’s burial of Jesus as just a necessary moment along the way from the cross to the empty tomb, as opposed to having meaning in itself (Int 60.1 [2006]: 76, emphasis mine).

My own opinion, though, is that there is much redemptive activity, theo-drama (to borrow a phrase from von Balthasar and Vanhoozer), going on. It may be behind the scenes and invisible to our fallible physical eyes, but I’m increasingly convinced that it is not arbitrary that Jesus spent three days (rather than 3 hours or 3 minutes or even no time at all) in the tomb.

There have been a number of options put forth throughout church history, and many are probably most familiar with the idea of the harrowing of hell. In this view Christ descends to the supposed limbo of the just (righteous Jews and pagans who lived before Christ) to release them into heaven, or maybe purgatory. Von Balthasar innovated on this traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and said Christ descended, in Catholic cosmology, to the very depths of hell, where his whole person experienced the full wrath of God, separating him from the Father and the Spirit.  I find this traditional Roman Catholic doctrine to be a late medieval development and relying on unbiblical positions regarding covenantal continuity, justification, and cosmology, and von Balthasar’s innovation seems to me to be a Trinitarian impossibility.

Both of these positions, however erroneous they may be (and I find them both to be biblically unjustifiable), do still bring out an important part of Christ’s work, namely his defeat of death and Hades. Christians historically have confessed that this is the purpose of Christ’s time in the tomb on Holy Saturday. Luther captures what I think is the more biblical position on this matter when he says in his Sermon at Torgau (1533) that Christ descended to Hades and ” . . . destroyed the power of hell and stripped the devil of all his might.” Christ in his death – not only in his crucifixion but in his burial – defeated death, Hades (the place of the dead), and the devil. This is part of the meaning of Holy Saturday. We of course cannot separate the cross from the resurrection, and we also ought not to separate Holy Saturday from Good Friday and Easter Sunday. They are each part of the one work of Christ, which stretches from his life, death, burial, and resurrection to his ascension and sending of the Spirit and ultimately to his return. Each piece accomplishes the unified but still distinct parts of redemption. While Christ’s crucifixion vicariously substitutes and his resurrection inaugurates the new creation, his burial is the defeat of death and Hades. While he is sealed in the tomb he is binding the strong man.

 

Hermeneutics and the Eternal Generation of the Son

In two weeks I’ll be presenting a paper with the same title as this blog post at the Southeast Regional meeting of ETS in Birmingham, AL. I’m also presenting the same paper at the ETS Far West Regional meeting in LA in April. I’ve never presented the same paper at two different conferences, so it will be interesting to get feedback in Birmingham and then tweak (rewrite?) the paper for the April conference. I was only planning on presenting in LA, but I’ll take any excuse to go to Sweet Home Alabama and get some good BBQ.

Here’s a paragraph from my introduction explaining my aim and thesis:

This paper seeks to explore and compare the hermeneutical presuppositions and methods of, on the one hand, early Christian interpreters who saw the doctrine of eternal generation taught in Proverbs 8 and, on the other hand, modern interpreters[1] who do not see the doctrine here. What makes the difference in interpretation? It is surely not exegetical rigor – both the pre-modern and modern interpreters have rigorously explored the text with every available interpretive tool.[2] And in the not uncommon case that one assumes modern exegesis is more rigorous and scientific than pre-modern interpretation, it should be noted here that modern commentators cannot come to an agreement on the passage’s meaning, either as a whole or in determining what specific verbs mean (e.g. qana, v. 25). This is in spite of a general commitment to a method (historical-critical, or its close cousin, historical-grammatical for evangelicals) and a conclusion – the passage does not teach eternal generation.[3] In other words, the issue has to lie elsewhere, and I propose here that the difference between those who affirm eternal generation, both in Proverbs 8 and elsewhere, and those who deny it is their theological and hermeneutical foundations. This paper will compare and contrast the aforementioned interpreters’ approaches in order to demonstrate that this is indeed the case.


[1] In using the term “modern” I mean post-Enlightenment, which includes both modern and postmodern readers. While the latter tend to eschew the objectivism and scientific positivism with which moderns approach the text, postmodern readers still tend to retreat to modernistic exegetical methods in their interpretation.

[2] Thus this paper is not an exegetical defense of eternal generation from Proverbs 8, but rather an argument that those who see the doctrine taught here have legitimate theological and interpretive rationales for doing so.

[3] One notable exception is Richard M. Davidson, “Proverbs 8 and the Place of Christ in the Trinity,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 17.1 (2006): 33–54, but even here it should be noted that he does not use the language of eternal generation but only hypostatization. His focus is more on the incarnation language in the passage than on the relationships between the persons of the immanent Trinity. See also Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., “Wisdom and Creation,” JBL 104.1 (1985): 3–11.

Debate on the Divinity of Jesus

Mike Bird has announced a debate via monograph concerning whether or not Jesus is divine. Bart Ehrman, lover and recycler of all things Baur, Bauer, and von Harnack, is set to publish a book arguing for the development (invention?) of the doctrine of the divinity of Christ after Jesus’ death and the earliest versions of Christianity. Bird, Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, Chris Tilling, and Charles Hill will be responding with their own monograph, How God Became Jesus.  You can read Bird’s comments, along with each book’s Amazon.com blurb, on his blog.

This should be a great debate. Ehrman has always been able to to put arguments against the veracity, historicity, and antiquity of the Bible in language that can be understood and adopted by the masses (and of course he’s been helped by Dan Brown in that as well). This particular issue is one that strikes at the heart of Christianity, and I look forward to what I will assume can only be a witty but penetrating and insightful critique of Ehrman’s position by Bird et al.

And who can talk about Ehrman debating Christ’s divinity without mentioning this episode of the Colbert Report? (apologies for any ads that pop up…not under my control)