Introducing: Church Grammar

In this short introduction we discuss the purpose and hopes for the Church Grammar podcast, and look forward to some forthcoming guests and topics.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.


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.

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.

The Holy Spirit as Love and Gift

In his fantastic new book, Engaging the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Matthew Levering argues that “the Holy Spirit should be praised and contemplated under proper names ‘Love’ and ‘Gift,’ with respect both to his intra-trinitarian identity and to his historical work in Jesus Christ and the church” (2). This idea is nothing new, as Levering reminds us — these names are used by Hilary of Poitiers and Augustine.

While there is much to be said about his argument — and he acknowledges and engages some pushbacks that I would have about the mystery of trinitarian naming and the elevation of certain aspects over others — I found interesting Levering’s assertion that Thomas Aquinas’s definitions and explanations of trinitarian processions and missions help his case:

What Aquinas provides is a unified and profound arrangement of trinitarian processions and missions, the virtues and gifts of the Spirit, habitual grace and the gratuitous graces, and Jesus’s sinless humanity and supreme charity on the cross. In Aquinas, Jesus’s intimate knowledge of the Father, his miracle working, and his prophetic wisdom are bound together with his supreme charity through the invisible mission of the Holy Spirit, who is Love and Gift in person. … To look upon Christ and the Spirit in this way, of course, requires attending to the Spirit’s upbuilding of the “body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27), the church, which occurs preeminently in “the higher gifts” and in the “still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31) that is love. (207-08)

Space precludes me from explaining his entire argument (get the book and read it for yourself), but regardless of how one views trinitarian naming, Levering’s assertion that “The Spirit’s mission is always ordered to those whom Jesus came to redeem, and thus to the kingdom of God” (198) pushes us to think about the fittedness for elevating these aspects of the Spirit’s role and mission.

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.

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.