Receivers of the Word

 

What is crucial is that we recognize that we do not define the situation into which God is allowed to speak, and we do not set limits on what God is allowed to say. Instead, we come to realize our true situation only as we actually read the Scriptures and believe the Word of God. We are hearers, which places us in a subordinate position ready to receive what is given as gift.

Craig Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis, Grand Rapids, Baker, 2018, pp. 34–35.

Harassed and Helpless

sheep-agriculture-animals-countryside-87081I’ve been reading Matthew’s gospel recently, and one of the things that has stood out to me on this reading is Jesus’ compassion for people oppressed by sin. We often think about sin only in terms of our agency, that is, sin is something we do and are responsible for. Jesus certainly doesn’t diminish that understanding of sin and its consequences. He consistently calls people to repent of their sin and self-absorption and to believe the good news of the kingdom of God.

But Jesus also sees sin as a power that exerts itself over us and renders us helpless to rescue ourselves from its vice grip. He sees the crowds and has compassion on them “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). He has compassion on those living with the painful consequences of a fallen world by healing their diseases (14:14). He has compassion not only on Israel but also on those living in Gentile territory, feeding their hungry bodies and souls (15:32).

His exorcisms also demonstrate that he knows the demonic powers have their hooks in us. He describes his Satan-plundering work as one who binds the strongman (Satan) and takes his property from him (12:29). It is not so much that sin is either something we do or something that has a power over us. It is both.

This same idea is also communicated in the Old Testament. When God reveals his glory to Moses on Mt. Sinai, he also reveals the depths of his compassionate character:

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:6-7).

God is just and will punish the wicked. But he is also gracious and merciful and desires to pardon and deliver us from sin’s power.

The Psalms express the same truth. Consider just one passage that demonstrates the compassion of God for weak and helpless sinners. Psalm 103:8-14,

The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.

God’s mercy is not permissiveness. He doesn’t suspend his justice in order to extend forgiveness (that’s why the cross was necessary for salvation, Rom. 3:25-26). But God knows our weakness. He “knows our frame” and “remembers that we are dust.” God is not surprised that we stumble and fall, many times in the face of the same temptations. He is like a compassionate father, who sees his children struggling. He knows. He remembers. And he extends compassion and mercy.

The apostle Paul also sees sin not only as a choice we make (it is certainly that) but also as a force or power that has been unleashed on the human race, abetted by the demonic principalities and powers. Unbelievers are those who have been blinded by Satan, “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4). Paul conceives of the cross of Christ not only cancelling our sin debt but also disarming the demonic rulers and authorities by triumphing over them (Col. 2:14).

To highlight sin as a power over us is not to obviate our responsibility or guilt—far from it. It is to highlight the depth of God’s mercy in Christ, who understands that sin, though our own doing, is not something we can free ourselves from. He stoops all the way into our darkness, taking on the powers himself, in order to lift us up into the light and liberate us from sin’s bondage. One of the key terms for salvation in the Scriptures is, after all, redemption—a concept rooted in the Exodus, when God bought back his people from slavery.

We need to apply this truth both to ourselves and to others. We need to know that God has this kind of mercy and compassion for us in our struggles with sin. God is not a slave master, waiting for us to mess up so that he can bring down his hand of vengeance. He is a Father, recall, who has compassion on his children and knows our weakness. But we also need to be the conduits of this kind of mercy to others. Rather than seeing those who offend us or those in rebellion against God as our enemies, we become children of our heavenly Father when we too remember and when we too know that humans are dust. They are weak. They are oppressed. They are blinded by Satan. They are like sheep without a shepherd. May we become the kind of people who bear witness to this merciful Good Shepherd, not by being moral scolds, but by being willing to bear with people in their helplessness and to show them the path to true liberation.

Doctrinal Charity

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing.

A sermon of Matt Chandler’s has sparked a small fire in one corner of social media. In it, Chandler gives some examples of how the gift of prophecy might still operate today. Of course, his message assumes a continuationist position on gifts, a position that many American evangelicals view with suspicion. My concern in this post isn’t to argue for or against continuationism or Chandler’s application of it, but to address the negative reaction to it, a reaction that is, for me, emblematic of a larger problem within American evangelicalism – a lack of doctrinal charity toward those with whom we disagree.

In the last few days I’ve seen Chandler equated false teaching and false prophecy, and called a host of other unsavory things that I won’t repeat. Not to mention the potshots at his polity. The stated reason for these slanderous words is that Chandler is a continuationist and not a cessationist.

This kind of rhetoric reminds me of a few months ago when some Christians on social media essentially “farewelled” other Christians who voiced concerns about racial reconciliation in the Church. And that, in turn, reminds of the rhetoric used against Christians who feel that psychology and psychiatry can be used responsibly, even if subserviently, in Christian counseling as those who functionally deny the sufficiency of Scripture or who subvert biblical authority with secular authority. And all that reminds me of my Calvinist friends in seminary who were ready and willing to call Arminius a heretic, or my Arminian friends in seminary who were ready and willing to say that Calvin and the Calvinists believe in a different God because they affirm a particular view of election.

Brothers and sisters, this is not the way of Christ. This is not in accordance with Paul’s description of love for one another in 1 Corinthians 13, whether in the verses quoted at the beginning or in v. 7 – “ Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Doctrinal clarity is important, but so are doctrinal charity and doctrinal humility. I think we in American evangelicalism could do with a few reminders when we encounter beliefs with which we disagree.

  1. We are finite. Each of us who is not God is a creature, and as such we are finite in our physical and mental capacities. To say it like Paul in 1 Cor. 13:12, we can only see now in a mirror dimly, and that limited sight includes limitations regarding our abilities to formulate and assess doctrine. To be sure, we are called to guard the good deposit and pass on sound doctrine, but we need to recognize that one of the reasons the Reformers acknowledged sola Scriptura and cried semper reformanda is because they knew that each person is a creature. We need the Word of God to continually teach us because we are creatures who are finite in our knowledge and understanding, not omniscient and all-wise. Even if we think we’ve arrived at full doctrinal clarity and faithfulness, there’s still more to learn and understand. We’re creatures.
  2. We are fallen. Not only are our dogmatic abilities limited by our creatureliness, they are also tainted by our fallenness. We need the grace of the Holy Spirit of God to teach us and to correct us. Sometimes he does this through our own Bible reading, and at other times he does it through having us encounter people with which we (initially) disagree but who persuade us from the foundation of the Scriptures.
  3. We are in Christ. Those of us who have been born again by the Spirit of God through faith in the finished work of Christ are all part of one faith with one Lord signified by one baptism. We are a holy Temple being built up together by the Spirit of God. We are called to grow in our understanding of Christ together, rooted and grounded in love, so that we might be united to one another and to him in thought and in deed. When we disagree with other Christians, we are disagreeing with our brothers and sisters. Even if we think our brother or sister is wrong, we don’t kill them. That’s what Cain does. That’s what Saul does until the Damascus road. That’s what zeal without knowledge does. Instead, we love them and walk together towards unity by the power of the Spirit.
  4. We are part of Christ’s Church. The body of Christ is bigger than my or your tribe. It includes all who have trusted in Christ by the power of the Spirit throughout space and time. If my definition of orthodoxy excludes everyone but those who sign my denomination’s confession of faith, I’m a raging fundamentalist, not a bastion of orthodoxy.
  5. Sanctification isn’t immediate. When we trust Christ and receive a new heart from the Holy Spirit, we aren’t immediately perfect. We don’t immediately morph into the image of Christ. That kind of spontaneous transformation only occurs when Jesus comes back and we see him face to face. Sanctification takes time, and that includes doctrinal sanctification. When we disagree with someone, it may be that we need to exercise patience with them as we teach them all that Christ has commanded us. Or it may be that we are the ones who need teaching. In any case, love is patient and kind, including toward those who have different doctrinal positions than us.

Of course, all this assumes a taxonomy of error in which disagreements about tertiary issues can arise. I’m not talking about heresy, first-order issues that indicate one has not yet come to true faith in Christ and is a danger to the flock if teaching those errors. I’m talking about doctrines over which we can disagree but not eternally divide – Calvinism, counseling, and cessationism, to re-name but a few. When we disagree with someone over such tertiary issues, before giving them a hate-filled farewell, maybe we should pray for them instead, as our brother or sister in Christ, remember our own creatureliness and fallenness, and hope for unity in the bonds of peace by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Hendrikus Berkhof on the Old Testament as a Source of Christian Theology

By recognizing this book as  a source of revelation, the Christian church professes its belief that God pursues a unique course through history, and that the appearance of Jesus Christ was not an isolated epiphany but a decisive phase on a way which had begun ages ago, a way which took the shape of an electing, guiding, judging, and saving concern with one special people” (p. 221)

Hendrikus Berkhof. Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of Faith. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1979.

Qohelet’s Advice on How Not to Hate Your Work as an Old Testament Scholar

Eric Ortlund:

As a seminary professor with an incurably bookish bent, I personally find it deeply liberating to disconnect the value of my teaching and writing from visible results. It is a relief to me to admit that I cannot produce the results I want in my students; that is God’s work. With regard to publishing, it has been my observation that paradigms in OT studies last around 50 years; articles published in the 1960s and 1970s are already beginning to look like antiques. Soon my work will be an antique as well. If I set my hopes on making a visible impact on the state of professional biblical studies, I may very well become so frustrated that I start to hate the work. This is true even if I succeed, for (if I am honest) I will have to admit that my influence will fade quickly. Qohelet liberates me from that despair to enjoy each day of teaching, simply and as nothing else than a gift. And God’s word becomes rich and sharp in a way it never would if my only goal were to be an influential professional scholar.>

Ortlund, Eric. “Pastoral Pensees: Laboring in Hopeless Hope: Encouragement for Christians from Ecclesiastes” Themelios 39.2

Like Father, Like Son? Christoph Barth’s OT Theology

9780802847836.jpgChristoph Barth (1917-1986), son of the renowned Karl and brother of the relatively well-known Markus, is the lesser-known Barth of the family. A respected scholar in his own right, he spent much of his time teaching in Indonesia and published much less than the father and brother. His most popular and important work is his Old Testament theology God with Us, a work that was originally published in four volumes in Indonesian and later condensed and translated into English.[1]

This evaluation will (1) deal particularly with Karl’s clear influence on Christoph; (2) offer a brief overview of the nine divine acts upon which his Old Testament theology is structured, and (3) include some final thoughts on the work as a whole.

Like Father, Like Son?

From the gate, anyone who has read Karl can see his influence on his youngest son’s treatment of the biblical text. First, Christoph is highly exegetical. Though he does not stray from theological trails (after all, he calls it a “theological introduction”), he mostly hovers around the biblical text and grounds his arguments in exegesis. He is not offering a schematic list of Israelite doctrines nor a critically-developed philosophical or literary treatment; rather, he sees the Old Testament narrative as a theological witness to the God who acts. Similarly, Karl devoted extended writing to commentating on biblical texts, and even in the massive Church Dogmatics, he is often more exegetical than dogmatic, more narratival than propositional.

Second, Christoph introduces his method by keying in on the aforementioned act of divine initiation. Like a good Lutheran with some Barthian flare, he emphasizes God’s unrivaled sovereign freedom to elect and interact with Israel. He also approvingly cites von Rad’s theological task revolving around “a dynamic story instead of a static system of religious ideas” and notes that this was Israel’s own understanding as well as the way the apostles first proclaimed the gospel.[2] Every part of the Old Testament “was consciously written as witness to God’s acts in history.”[3] For Christoph, the Scriptures give testimony to the way in which God has dynamically acted upon and interacted with his people. This is akin to the way in which Karl viewed revelation in general and the biblical narrative in particular.

Whether one agrees fully with Karl or not, the influence on Christoph seen in his view of God’s sovereignty and his attention to the text is commendable. If nothing else, Christoph alleviates himself of the charge that he is only dealing in ideals and opinions rather than biblical data. As with any method, there are deficiencies and flaws. Christoph brings subjectivity to the table, as does any interpreter trying to make sense of the biblical text, but at least he is dealing with texts. When considering a theological or hermeneutical method, it means next to nothing if one is not dealing with Scripture itself. Christoph accepts the challenge, albeit imperfectly, that all biblical and theological scholars must face: make every effort to let the text inform the method.

I will continue in the rest of this review to refer to them by their first names to avoid confusion. (Sorry, Christoph — perks of being Karl’s son.)

The Divine Acts

The bulk of God with Us interacts with the nine divine acts that Christoph views as the “essential subject matter of the OT.”[4] The acts, divided into chapters, are as follows: God created Heaven and Earth; God chose the fathers of Israel; God brought Israel out of Egypt; God led his people through the wilderness; God revealed himself at Sinai; God granted Israel the land of Canaan; God raised up kings in Israel; God chose Jerusalem; God sent his prophets. While admitting that there are doctrinal and legal elements within sections of Scripture like the Pentateuch, he asserts that these elements “are integrated into the structure of the story of Israel’s origins in the mighty acts of God.”[5]

In Chapter 1, Christoph posits that God’s creation of Heaven and Earth is not merely a static event in history, but rather “a salvific fact, an event that evokes thankful joy and confession of faith.”[6] God did not simply create all things and set them on their way; he now preserves and will ultimately make all things new, including mankind. He persuasively notes that questioning God’s creation of potentially fallible humans is only an attempt on man’s part to rid man of individual guilt; God created voluntary partners, not mindless robots. Where Christoph errs is focusing too highly on personal guilt and dismissing original sin. He is correct in asserting that focusing on Adam’s mistake is shameful blame-shifting, but this does not mean that Adam is not culpable, at some level, in man’s depravity. He disappointingly creates a false dichotomy rather than addressing the nuances of this issue. However, he is dead-on in concluding that “[God] will not abandon his work or leave it unfinished.”[7]

Chapters 2 through 4 introduce the reader to God’s initial election of patriarchs and his initial interactions with his chosen nation, Israel. Christoph’s main focus is the Exodus event, a topic “first in importance,” because “[i]t occurs almost everywhere in the OT” and cannot be naturally explained “either by the strength of the Israelites, the weakness or stupidity of the Egyptians, or the configuration of the terrain that might favor Israel rather than Egypt.”[8] Christoph makes the case that for the Israelites, this was paradigmatic of God’s victory over enslavement and his desire for his people’s freedom. He states that the Exodus event was in God’s mind even when he elected the fathers because it demonstrating his promise-keeping of establishing Israel as God’s people “officially and authentically.”[9] To Christoph’s credit, the case can be made that the New Testament offers a congruent typology of the Exodus. This can be seen in places such as John the Baptist’s preaching and preparation for Jesus, Jesus’s birth and Herod’s attempt to kill him, and in Simon’s allusion to Isaiah 52 when Jesus is presented in the Temple.[10] One also thinks of general themes of the gospel’s liberation of man from slavery to sin.

Christoph also hits the nail on the head when he stresses that “[God] did not need ambassadors, or spokesman, or executors of his will, or servants to assist him. All he needed was his arm, his hand, or even his finger.”[11] No doubt, but what of the human instruments he used? He acknowledges but too quickly downplays the significance of God’s calling on his creatures to join what he is doing in reconciling the world. Covenant faithfulness on the part of God’s people is a key motif in the Old Testament. He demands it. Of course it is God who initiates and acts, but he does not act completely divorced from his creatures. He reacts in both favor and disappointment (wrath, even) toward obedience and disobedience. He calls insubordinate men like Jonah to go to Nineveh. His instruments matter. God rescued the Israelites and praise of his name is demanded, but he did so out of concern for his people. God is calculated, but not disconnected; glory-emitting but not megalomaniacal. To be fair, Christoph might not outright deny this point, but the implication makes one wonder how he could fully accept the premise.

Chapters 5 through 9 survey God’s revealing of himself to Israel at Sinai, granting land to his people, and his interactions with and through kings and prophets. Of particular note is Christoph’s attention to God’s foreshadowing and promising of a Messiah. He notes that though the acts of God mentioned throughout the book to this point are “rooted in history … God and his revelation are not imprisoned in past history.”[12] Indeed, “God lives and moves” as do his great acts, and so the liberation from Egypt and the raising up of Israelite kings are pointing forward to something and someone better.[13] In perhaps Christoph’s most shining moment in the entire text, he rightly interacts with the ways in which the prophets foretold of the Savior’s multi-faceted purpose. Here, Christoph offers a useful picture of how the coming Savior would not merely be the ideal king that Israel needed, but would also be the priest, teacher, and prophet that Israel needed. He then, in biblical theologian form, takes New Testament texts and looks back into the Old Testament without aloof proof-texting that divorces the Old Testament from itself. His perceptive understanding that the Old Testament could not fully grasp or encapsulate Jesus is argued thoughtfully, and he convincingly emphasizes that New Testament writers did, however, receive “a key to the understanding of the mystery of Christ’s person and work,” as mentioned by Jesus himself in Luke 24:25-27.[14] Christoph did well to highlight the overtly prophetic Old Testament passages about the coming Messiah without getting bogged down in speculative texts. Not to mention, any argument using the words of Jesus as justification is worth considering at the very least.

Final Thoughts

The major strength of this work is Christoph’s descriptions of God’s interaction with his people – acts that are entrenched in history but not always static to the historical setting. In the progression of revelation, as he notes often, God is seen as both keeping his word and even going beyond the hearer’s expectations of his word. Religious dogma by itself remains lifeless if God himself is not sovereignly bringing it to life through his words and deeds. These acts are too often overlooked as part of the background of the text rather than the primary foreground. God with Us gives a survey of the prevailing exegetical-theological message of the Old Testament rather than another rigid, map-and-biography-driven critical approach to the Old Testament.

The struggle occurs when Christoph becomes too Barthian. The God he describes surely loves his people and gives evidence as such, but appears unnecessarily distant and superseding in terms of carrying out his purposes. One thinks of Karl’s affinity for Rudolf Otto’s “wholly other” God; however, we must balance this with the fact that real people in real situations interacted with and responded to God’s divine activity. Again, one should never deny Scripture’s clear depiction of God as the sovereign architect of all that exists and all that happens within that existence, but he is not a robotic being with no regard to the prayers of his people. Christoph seems to readily emphasize eminence over immanence rather than incorporating and celebrating the tension.

All of this said, God with Us is a fantastic OT theology, even with some of its theological misgivings. It is intensely practical and presents a God-centered view of the Old Testament’s message, the kind of OT theology we could use more of. And as a work written for the church, it’s a beneficial read for just about anyone.

[1] Christoph Barth, God with Us: A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), viii.

[2] Ibid., 5-6.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Ibid., 37.

[8] Ibid., 56.

[9] Ibid., 61.

[10] See this interesting treatment: R. E. Nixon, “The Exodus in the New Testament,” http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/exodus_nixon.pdf (accessed April 22, 2014).

[11] God with Us, 81.

[12] Ibid., 220.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 233.

Like It or Not, God Is With You

mccreight

This Lenten season I have been reading I Am with You, by Kathryn Greene-McCreight, which was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book for 2016. It is a biblically rich and pastorally sensitive reflection on the presence of God with his people. This quote from Erasmus has really stuck with me over these past few weeks:

Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit. 

Which means, “Called or not called, God will be there.” Or, in Greene-McCreight’s looser rendering, “Like it or not, God is with you.” Sometimes God’s presence is discomfiting and even frightening. His nearness often means judgment. His presence often brings rebuke and chastisement. His providence often spells sorrow and pain. But he is still there with his chosen people, sanctifying, prodding, sustaining, pulling us to glory.

And when the dust settles, God’s people know: the threat of his absence is even more terrifying than his sometimes uncomfortable presence. And so we give thanks, knowing that our Triune God is still with us. Even in death, we know that our crucified and risen Christ has promised to remain with us to the very end of the age (Matt. 28:20), like it or not.

Writing Slow in Order to Think Deep

When I tell people that I prefer to write by hand rather than type on a screen, they typically look at me like I’m a dinosaur. But I protest that I prefer to write by hand because it allows my mind and hand to work at the same speed since I can type faster than I think. 1 When I type, my mind is always trying to catch up rather than setting the agenda. With my caveman ways in mind, I was delighted to read Claudia Dreifus’s interview with the esteemed journalist, Robert Caro’s own practice of drafting his books by hand.

Is it true that you write your books by hand?

My first three or four drafts are handwritten on legal pads. For later drafts, I use a typewriter. I write by hand to slow myself down. People don’t believe this about me: I’m a very fast writer, but I want to write slowly.

When I was a student at Princeton. I took a creative writing course with the literary critic R.P. Blackmur. Every two weeks, I’d give him a short story I’d produced usually at the last minute. At the end of the semester, he said some complimentary words about my writing, and then added, “Mr. Caro, one thing is going to keep you from achieving what you want—you think with your fingers.”

Later, in the early 1960s when I was at Newsday, my speed was a plus. But when I started rewriting The Power Broker, I realized I wasn’t thinking deeply enough. I said, “You have to slow yourself down.” That’s when I remembered Blackmur’s admonition and started drafting by hand, which slows me down.

I prefer to write by hand because I express myself better when my mind and hand are synchronized. Caro’s purpose for handwriting is a different one. He can write very quickly as he attests, but he purposefully slows down his writing in order to provide the space he needs to engage his subject deeply. Although, I have preferred drafting by hand because it feels more natural for me, it is true that handwriting allows me think more deeply about my subject.

Of course, some will probably scoff at the idea of writing by hand and all the time that is lost by re-writing by hand and then transcribing to screen. But I think Caro is correct that the practice of writing by hand does create the space to engage a subject in a more meaningful way. Caro’s interview adds another reason to why I think writing by hand is a skill that I plan to continue to use. 2

  1. Tony Reinke has also noted C.S. Lewis’s preference to writing with nib pen rather than fountain pen or a typewrite for this same reason.
  2. And yes, I wrote this post by hand before transcribing it.

Maximus on the Mystical Knowledge of God in Christ

I have recently been reading St. Maximus the Confessor’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, and it, like all of Maximus’ writings, rewards careful (and prayerful) reflection. If you don’t know about Maximus, I’m not talking about this guy (but he was pretty awesome too). Maximus was a seventh century Byzantine monk, theologian, and controversialist. He is most well-known for the pivotal role he played in the monothelite controversy—the debate over the number of “wills” in the incarnate Christ—which culminated in the sixth ecumenical council (the Third Council of Constantinople, 680-81) and its proclamation that Christ does in fact have two wills (dyothelitism) that correspond to his two natures. Maximus was so convinced of this position that he was willing to endure torture (he had his tongue cut out and his hand severed) and ultimately the exile that took his life. As such, he is referred to as the “Confessor,” which in Eastern Christianity refers to one who suffers for the sake of orthodoxy.

But Maximus’ theology is much richer and wider than this single doctrinal controversy. Indeed, his work is nothing less than cosmic in scope, in that he sees the whole of reality—everything from personal piety and the church’s liturgy to the created order and the grounding of abstract properties—summed up in the Incarnate Logos and the Triune God that he reveals.

But back to his comments on the Our Father. His commentary is wide-ranging. It touches on the specifics of the prayer but also interprets the prayer as a kind of window into the whole economy of redemption. It is full of rich intertextual connections and allegories that illuminate the mysteries of the Christian faith. This paragraph, in Maximus’ prologue to the commentary, especially stood out to me:

In becoming incarnate, the Word of God teaches us the mystical knowledge of God because he shows us in himself the Father and the Holy Spirit. For the full Father and the full Holy Spirit are essentially and completely in the full Son, even the incarnate Son, without being themselves incarnate. Rather, the Father gives approval and the Spirit cooperates in the incarnation with the Son who effected it, since the Word remained in possession of his own mind and life, contained in essence by no other than the Father and the Spirit, while hypostatically realizing out of love for man the union with the flesh.

Maximus provides here a tightly packed summary of the whole Christian faith. Notice several salient points:

  1. Christocentrism: For Maximus, the incarnate Christ provides the key that unlocks the mystical knowledge of the whole Trinity. The Son reveals the Father and the Holy Spirit because, even though the Son alone is incarnate, the other divine persons are fully present in the Son, in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily. Thus, true Christocentrism can never be Christomonism, because Christ reveals the whole glorious Godhead.
  2. Perichoresis: As Maximus argues, this Christocentrism is predicated upon the mutual indwelling of the divine persons. The Cappadocian concept of perichoresis is often misused in contemporary Trinitarian thought when it is leveraged as a kind of catch all, meant to solve the problem of divine unity in social or relational models. But this misuse should not cause us to jettison this crucial insight. Perichoresis is not the interpenetration of distinct divine agents but the intimate sharing of life together in the numerically singular divine essence.
  3. Inseparable operations: Maximus argues that the incarnation is not an act of the Son alone but of the whole Trinity in unity. The Augustinian insight that all of the external acts of the Trinity are indivisible is echoed here by Maximus. It is not enough to say that the Father sends the Son or that the Holy Spirit is the agent in his virginal conception; the Son himself also “effected” the incarnation. The Trinity acts in unity to bring about the mystery of the Word-made-flesh.
  4. Appropriation: Having said that, Maximus is also careful to safeguard against theopaschism or patripassianism, by maintaining that the Son alone is made man. Incarnation is properly appropriated to the Son alone, but this truth should never be pitted against the indivisible divine act of incarnation. The doctrine of inseparable operations and the doctrine of appropriation must be held in tension.
  5. Extra Calvinisticum: In becoming incarnate, the Son did not surrender his divine “mind and life.” He continues to share in the selfsame divine life as the Father and the Spirit, even in his incarnate state. This doctrine, which came to be known as “Calvin’s extra” in the Reformation debates over the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is actually a much older teaching. Indeed, as David Willis has suggested, the doctrine is more properly titled the extra Catholicum or the extra Patristicum because of its near universal acceptance in classic Christologies.
  6. Hypostatic union: Finally, Maximus highlights the union of divinity and humanity in the person, or hypostasis, of the Son. This union is realized “out of love for man,” since the motivation and telos of the incarnation is the salvation of fallen humanity. As the Nicene Creed has it, the Word became incarnate and was made man “for us men and for our salvation.” So the goal of God in the incarnation is soteriological in nature. As Maximus says elsewhere, “the realization of the divine counsel is the deification of our nature.”

What a rich paragraph! If you have never read Maximus, you should remedy that. You might start with this selection of his spiritual writings or this collection of his Christological reflections. For secondary sources, you might try Balthasar’s classic treatment, Andrew Louth’s introduction (with several important translations of Maximus’ own writings), or the recent work of Paul Blowers.