Advent and the End of Racial Division

Racism is persistent. It comes in a variety of forms, some more veiled and incipient, others more explicit and fully formed. Many seem to espouse a myth of progress that envisions a gradual waning of all racialized ideologies. But recent years (and months and days) have given the lie to that myth. The truth is that only the redeeming work of the incarnate Christ can finally “bid our sad divisions cease.”

The breaking down of the dividing wall of hostility is one of the central messages of Advent, indeed of the entirety of the “Winter Pascha,” to use Alexander Schmemann’s memorable phrase to describe the liturgical cycle of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. In Advent, we long for the appearing of the Prince of Peace. In Christmastide, we celebrate his nativity, which is good news of great joy for all peoples. And in Epiphany, we herald his manifestation as King of the nations, signaled by the visit of the magi, bearing gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

This last mystery, the visit of the magi, has been received by the church with a special connection to Christ’s universal work. As Joseph Ratzinger has noted, the Christian tradition developed the notion that the magi are kings hailing from all three known continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. So, says Ratzinger, “the black king is part and parcel of this: in the kingdom of Jesus Christ there are no distinctions of race and origin. In him and through him, humanity is united, yet without losing any of the richness of variety.”

In this way, Christ as the Last Adam is simply restoring the inherent unity of the human race that is obscured and undermined by human sin. In another place, Ratzinger reflects on the unity of man in Adam, the man from the dust:

Thus the unity of the whole human race becomes immediately apparent: We are all from only one earth. There are not different kinds of “blood and soil,” to use a Nazi slogan. There are not fundamentally different kinds of human beings, as the myths of numerous religions used to say and as some worldviews of our own day also assert. There are not different categories and races in which human beings are valued differently. We are all one humanity, formed from God’s one earth. It is precisely this thought that is at the very heart of the creation account and of the whole Bible. In the face of all human division and human arrogance, whereby one person sets himself or herself over and against another, humanity is declared to be one creation of God from his one earth. What is said at the beginning is then repeated after the Flood: in the great genealogy of Genesis 10 the same thought reappears — namely, that there is only one humanity in the many human beings. The Bible says a decisive “No” to all racism and to every human division.

“Blood and soil” ideologies seem to be on the rise again in some quarters. But the church of the universal Savior–the people whose identity is definitively marked by Advent, the Nativity, and the Epiphany–of all people should not be deceived by them. The church is the sign of a coming kingdom of peace in which the Desire of the nations will “bind in one the hearts of all mankind.”

The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity: A Summary

In a recently published collection of essays on the Trinity, Scott Swain discusses B.B. Warfield’s treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity, with particular attention to Warfield’s rejection of the language of “eternal generation.” That’s a hugely interesting and important topic, but it’s not the subject of this post per se. Instead, I want to focus on the broader point that Swain makes about Warfield’s approach, namely, that it’s a bit too pared down, that part of the reason why Warfield is ambivalent about eternal generation is that his summary of the Trinity does not include adequate reflection on what makes the divine persons distinct from another.

Warfield summarizes the biblical teaching on the Trinity in a kind of three-step process. Swain explains:

Warfield summarizes the main lines of biblical teaching on the Trinity in three points: (1) “there is but one God,” (2) “the Father and the Son and the Spirit is each God,” and (3) “the Father and the Son and the Spirit is each a distinct person.” “When we have said these three things,” [Warfield] insists, “we have enunciated the doctrine of the Trinity in its completeness.” (p. 33).

As Swain points out, this is a fairly standard way of summarizing the Bible’s teaching on the Trinity among evangelicals. It’s even given pictorial representation in the widely used image above. But it leaves unexplained just what makes the Father, Son, and Spirit “each a distinct person.” It’s not that the summary is unhelpful or untrue, but it’s claim to “completeness” is suspect.

So, what would it look like to supplement Warfield’s approach with a bit fuller summary, but one that can still justifiably be considered a summary and not an attempt to be exhaustive? How would you summarize the biblical teaching on the doctrine of the Trinity? For what it’s worth, here’s my shot (notice that the first three points track with Warfield’s):

  1. God is one. The New Testament (Mark 12:29; 1 Cor. 8:4, 6; 1 Tim. 2:5), no less than the Old Testament (Deut. 6:4; Exod. 20:1-2; Isa. 45:6), affirms that there is only one God. While there may be other spiritual beings (angels, demons, and human souls), there is—and can only be—one transcendent and immanent Creator and Lord of heaven and earth.
  2. Each of the persons is divine. Once the first person, the Father, is distinguished in the New Testament, his deity is assumed throughout. The deity of the Son is demonstrated by the fact that the attributes, actions, names, titles, and worship of God are ascribed to him. Similarly, the Holy Spirit is named as a distinct person alongside the Father and Son (e.g., Matt. 28:18-20; 2 Cor. 13:14) and his deity is shown by his divine attributes and actions.
  3. The persons are really distinct from one another. The three are not simply successive manifestations or modes of revelation to humanity. They are simultaneously existing persons with real relations to one another (think of Jesus’ baptism, Matt. 3:13-17). And these distinctions are not merely ad hoc arrangements in redemptive history but mark out real distinctions in eternity. These distinctions are made evident by the personal names given to each of the three in Scripture: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is eternally the Father of the Son; the Son is eternally the Son of the Father; and the Holy Spirit is eternally the one “spirated,” or breathed out, by the Father and Son. The three relate to one another and love one another in the eternal glory of God’s own life (John 17:5)
  4. Because God is one, he acts as one. The three divine persons act as one in redemptive history.  All of the actions of God in the world—creation, providence, redemption, and judgment—are attributed to each. They are not three separate beings doing three separate but harmonious things. They each act in the others’ actions. The Holy Trinity acts in an inseparable and indivisible manner. To pick just one example, consider the act of creation. The Father creates through his Word (John 1:1-3; cf. Gen. 1:3) and Spirit (Gen. 1:2).
  5. Some divine attributes or actions are appropriated to particular divine persons, but not in such a way as to exclude the others. So, for example, we might say that the Father is our creator, the Son is our redeemer, and the Spirit is our sanctifier. But because of the previous point (that God acts in an indivisible way in all of his actions), this appropriation is only a manner of speaking. All three persons are the creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. The appropriation of certain attributes to certain divine persons only serves to highlight their unique personal identity. For example, the Son is referred to as the Word or Wisdom of God in Scripture, not because he alone possesses the divine attribute of wisdom, but because this name highlights his unique personal property of being from the Father, as a word proceeds from a mind.
  6. Still, each person participates in the indivisible action of God in a manner that is appropriate to his personal identity. In any act of the Triune God in the world, there is only one action. But there are three modes of action corresponding to the three persons active within, so to speak, that one action. Simply put, the Father acts as Father in the inseparable action of the Trinity, the Son as Son, and the Spirit as Spirit. The early church Fathers, following the New Testament pattern, often spoke of these modes of action by means of distinct prepositions: the action of God comes from the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit (see, for example, 1 Cor. 8:6). And, of course, because the Son alone became incarnate as a human, the actions that he carries out humanly are exclusive of the Father and Son. The point here is that everything that God does divinely, he does as Father, Son, and Spirit—in essentially indivisible but personally differentiated action.

A Prayer for New Year’s Day

Image from the cover of The Diary of James Hinton, edited by Michael A. G. Haykin and Chance Faulkner

Here’s a prayer for New Year’s Day from James Hinton, an eighteenth-century Baptist minister who compiled one of the few prayer books in Baptist history (Thanks to Michael Haykin for sharing this work with me).

Oh thou who inhabitest eternity! By thee was infant time created, and every rolling year speaks of thy goodness. Help us to regard this new year as a new creation, and ourselves as not less indebted to thee for life continued, than for life begun. To thee we commend ourselves for this new period of our being, and for all the time that we may yet be spared. However seemingly firm, in thee alone we live, and move, and have our being. Though surrounded with affectionate and zealous friends, they can do little for us, unless directed by thee who art the Friend of all. However richly furnished in other respects, without thy blessing our stores are nothing. Even our goodness, unsupported by thee, will prove like the morning cloud and the early dew. Our principal hopes, if thou dost not maintain and prosper them, will not only fail, but pierce us through with many sorrows. Forsake us not, O thou, our only effectual helper, our only sure confidence. In thy perpetual presence, in thine unchanging favour, may this year be as those which are past, and more abundant in good. May it more abound with the noblest improvement, be more fruitful of the highest Christian excellence, more full of thankful rejoicing in God. Enable us to commit ourselves to thee, without anxiety with respect to the darkness, in which the events of the year, and our interest in them, are involved . Thou seest its whole progress, and thou wilt provide. Before its close, our days may be past, and our purposes broken off, even the thoughts of our hearts; yet let not this solemn event, harass our thoughts or prevent our enjoying thy numerous favours. If for any of us the decree is issued, – this year thou shalt die ; – though we hear it not, let the execution of the order find us in some measure prepared. May our end, whenever it comes, be safe; and our last days not only calm, but joyful and blessed.

James Hinton, The New Guide to Prayer, or Complete Order of Family Devotion, 1824

The Best of 2021

Last year, I started a tradition of compiling a few of my favorite things from the year ending. Books, music, and film have been my constant companions for as long as I can remember. So here are my superlatives from 2021.

Favorite Book

The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology, by Thomas Joseph White

I am a slow and deliberate and fairly selective reader. I rarely read books that are hot off the presses. There are so many great books that I haven’t read that I usually wait to see which books stand up to the scrutiny of time before making the commitment to read them. I try to prioritize the classics I haven’t read, or haven’t read in too long (for example, this year I did some remedial work in Pseudo-Dionysius, Bernard of Clarivaux, and Bonaventure). So I almost never read enough books published in the current year to have a favorite. This year was no different. My favorite book from 2021 was actually published in 2017. Thomas Joseph White, a Dominican Thomistic scholar of the first rank, has written a truly magisterial treatment of this central Christian doctrine (I noticed it made Brandon’s best of list too). White’s book covers a remarkably wide range of issues on the person and work of Christ: everything from dyothelitism and the satisfaction theory of the atonement to the descent into hell and the nature of the resurrection body. I don’t quite agree on every point (his critique of the Calvinist doctrine of penal substitution distorts some things) but White’s treatment is consistently erudite and fair. Almost he persuadest me to believe Thomas’s view on the knowledge of the human nature of Christ (that Christ possessed the beatific vision and perfect knowledge in his higher soul). Overall, this book is a remarkable achievement in defense of classic Christology and an ontological understanding of Christ as true God and true man.

Honorable Mention: Dracula, by Bram Stoker, a classic in the horror genre I only recently read for the first time.

Favorite Movie

Minari, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung

I believe this was officially a 2020 film but only had wide release in early 2021. It tells the story of a Korean immigrant family trying to build a farm and adjust to life in 1980s rural Arkansas. Beautifully shot and brilliantly acted, Minari is small story with massive implications for the human predicament. Some of the turns are wrenching, but the resolution is positively feel-good . Don’t miss the religious overtones: the religious fanatic, the exorcisms, the idol of money, the importance of church/community, the inclusion of the other, the costs of love, the gifts of grace (the minari plant that gives the film its title grows without effort). Also, the main character is named Jacob and he builds a well! Another subtext: the emotional strains of manhood in bleak economic circumstances, a theme that is noticeably muted in much popular art. (As I write this, there are a couple movies I have yet to see that are much anticipated: P. T. Anderson’s Licorice Pizza and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley).

Honorable mention: Dune: Part One, directed by Denis Villeneuve

Favorite Album

Pressure Machine, by The Killers

I have always enjoyed The Killers (and lead singer Brandon Flowers’ solo work as well) but this album marks a decisive step forward for the band, in my estimation. The polished pop rock anthems are traded in for mostly subtle and somber acoustic reflections on the depths of human pain. I don’t want to share too much because the album needs to be experienced not over-analyzed, but suffice it to say the album is about life in rural Utah (where Flowers lived for a period as a child) and especially the aftermath of the opioid epidemic (overdoses, suicide, and the shattered dreams of youth). Musically, it has echoes of R.E.M. and fairly obvious homages to Bruce Springsteen. The latter comparison is most apt because Flowers is able to accomplish for his native West what the Boss did for the working class in his native New Jersey. Religious themes are threaded throughout. So this isn’t just an album about pain; it’s also about wrestling through doubt and despair to find meaning and hope, symbolized in the opening track’s “West Hills” (a theme pregnant with biblical allusions).

Honorable Mention: I Don’t Live Here Anymore, by The War on Drugs

Pseudo-Dionysius on the Beatific Vision

But in time to come, when we are incorruptible and immortal, when we have come at last to the blessed inheritance of being like Christ, then, as scripture says, ‘we shall always be with the Lord.’ In most holy contemplation we shall be ever filled with the sight of God shining gloriously around us as once it shone for the disciples at the divine transfiguration. And there we shall be, our minds away from passion and from earth, and we shall have a conceptual gift of light from him and, somehow, in a way we cannot know, we shall be united with him and, our understanding carried away, blessedly happy, we shall be struck by his blazing light. Marvelously, our minds will be like those in the heavens above. We shall be ‘equal to angels and sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.’ That is what the truth of Scripture affirms.

-Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names

Patristics Fantasy Draft with Matthew Emerson (Repost)

This is a repost of one of our most popular episodes. Brandon and Matt pick from a pool of 14 patristic theologians in a fantasy sports-style draft. The 14 on the board are: Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus, Jerome, Basil of Caesarea, Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Irenaeus, Tertullian, John Chrysostom, John of Damascus, Cyril of Alexandria, and Maximus the Confessor.

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

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. You can follow him on Twitter at @brandon_d_smith.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Camp Meetings, Collards, and Christology

Large crowds once gathered at camp meetings in early Alabama – Alabama  Pioneers

Theology writing can sometimes be boring, conformist, and placeless. What would theology sound like if we let our distinct “accents” come through, even if ever so slightly?

I heard an interview with Jens Kruger on the radio the other day. Kruger is a Swiss-born banjoist who was talking about the years he spent with Bill Monroe, the Father of American bluegrass. Monroe cautioned Kruger against simply mimicking other bluegrass players. He said “You’re not from Kentucky. You’re from Europe. You have your own influences. I want to hear that.” It got me thinking. What would my writing look like if I didn’t just try to ape the style of theologians from another place (or seemingly no place in particular) but wrote theology in an Alabama accent, so to speak. Even if it’s slight.

Shouldn’t a philosopher from Kentucky be shaped just a little by the rolling bluegrass of his native state? Or won’t an ethicist from East Tennessee have at least a tinge of the hills and hollers come through? Or shouldn’t the camp meetings and collards of Alabama be detectable just a little in my own writings, at least to those who have an ear for it?

Style in theology writing, as a friend recently remarked to me, is especially tricky. The subject matter requires a certain reverence and circumspection and is often best served by directness and clarity. Still, academic theology, like all human discourse, must be indigenized somewhere, addressing a particular people and a particular set of needs and emerging, of course, from a particular writer. I honestly can’t think of many clear exemplars of what I have in mind, where a uniquely emplaced style comes through. Maybe Stanley Hauerwas? Maybe minority and female theologians are our best examples? I certainly don’t have it figured out in my own writings. It’s mostly a wish and an aspiration.

What do you think? Who is doing this well?

Epiphany in the Darkness

On a day of horrible news, how fitting that this day we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. A timely reminder that only Jesus deserves our absolute fealty. Only Jesus deserves our worship. Only Jesus deserves our best gifts. The truly wise of the earth will peacefully resist every Herod and bow only to the Christ child.

The days are dark indeed. But in this season, we celebrate–if only by faith and not by sight–that the Christ-light has dawned. Even now men and women, boys and girls from all nations are coming to his light and to the brightness of his dawn. And one day every nation and every ruler and every individual will bend the knee to the only-begotten, incarnate, crucified, and risen Son of God. Nations rise and fall. Political parties flourish and collapse. Elections are won and lost. Only the throne of Christ will be established forever. So, on a day of national mourning, let us echo the ancient prayer of Solomon (Psalm 72):

Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king’s son.

He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment.

The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness.

He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.

They shall fear thee as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations.

He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth.

In his days shall the righteous flourish; and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth.

He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.

They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust.

The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.

Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.

For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper.

He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy.

He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence: and precious shall their blood be in his sight.

And he shall live, and to him shall be given of the gold of Sheba: prayer also shall be made for him continually; and daily shall he be praised.

There shall be an handful of corn in the earth upon the top of the mountains; the fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon: and they of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth.

His name shall endure for ever: his name shall be continued as long as the sun: and men shall be blessed in him: all nations shall call him blessed.

Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things.

And blessed be his glorious name for ever: and let the whole earth be filled with his glory; Amen, and Amen.

The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.

Carl Henry on Social Justice and the Gospel

Time was when what it meant to be an evangelical was the affirmation that both evangelism and social action are integral parts of the church’s mission. Not either/or but both/and: both the verbal proclamation of the saving message of Jesus Christ and the pursuit of social justice as a present sign of the coming kingdom of Christ. The postwar neo-evangelical movement deliberately positioned itself as a third way, distinct from the withdrawn and adversarial social posture of fundamentalism, on the one hand, and the heterodox humanitarianism of the Social Gospel, on the other.

Consider the words of the dean of evangelical theologians, Carl Henry:

But in and through its evangelistic mission to the world, the church is to enunciate and implement the revealed principles that God addresses to the human race by exemplary Christian leadership to the whole realm of public affairs. Social justice is not simply an appendage to the evangelistic message; it is an intrinsic part of the whole, without which the preaching of the gospel is truncated. Theology devoid of social justice is a deforming weakness of much present-day evangelical witness

Marxists make a hurried leap from the economic needs of the poor to forced redistribution of the property of the rich. However indefensible this revolutionary alternative may be, it can hardly be challenged and stayed if evangelicals are indifferent to the necessities of the poor as well as the neglected responsibilities of the rich…

Jesus did not limit the signs of his coming triumph only to those who responded to the gospel. Of the ten lepers healed, only one returned to acknowledge his mercy, but this one thereby became the rumor of hope for all the leprous. Jesus became the hope of a new day so that wherever he went some sought him for healing. Not every loaf of bread given to the starving prepares the way for evangelistic commitment—nor need it, for feeding the hungry is a duty whether they respond to Christ in this life or not. They have been kept alive not only for the opportunity to find life’s true meaning and center, but also for God’s sake; unregenerate man bears remnants of the divine image, and God has a purpose in the world even for those who do not respond to the Redeemer. A part of that purpose is that Christians remind all mankind that the Christ that reigns tomorrow is not only Jesus of Nazareth who came yesterday, but is also the risen Lord of the church, who through his redeemed body of humanity signals the tidings that no one need permanently consign himself or herself to a living hell, whether here or hereafter.

Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 4

Chrysostom on Christ the Refugee

Here is the critical race theorist, er, early church father, John Chrysostom, on how the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt and the return of the magi to Persia signal the validation of Christ’s true humanity and the spread of the gospel to peoples east and west, despite the attempts of oppressive rulers to thwart God’s plan.

There is something else here worth noticing, one touching the magi and the other touching the Child. The issue is why didn’t the magi remain with the Child? And why didn’t the Child remain in Bethlehem? Both had to escape as fugitives shortly after they were received with joy: the magi to Persia and the holy family to Egypt. Why? This is worthy of close examination. The magnificence of God’s plan of salvation would not have been believed if he had not come in the flesh. If Jesus had fallen into the hands of Herod, his life in the flesh might have been cut off. Many circumstances were quietly ordered providentially within human history. Even while the flesh of the Christ child was in danger, some dared to imagine that he never assumed our common human flesh, that his coming was like that of a ghost. These impious ideas will ultimately destroy those who do not confess that God has come to us in the flesh in a way becoming to his deity.

As to the wise men, they were sent off quickly, commissioned to teach in the land of the Persians, having thwarted the madness of the king. Herod was allowed the opportunity to learn that he was attempting things impossible, against prophecy, and that there was still time to quench his wrath and desist from his demented plot. It is fitting to God’s power not only to subdue his enemies but to do so with ease, deceiving the deceivers in a way fitting to God’s almighty power. In the same way the Egyptians had earlier been deceived, their wealth transferred secretly and with craft and God’s power made awesome to them.