Tag Archives: Incarnation

The Word, words and “the word”, Part 2

Many of the early church theologians recognized that God is the supreme object of the scriptures as they worked intimately with the scriptural texts. Though they did not ask the historic or scientific questions as we contemporary readers would present them, these early interpreters recognized that the texts even contradicted each other. The result was a hermeneutic, or interpretive posture to the texts, that looked for the revelatory meaning of the texts.  This was most often described as the Spiritual Meaning of the texts.  Most famously, Origen of Alexandria named several layers of meaning contained within the scriptures. He said in his book On First Principles, that not every text had a historical, or literal meaning, but EVERY text has a spiritual one. The reminder is clear, the texts always point to the Creator Revealer God. That is their prime purpose.

Later, Augustine of Hippo made clear his initial misgivings regarding these “barbaric” texts in his book The Confessions. After his final conversion in Milan, however, this spiritual meaning of the scriptures came to life. He later penned a book, On Christian Doctrine, which also outlined another hermeneutical approach to the Bible. Within that short treatise Augustine outlines a profound theological description of the texts. In a short summary he basically asserts that the scriptures are an incarnation is the same way Christ is The Incarnation. The analogy is simple: Christ is the full sign making clear the nature and power of God. The scriptures are themselves signs that point beyond the physical letters and words to Christ. So the scriptures are to Christ as Christ is to God.

Our modern debates about the authority of scripture have missed both the hierarchical system that I outlined in the earlier post  and the spiritual and incarnational approaches of Origen and Augustine. Theologies of inerrancy and infallibility try to superimpose modern scientific categories onto a text that is not trying to be neither scientific nor historical. They are texts that are revealing God. To assert infallibility and inerrancy is to apply Divine attributes to a physical and created medium. In other words, these categories try to make the Bible into God, rather than treating the scriptures as a witness to God.

Thus, to speak of “Reading the Bible”  as the cure for our social and personal ills is to substitute a book for the God that actually does the changing. Getting more people ot “just read the Bible more” will not change culture nor lives.  Rather, it is the encounter with the God behind the texts we are to seek.  The naming of the Bible as “The Word of God” makes this idolizing all too easy. When Matthew tells of Jesus’ temptation in the desert an interesting statement of Jesus is used to rebuke the Devils test to turn stones into bread.  “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Those who most frequently fall into the Bible as Idol category want this text to justify the words of scripture as Word of God. In fact, the Greek is clear. Here Jesus uses the word rhema- word, as in speech. The Word of God as we know it from the Gospel of John is Logos- the organizing reason of God, that is Christ. The distinction is clear- Christ is the Word of God, not the scriptures. God still speaks to humanity, that is God is still self-revealing. Those are the words that sustain us. The Bible, however, is God’s revealing that sustains, but is not on the same plain as Christ, the Word. These words of the Bible are sustain because they POINT us to Christ the Word.

This might seem like a semantic, or academic distinction. But when we see that infallibility and inerrancy seek to Divinize the Bible, and when we set the scriptures in the proper order of revelation we can see that it is more than a language game. It is a safe guard from the earliest of heresies- making gods of the things of creation in place of God himself.

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The Word, words, and “the word” Pt 1

Last week my Twitter feed exploded with a number of tweets related to the Bible. In full disclosure, I was attending The Uncover Summit. This event, organized by the Forum of Bible Agencies, focused on the need for greater engagement with scripture- A concept I am fully supportive of, but not quite on board with the same theological and cultural baggage that was paraded before those gathered in Orlando.

As with any gathering of church leaders and parachurch organizations, some of he content was good and some of it was simply awful.

So in an a self indulgent effort to debrief, I want to work constructively at my own theology of scripture. This, I hope, will expand what I am looking for related to a robust centrality of scripture while deconstructing the rigid approaches of infallibility and inerrancy, and idolatrous approaches of some. I will work in a traditionally systematic approach, that is working through categories in order to set the Bible in a valuable location within Christian belief and practice. A later post will follow up with some historical references and make more clear the object to which the Bible points and the theological problems of inerrancy and infallibility.

1) The creating God- The prime object of all creation, worship, and the scriptures is God. This God is the creator of all, including Human Beings. This, by definition, makes clear one thing- God is God and humanity is not, a creator and a created. We, by our very nature fall on the created side of the line.

Yet, this same God reaches over he creator/created boundary to interact with the creation. In this way, God’s very nature is to reveal God’s self to humanity. So along with Creator, God is Revealer. That just has to be. Since God is so other to us, God has to give us some clues along the way. Ironically, we experience God in the opposite order. We first come to know God as Revealer since that is the first gracious action we experience. After becoming aware of God and coming to know God as revealed, then we come to know God as Creator, because that as well is an understanding given by God. As we see in the modern scientific age, it is possible to encounter and understand the world without God’s actions, or even God himself. To speak of God as creator is already to invoke Revelation as source of understanding, and thus to speak a position of faith.

2) Christ, the full revelation- Fall, atonement, and soteriiology aside, the person of Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation of God to humanity. In other, more classical and scriptural terms, he is God with us. In the familiar opening to the Gospel of John, this Christ is called the Word. It’s a great theological and poetic narrative which plays on speech as a revealing act.  God creates and reveals with words, but the fullest representation is The Word above all words.

3) The People of God- Since the nature of God is to interact with and be self revelatory, there are people who are engaged by God. These people at various times have been called Israel and later the Church. Both of these names make explicit the Divine and human interaction. First, Israel is the people that wrestles with God. Second, the Church is the people called together by God.

4) Scripture, the testimony of the peoples of God– These interactions with God, necessarily, must take place in time and throughout time. Since the nature of humanity is to communicate, both with God and with one another, there is a need to gather these divine encounters to shared through time, at first through stories shared by word of mouth and then in the technology of writing. Soon, because the technology allowed it, this communication about God and the experiences of God took the form of direct written communication. Thus, we have human attempts to narrate the Divine encounter both in stories and letters.

Since its too easy to fake an encounter with God, over time these people of God gathered the normative stories and texts together. These scriptures are the texts by which all new encounters are assessed and measured. This means one thing: the writers did not set out to write the definitive account of God but narrated their encounters. Over time, the people’s of God, along with the revealing work of God’s Spirit, have said these are The Stories above all stories, and are to be trusted as tests for each generation. They are set aside for God’s people throughout time. They are Scriptural Canon for the people of God.

This hierarchy makes several things clear. First and foremost, God is behind the scriptures every step of the way. God is present in the first revelation, with the persons who did the recording, and with the peoples as they set apart the text as the measurement of all later understandings. Second, as scripture, these texts witness to this chain of Divine self revelation. They are thus not historical or scientific in the way we conceive them today, but texts revealing God and God’s self revelation.

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Easter Proclamation- Old School

This is one of those years when religious calendars line up. Easter celebrations of the Roman and Orthodox are in the process of being celebrated around the world. Proclamations of Christ is Risen will be said in nearly every language through the night into the rising sun on the 8th day- the day of re-creation.

Thinking about this amazing proclamation I decided to read the Pascal Homily of John Chrysostom- who should probably be taken up as the patron saint of Post-Christendom movements, for he “was fearless when denouncing offences in high places.”  His short, but rhetorically beautiful and complex homily should be required reading of any preacher or prophet.

Here is a taste of its excellence:

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

I can nearly hear the cheers in response to this spectacular conclusion echoing throughout Hagia Sophia then and around the world tonight.

Christos Anesti, Christ is Risen!!

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Saying the Creeds

I call the Church of the Brethren home.  The tradition is really part of the second generation of Anabaptists (1708).  That is to say that ours is a mode of Christianity birthed both in the dawning of the Enlightenment and following the violence of political/religious struggles for power.

So what does this mean?

Primarily, it means the Brethren have a healthy skepticism of the creeds.  In the wake of the Reformation battles, the one litmus test for many regions in Europe was the recitation of the creeds.  This became increasingly important as traditions divided over which creed was acceptable and which confession of faith had legal status within a territory.  The Enlightenment responded through projects of legal and philosophical separation of faith and practice, or the privatization of belief.  Religious communities followed suit by rejecting confessions and creeds out right based on their violent and limiting use at the hands of princes and bishops.

For the early Brethren, this translated into an act of civil disobedience- they would not cite the creeds in their gatherings or in the presence of authority.  Over time we have come to understand this practice in very Anabaptist terms:  “We have no creed but the New Testament, as read in community under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”  Some have taken this as a way to expand the historic creeds in order to include the full life of Jesus.  Others have taken this as an opening of the definition of what it means to be Christian.

In my own spiritual life, I have journeyed this open pasture and find myself resting in the frames of the creeds.  As Richard Rohr noted in his book Everything Belongs, some times the question must be explored from every angle, only to arrive back at the original answer….albeit with a whole new understanding.

So how is that this Radical Pietist, Anabaptist, and staunch critic of the Constantinian form of the Church can stand in worship and find the creeds spiritually sustaining?

First, the Nicene formula makes tw0 things clear.  God is God. And Christ is God.  In the ancient language, begotten not made, light from light, true God from true God.  So why is that important?  Early in the debates the ancient theologians wanted to maintain the distinction between creator and created.  To place the Word (Logos) on the created side of that line would be place the saving Christ on the side of those needing saved.  In essence giving sand to parched.  This made even more clear that the very salvation offered by God was a result of God’s coming to us, making even more poignant the beauty of the Christ hymn in Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (2:5-8)

Or as Athansius of Alexandria said: God became human so that we could become divine.

Second, I deeply value the Chalcedonian definition (451).  For most, this means nothing.  Yet, most of our ideas about Jesus as the Christ emerge from this statement of faith and not the Nicene creed.  Each time a pastor or Sunday school teacher says Jesus Christ is both human and divine they intone the Chalcedonian definition.  More specifically they unknowingly reference its central claim that Jesus is;

one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.

Behind all the fancy language and technical terms of substance and nature is a fundamental conviction, stated clearly by Gregory of Nanzianzus but here paraphrased: That which God did not take on of the human person is not redeemed.  Here we have the Incarnation of Christ spelled out in full.  Not only does God come down, but God puts on everything of our bodied existence…and in so doing restores material living.

So what is all this to say?  Simple.  Despite the horrific uses of the ancient creeds and definitions, the theology of these texts is amazingly liberating.  God is God, yet God also so values created and embodied existence to take on flash and bone, life and death … and life.  No getting around it, the Incarnation redeems and restores bodied life, empowering us to be human beings fully alive.

In essence, this Brethren boy longs for the times of reciting the creed, times of true profession of faith.

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Part 2, The Christological Critique

The Christian emphasis on the Incarnation challenges any simplistic Gnostic or Embodied dualism. To be more specific, the Incarnation of Christ redefines how we are to understand our bodies. In the light of Christ, we can neither reject our bodies in favor of the spiritual world nor can we out right elevate our bodies to the levels of the gods.

There is a popular understanding of Christianity today that often defines the religion in terms of repression. This is, in part, due to the Incarnational critique of worldly embodiment. Once we can see the fallen and redeemed anthropologies side by side, we understand why the world might say we are prudes and puritans. Yet, as in the days of the Gnostic debates, we are trying to describe and live into a right ordering of the spiritual and the material.

It doesn’t take too long to realize that American culture loves bodies; hard bodies, lingerie covered bodies, or naked bodies. However we take our bodies, whether through sexual or ocular conquest, the root of our obsession is pleasure. Our eyes feast on the delicacies of curves and abs for our own gratification. All the while we spend hours and fortunes trying to discipline our own bodies into a shape admired by others. Through it all, it is my pleasure that matters. In the end, it’s a new kind of solipsism. It is my pleasure and satisfaction that matters.

When “incarnation” is used in this context, it is simply a theological justification of solipsistic hedonism. Two things could not be further from the heart of the Christian doctrine. This is often because we want to ignore the two corollary elements of the tradition: The Fall and the redeemed quest for virtue. When we set incarnation within the matrix of Christology we are reminded immediately that the Incarnation was for one purpose- the transformation of a fallen world. For it is in Christ that we see the intent for humanity. It is in Christ we learn that our proper mode of being is in right relationship with God. In other words, our spiritual self defines and guides our embodied self, not the other way around.

Two things emerge from this Christological critique. First, the coming of God into the world is a necessarily social action. In other words the redemption of humanity comes at the initiative of another. Right away, the solipsistic view of the self is dismissed. It is not I who am saved, but We. My happiness, my full life is inextricably linked to that of other persons. Secondly, just as Christ is in relationship with God, so are our souls and our bodies. What is more, just as Christ is sent by God, so are our bodies activated by our souls. There is, then a particular relationship which is revealed in the relationship of Christ to God. (NB: I am working with a more Eastern Christian trinitarian theology. Through the ages, the Latin speaking Church has some to see both God and the Son in similar roles of sending. This is made evident in the use of filoque in the Nicene creed. There it states that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son. Here, rather, I am assuming that the Son and the Spirit are the divinity sent.) This analogy helps reveal that in the human person the soul is the animating element of the human person.

If we do not balance this anthropology of the soul guiding the body with the rejection of Gnostic dualism, the danger is clear. The soul can punish or diminish the body. But, as I noted in the first section, the affirmation and fundamentally the redemption of material existence quarantines such a theological anthropology. As many of the Christian Neo-platonists of the early Church noted, it is the soul which can elevate the flesh to resurrection and it is the body which informs and teaches the soul.  We learn to know God through signs, the signs of scripture, world and Christ.  Even more so, the body can guide or distract the soul’s natural affinity for God. Take for example the emphasis on the posture of the body within prayer, whether kneeling, laying down, or standing.. John Cassian chides his monks not to lay prostrate too long at times of prayer for fear of falling asleep. For him, the preferred posture is to stand or kneel, thus keeping the soul attentive to God.

When we draw the Christological parallels to anthropology we see that today’s embodied Gnosticism is as equally problematic as the Gnostics of the past.  Here we see that the Incarnation reveals the proper ordering of the soul within the human body, namely that the soul guides the flesh towards virtue while the flesh can reveal God at work in the world.  There is thus no individual, or solipsistic element to the human person.  It must relate to both God and the world through the elements of the body: The soul towards God and the body towards the world.  In the Incarnation we understand the proper ordering of these elements so as not to mistake the material for the spiritual.  Indeed then, we arrive at the importance of PanENtheism, the notion that God is active in the world but still beyond creation.

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Today’s Embodied Gnosticism

Again, another two part series.  In this case we look at Incarnation and distinguish it from embodiment.  This first post looks at the reciprocal nature of today’s interest in the body and the Gnostics of the first century.  The second post will discuss the Incarnational critique of this embodied Gnosticism.

Few can deny that the theological foundation of Christianity is the Incarnation; that is that God came in the flesh. The conflict with the so-called Gnostics, one of the earliest theological controversies around the Mediterranean rim, made this abundantly clear. Differences of opinion soon emerged in the Christian community as early Jesus followers tried to make sense of what had happened during the third decade in Jerusalem, To oversimplify, one wing began to describe the Christ event as an escape from the world. These Gnostics, as they have come to be known, so rigidly divided the cosmos into things physical and things spiritual that there was no link between the two. Those in the know, the ones enlightened by the coming of Christ, guarded the truth about the world, namely that the most real and thus the most holy was the spiritual. In other words, once one encountered Christ the materiality, including the human body, took a back seat. The spiritual was holy, and the material evil. Today we call this an ontological dualism.

What came to be known as orthodox Christian belief rejected this dualism flat out for at least two reasons. First, the very scriptures of the tradition contradicted such a dualistic worldview. The narrative of Genesis make abundantly clear both God’s interaction with the material world as well as God’s blessing of matter. The Gnostic praise of the spiritual and parallel rejection of the material was contradicted by the scriptural testimony to the goodness of creation. Yet, the heresy of the Gnostics was not just revealed by the Hebrew scriptures, it was made clear by the events of Jesus himself. From all the stories about Jesus the clear thread was not that God had come to earth in some spiritual form, but in flesh and blood.

What emerged is often called the doctrine of the Incarnation. In various forms, all equally as debated as the confrontation with Gnostics, this doctrine basically states that God interacted with humanity in material ways. In that interaction through Jesus the Christ, all of humanity and all of creation was redeemed. In a way, the Incarnation revealed the truth of the Genesis narrative; Matter matters.

Today, Incarnation is all the rage.  Even the least sacramental traditions of Christianity celebrate the doctrine of the Incarnation. More liberal minded communities value the reminder that God continues to act in the world, but often through the hands and feet of Christians. The charismatic wing trumpets the various manifestations of the Holy Spirit in material ways. Even the most contextual methods of theology, such as Liberation, Feminist and Womanist thought, strive to recover the incarnational implications of Christianity for the socially dismissed or physically abused. For all of these, the Incarnation is clearly Good News.

Unfortunately, the Incarnation also speaks to today’s culture in negative ways. Some hear the word incarnation and attach the connotation of today’s sensual and even sexual emphasis on the body. In these circles, incarnation is simply synonymous with embodiment. In other words, incarnation has little to do with the interaction of the the spiritual and the material, but is a celebration of the flesh. In a way this narcissistic incarnation is the reciprocal of the early Gnostics. Rather than overvaluing the spiritual, this new Embodied Gnosticism so integrates the spiritual in the material that there is no separation. What is good for the body, in this way of thinking, must be good for the spirit. In a way, the tradition of Incarnation has been co-opted to anoint a kind of Christian hedonism.

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