Monday, February 28, 2011

Divine Immutability: Fire or Ice?

I've been reading Paul Hinlicky's new book Divine Complexity. The premise of the book is actually wrong (he doesn't get the classical idea of divine simplicity, but that's for another post), but there's still quite a lot of good things in it.

One good point that he makes is that the Cappadocian Fathers and other early theologians who asserted divine immutability didn't think about it quite in the same way as Plato or Platonizing Christian and Jewish theologians did (i.e. Philo, Origen, Clement, Justin Martyr, etc.). For the Cappadocians, God is conceived as something living. Even though he is immutable, his immutability is not something static. God is unchanging "energy."

I was thinking about this, and I think the best analogy of the Christian concept of immutability and that of Plato is ice vs. fire. For Plato, God or "the Good" is like ice in his immutability. It's frozen. If it moves, it breaks- in other words, it loses its integrity. I think that's essentially why Arius taught what he taught. If God could act and enter our story, he would break. So, Jesus isn't God. He's a go-between so that God can stay God and not break.

By contrast, the classical Christian idea of immutability is that of fire. Fire is living, yet it doesn't change. It stays exactly the same if you keep on putting fuel on top of it. It can also spread, while not losing anything of itself or changing. This is because the Biblical doctrine of immutability is rooted in the Trinitarian conception of God. The Trinity is dynamic. It is an eternal event of divine self-communication and donation. It doesn't change, yet it is living and dynamic. The Father gives all of himself to the Son, while remaining the unchanging Father. God exists as a relational life. He isn't a slab of ice, but a living, yet unchanging, reality.

I think this is a better model of Christians to understand the immutability of the divine being. Understand God as something living, yet unchanging also helps us starve off the attacks of those who (based on a false understanding of immutability) what the divine being to be mutable. If that latter would be true, it would destroy the whole Christian account of God. It would mean that creation would be deified and present possibilities to God which he lacked in himself. Even worse, God might be change his mind about either the law or the gospel. The end result would be that the divine assurance that the gospel brings would be utterly destroyed.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Dialectic of the Hidden and Revealed God as Trinitarian Advent.

I came up with this on the treadmill the other day. I had to add it to chapter 5 of the book.


It's significant because people like Christine Helmer have complained that reading Luther primarily through the lens of Bondage of the Will and therefore through the lens of the dialectic of the hidden and revealed God (Elert and Bayer are faulted by her for this- though as you can see below, I don't consider this a fault of Bayer) destroy the importance of the Trinity. In her book on Luther and the Trinity, she actually wants to marginalize use of the dialectic (even though Luther thought the Bondage of the Will and the Catechisms were the only things that he wrote which were any good!) in favor of a primarily Trinitarian description of divine agency in Luther. 

I think she's on to something, but she goes a bit far. Theodosius Harnack, Althaus, Elert, and Forde are right to place the dialectic of hidden and revealed at the forefront, but they are wrong to not coordinate this with Luther's highly Trinitarian understand of divine agency.  My point below is that Trinitarian advent and the dialectic of hidden-revealed are for Luther understood through one another. Oswald Bayer does a marvelous job saying something similar in his reading of Dear Christians One and All Rejoice- though he's not as explicit about it as I am.  

The condescending and concealing movement of the Son actualized in the narrative of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection also unfolds the word of the testament as a specifically Trinitarian act of mutual concealment and revelation.  The dialectic of the hidden and revealed God is not properly understood as the unfolding of an essentially unitarian account of the deity (even though certain Lutheran theologians have given that impression!), but is rather shaped by the Trinitarian structure of the divine life and the taxis of its temporal manifestation. 

At Christ’s baptism, the Father testifies that he is his Son.  As we noted above, Jesus does not appear to be God’s Son in that he stands in solidarity of with sinners.  Throughout his ministry, Christ testifies of the Father against the experience of condemnation suffered by Israel. The Father hides as deus absconditus under wrath and law.  He does so through the mask (larva dei) of continuing exile and a decaying creation (Rom 8:22).  In contradistinction to this mask, Jesus testifies that the Father is the gracious giver of every good.  Jesus, as the true Son of the Father, is his very image (Col 1:15, Heb 1:3) in his ministry of compassion and forgiveness.  He sees what the Father does and does it himself (Jn 5:20).  Those who have seen him have seen the Father (14:9).  Although the Father is hidden and no one has ever seen him (1:18), he reveals his grace by making the rain fall on the just and unjust (Mt 5:45) and loves those who abuse his grace (5:43-8).  Indeed, only the Son knows the Father, just as the Father alone knows the Son (Mt 11:27, Jn 10:15).  This is because Jesus and the Father are one (Jn 10:30), and Jesus is in Father and the Father is in Jesus (Jn 14:11).  Nevertheless, this unity of the Father and the Son is hidden and only revealed by the power of the Spirit.  This unity is both revealed and conceal at Jesus' baptism through Jesus' reception of the Spirit under the concealing form of a dove.  In Jesus' ministry, the Spirit reveals the unity of the Father and Jesus through the word that Jesus gives (Mt 11:27). 

As Jesus’ ministry persists, the aporia between his testimony regarding his unity with Father and the actual circumstances of his existence grows ever deeper.  Jesus forgives sinners who are condemned by the Father's law by means other than those set down by the Pentateuch (i.e., Temple and cultic sacrifice).  Jesus is not opposed to the law (Mt. 5:17), but rather claims that the law is ordered to the gospel (Jn 3:17).  Jesus’ identification with sinners and his eventual death along with them will therefore be an act of divine redemption, not a final condemnation of him as a mere messianic pretender.  In fact, the Father's love for the Son lies in the fact that he bears this judgment (10:15). This judgment will not be an end in itself, but rather will serve the purpose of the Father’s loving plan to redeem the whole world (3:16).  Hisopus alienum is therefore ordered to his opus proprium.  This truth is nevertheless not really accessible to vision.  The Father, whom Jesus prays to and testifies of, finally reacts in silence to Jesus' cry of desperation in the garden of Gethsemane.  The Father remains loving even though his benevolence is hidden when he abandons the Son to a cruel fate.  In the same way, Jesus remains divine and righteous, though he dies under the veil of sin and weakness.  On the cross, the visible rupture between the Father and the Son (as well as between vision and hearing!) is completed when we hear both: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “Truly this was the Son of God!”

In the resurrection, the Spirit who raises Christ (Rom 8:11) resolves the aporia between the Son's testimony and the Father's action. Jesus' claim that the Father's wrath is order to his love is validated once and for all.  Similarly, his claim of unity with the Father is reaffirmed in the unity of the Spirit, for: "In that day [that is, at the time of the receiving the Spirit after the resurrection] you will know that I am in my Father" (Jn 14:20).  This revelation is nevertheless hidden in that no one directly observes the event of resurrection.  Jesus himself testifies to the disciples that he has been raised and gives them the Spirit (20:19). By receiving the Spirit, they will preserve and propagate Jesus' infallible testimony regarding the Father (14:16-26).  The Spirit's activity is also hidden for believers in Word and sacrament.  The audible word given by Jesus in his promises concerning the word of the apostles and sacraments testifies to the Spirit's hidden work.  In establishing the means of grace, Jesus testifies to work of the Spirit against vision, in the same manner that the Father testified of him and he testified of the Father sub contrario.

Faith holds to Jesus as the true revealed God over-against sinful human perceptions of the Father hidden in majesty.  Faith also trusts in the Spirit and the Father's word of testimony regarding Jesus in opposition to his manifest form of weakness and condemnation.  Through this testimony, faith recognizes Jesus is a mirror of the Father's heart.  Luther writes in the Large Catechism: "For (as explained above) we could never attain to the knowledge of the grace and favor of the Father except through the Lord Christ, who is a mirror of the paternal heart, outside of whom we see nothing but an angry and terrible Judge."  Faith gains this knowledge through trust in the hidden work of the Spirit in Word and sacrament: "But of Christ we could know nothing either, unless it had been revealed by the Holy Ghost."[1]  Therefore for Luther, the whole dialectic of the hidden and revealed God resolves itself for faith in the Trinitarian advent of Christ's life made accessible in Word and sacrament.[2]

Monday, February 21, 2011

Epicurus and Stephen Hawking

As some of you might have figured out I'm rereading The City of God by St. Augustine. An interesting thing came up. Augustine notes that Epicurus (and his school in general) taught that there are a infinite number of universes. I looked it up in Copleston and low and behold, yes he did. As you might recall, Stephen Hawking proposed something almost identical a while back. It's quite interesting how evolutionary and materialistic thinking haven't really advanced. It's all old-time ancient Epicureanism! Of course both modern materialism and Epicureanism have to operate with the same assumptions. 1. Matter can just somehow fly together in ways that seems purposeful, but somehow isn't. 2. Since it would take an infinite number of tries for that actually to happen, then he must have happened an infinite number of times in the past and our universe must simply have been the one that got it right. As the univese stands it's so fine tuned that one either has to go with a creator and designer or the other thing. Of course, there is no empirical evidence of the multiple universes, whereas there are credable historical witnesses that claim contact with that creator-designer fellow. So which do you consider to be more logical and trustworhty a theory?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Beautiful Savior?

Back to the bridal mysticism thing again.

After reading The Heidelberg Disputation and Freedom of a Christian in tandem for my Luther class, another point struck me regarding how Luther is rejecting the Platonic-Augustinian desire-mysticism. Not only are we not attractive to God (i.e., we bring sin and death to the mystical marriage of faith!), but Christ isn't attractive to us! After all Isaiah says to regarding him: "he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him" (Isaiah 53:2).

Luther notes in thesis 4 of the Heidelberg Disputation that God's works always appear unattractive, but are nevertheless eternal merits. Hence, we receive Christ through the hearing of faith contrary to the vision of beauty and love, as the Platonic-Augustinian tradition would have it.

After all, for love to be primary, there must be a primacy of vision in the divine-human relationship. Love desires and pursues that desire (i.e., the works of the law). Faith hears and patiently receives. Faith hears and believes against external appearance.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Great Steven Paulson Quote on the Absolute Omnipresence of Christ

From his excellent book Luther for Armchair Theologians, my old teacher Dr. Steven Paulson writes on the absolute omnipresence of Christ:

"Luther is even willing to pause for a minute and talk about Christ's body being wherever Christ is- and that means everywhere present! Of course, this makes human reason and its buff, free will feel crowded out of the world."

In other words, human reason that lusts for self-justification through imaginary free will, is "crowded out" of the world when it recognizes that Christ is all-present "for you." If the gracious God found in the flesh of Jesus reigns and is present everywhere, the human person loses all their power to establish themselves before God by their good works. There is no distance from this incarnate God within which they can use their free will in order to move towards him. They can only accept in faith that Christ is all-present and gracious pro nobis.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Controversial? Huh?

Someone remaked in an e-mail I received today that this blog is "controversial."

My immediate response was: "Huh?"

I find that rather strange. My theological positions are general, standard, run-of-the-mill old Missourian.

I think it's fair to say that I don't address standard topics that one finds throughout the Lutheran blogsphere. But how would that make my blog controversial?

Question: Has anyone else heard anything about this?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Reflections on Matthew's Account of the Transfiguration.

I was listening to the reading yesterday for Transfiguration Sunday and it struck me how in keeping with the rest of Matthew's theme of "rest" his account of the Transfiguration is.

Matthew tells us that the Transfiguration happened "after six days"- i.e. on the seventh day after Jesus' promise that "some will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom in power."  At this time, the seventh era of the world was viewed by many Jews as being the age of Messiah and the Sabbath of the world-in other words, the coming of the kingdom of God.  Jesus' hearer will now see what the kingdom is and about.

The seventh day is also the day of rest and Jesus brings that rest: "Come to me all of you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest."  Rest is what happens when you receive the promise- hence the day of Sabbath- that is the day of the reception of the Word.  This is also why the 49th year was a year of Jubilee and Daniel predicted "seventy-sevens" when the Messiah would come.  This is the same day that the prophet speaks of in Isaiah 61: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor"- i.e. a final Jubilee.

On the Mountain of Transfiguration, they see Jesus with the two great prophets of the OT.  Then he appears in glory.  Not only does this show that Jesus was the one they encountered in their OT theophanies, but it also suggests that Moses and Elijah are like the angels on the Ark of the Covenant that the kavod appeared between (Jesus is the kavod, since he reveals that he is the hypostatized Glory of YHWH).  Jesus also appears between two person on the cross.  Two angels also sit in his tomb, one on the top and the other on the bottom where he lay.  So, he is the concealed God who appear in the cloud of incense and he is the sin-offering of the Day of Atonement.  He is the "mercy seat" as Paul puts it in Romans 3.  He is the place that gives rest, because he is the place where God is both most present, most concealed, and propitiated with blood.  Again, he is the one who makes passive and gives rest through his forgiving word of promise in his blood.

Therefore Peter has the wrong reaction.  He wants to build "Tabernacles" for Jesus and the other two.  It is the Sabbath, why work?  Jesus is the one who gives rest- why work?  Jesus is the son of David who builds the "house for my Name," (a Temple/Tabernacle!) not you!  He was the builder of the original creation, which Genesis describes as a cosmic Temple.  He is the builder of the eschatological Temple, the Church.  As the creator God and Temple-building son of David.  Therefore it makes a lot of sense that he would be a carpenter!  

In a word, it is Jesus who builds and not us.  So, Peter is wrong to want to build, rather than receiving his building.  After all, Jesus has just told Peter that he will build the Christian Church on the faith that he represents "on this rock I will build my Church..."  Jesus is the one who builds Peter up into the eschatological Temple "built on the apostles and prophets, with Christ the chief cornerstone" and not Peter!

God does not want work, but to listen and be passive.  The Father appears and silences Peter: "This is my beloved Son, listen to him."  Peter will do a similar thing later.  He will promise his own death to Jesus.  But again, Jesus isn't the one who you actively die for, but one whom you passively die with when he dies for you.  Peter tries to be active and fails.  It is only in recognizing his sin and listening to the word of promise, that he is placed in the right relationship with Jesus.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bridal Imagery in Luther's "Freedom of a Christian."

I've been going over Freedom of a Christian again for my Luther class. In light of my knowledge of Luther's use of the earlier tradition, a couple of interesting things strike me about the use of the bridal mysticism tradition in this work.

Let's start with how Augustine, the medieval tradition, and modern Catholicism think about sin. Augustine's understanding of sin is rooted primarily in his Neo-Platonic anthropology. Humans are desiring subjects, Plato and Plotinus tell us. In the dialogue The Phaedrus, Plato tells us that our desires for earthly things (in this case quite specifically, erotic desire- Phaedrus is composing a homosexual love poem!) are simply a misdirected desire for the "Good." Since as most Patristic authors do, Augustine thinks that Plato's "Good" is actually a fuzzy knowledge and affirmation of the Triune God of the Bible, he argues that the essence of sin is desiring things that aren't God. Prior to the Fall, Augustine argues in bk 14 of City of God, Adam and Eve wouldn't have really even have enjoyed sex. Why? Because Augustine says, when you have an orgasm, your mind goes blank. Hence you're not being rational or thinking about God or desiring him. Enjoying sex is actually a punishment for sin, because its a big distraction from doing philosophy/theology and contemplating God.

But does that mean that we shouldn't engage in any earthly activities that we might enjoy? No, says Augustine, but there is a distinction between "enjoyment"and "use." The hard fact is that if don't eat or get married, then the human race will die out- hence we need to "use" these things for those ends, but enjoying them is sin. Hence, Monasticism makes a lot of sense within this scenario. Cut off as many distractions from pure desire for God as possible. In the subsequent tradition, other theologians are a little more tolerant. Aquinas for example compares our movement towards our final enjoyment of God in heaven as being like walking down a road. You can, he says, enjoy the pleasant scenery and you don't have to look at every step that your taking. Nevertheless, everything has to feed into getting to the final vision of God in his essence in heaven and the ultimate enjoyment that brings.

This is the reason why the Catholic Church continues to complain of the ripping asunder of the "unitive" and the "reproductive" aspects of sex. On one level, I agree with the Catholic position that sex can't be divorced from the family, not least because it creates intimacy between a man and a woman who in turn are able to use that intimacy to create a happy and safe home for children. On another level, the Catholic understanding is tied up in an Aristotelian ethic of telos and a Platonic one of our erotic desire for God. The Catholic assumption is that, in a word, sex is a distraction from enjoying God, period. Now, it can be redeemed if in having sex there might be a possibility that you create a human being who will eventually see God in his essence and enjoy him. But simply doing it for fun it is sinful (Pius the XII actually claimed that a person could commit adultery with their own wife!). It is a distraction from enjoy God in a quasi-erotic sense.

This carries over into the bridal mysticism of the Middle Ages, which mainly manifests itself in the forms of allegorical commentaries on Song of Songs. If you think about it, this is actually an incredibly necessary theological strategy in light how the tradition understands sin and righteousness. If Song of Songs is an affirmation of human sexuality for its own sake as a gift of God, then this is a problem if you consider sin to be desiring things that aren't God for their own sake. Hence, one kills two birds with one stone if you make the whole thing about Christ and the Church. Now, this isn't entirely invalid, since Paul does tell us all marriages is an allegory of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5), and in fact it is a way of reading the poem that goes all the way back to Judaism (one Jewish group I read about actually reads as an allegory of Israel and the coming Messiah, and therefore reads the whole text at a synagogue service every Friday night!). Nevertheless, if you believe that what the text is telling you is that you should actually be having erotic feeling for God, then it gets a little creepy real fast. In fact, much of the mysticism of the Middle Ages that centers on this theme represents a field day for Freudian psychologists.

This bring us to Luther, who as we know, studied Medieval mystical texts from the years 1511-1518/9. In a sense, beyond his use of the Bible and its description of the YHWH/Israel-Christ/Church relationship as bridal, this explains his use of the marriage image for justification in Freedom of a Christian. Nonetheless, as we can observe from the text of this work, Luther uses the bridal image in a very different way. In Luther's reformation breakthrough and prior to this, there is a developing distance between Luther and the Augustinian Neo-Platonic anthropology. The problem of sin ceases to be one of wrong desire and becomes one of wrong trust. Luther comes to define sin as trust in things that aren't God, chiefly, ourselves.

This has two effects on how Luther appropriates the bridal images. First, he doesn't think of Christ relationship to the soul of the believer as one of the union of desiring subjects. We don't have any qualities that would make God feel desire for us (this is the entire Roman Catholic concept of grace- grace makes God find us attractive and thereby desire us). Conversely, we are not the bride of Christ because by grace we have come have quasi-erotic desires for him as the highest object of longing. Rather, Luther uses the image to describe the mutual of exchange of goods between us and Christ (sin and death for life and righteousness). It also describes the self-giving and trustworthiness of Christ. Christ surrenders himself to the believing soul just as the husband surrenders his person to the wife.

The second effect is that desire for earthly things is now ok. In Freedom of a Christian, this expresses itself in the second half with the emphasis on vocation in the created realm. In other words, sin is not loving earthly things, but trusting in an ultimate sense in earthly things. Wanting and desiring earthly things- the stuff of every day life- is ok. In fact, not delighting in them or enjoying them is a sin against God the creator. This rhetoric runs all through the Large Catechism's description of the first article.

On a side note, it's interesting to see how the more things change the more they stay the same. American Evangelicals have definitely picked up on the pre-reformation tradition of sexualizing God in a big way. They constantly write books title things like "desiring God." In fact the whole contemporary worship movement is based on trying to eroticize God. Specifically they do this by playing soft-rock sounding music which reminds people of their romantic encounters down through the years. Playing that music in church gives people a erotic association with church and thereby psychologically manipulates them into attending. Again, also, the whole emphasis is about enjoyment and person potential to become enjoyable to God. Hence, the Joel Osteen "be a better you" books.

Friday, February 4, 2011

That New James Burkee Book.

It seems like everyone in the Lutheran blogsphere is reading that James Burkee book about the great Lutheran civil war. Has anyone read it? Reviews?

I was over at Lutheran Forum again and Robert Benne was commenting on how his side conducted itself in the ELCA civil war compared to the LCMS conservatives back in the 60s and 70s. He was lamenting how nasty everything got in Missouri. I would agree that much of what went on then was highly regretable- most notably the association between many of the conservatives and Herman Otten (whom I consider to be utterly reptilian!).

Nevertheless, on the other hand, not playing for keeps didn't really work for Benne and his group- i.e. they lost. In ecclesiastical warfare, the number one rule is that you must realize that you are playing a zero sum game. There is no peaceful co-existence. Either one side will win and determine everything or the other. Benne's group wanted too little and didn't fight hard enough. They just wanted to status quo. They didn't get that they and the other side could never peacefully co-exist. That was pure illusion.