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Posts Tagged ‘holy spirit’

William Blake's Job

William Blake’s Job

As the oft-repeated verse goes, “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service” (Romans 12:1). So also the oft-repeated accompanying comment: Worship is holistic. Singing in church has little value if it something less than an expression of the individual and church’s wider commitment to God. When the whole life is directed towards him, even the mundaneness of taking a shower is taken into this position of worship. Nothing is excluded from this living sacrifice, except sin, that which is opposed to God and his plan of redemption. This is not to say that sin prevents it, however. As the Spirit worked in Jesus so the Spirit works in us. We can offer our lives as worship while we await for sin and death to be finally overcome.

What place does doubt play in this very short sketch of the Christian life? Is it sin that will be done away with when the world is brought into new creation? Or is it, somehow, an expression of the life directed towards God? A surface reading of the New Testament suggests the former:

But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask. Whoever asks shouldn’t hesitate. They should ask in faith, without doubting. Whoever doubts is like the surf of the sea, tossed and turned by the wind. People like that should never imagine that they will receive anything from the Lord. They are double-minded, unstable in all their ways.

(James 1:5-8).

Doubt could be understood as hesitating to approach God and ask him for something or, having asked God, hesitating to believe that the prayer will be answered. For James, doubt in this sense would probably not be a form of worship! This makes sense when seen in the context of new creation: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Why would the Spirit bring us to doubt if we will one day be free from all doubt?

However, the question becomes more complicated when understood in the context of the wider biblical picture. At the end of 12 chapters in Ecclesiastes surveying the absurdities and evils of life the Teacher can conclude, “Perfectly pointless… everything is pointless” (12:8). Add to that the second voice in the postscript. Not only, “Worship God and keep God’s commandments because this is what everyone must do” (v.13) but, surprisingly, “The Teacher searched for pleasing words, and he wrote truthful words honestly” (v.10). Apparently the Teacher who decried the absurdities and evils was not misguided! The narrator who opens and closes Ecclesiastes reassures us that Teacher’s doubts are not only compatible with the life of worship but actually worth reflecting on.

This is true also of the Psalms:

But now you’ve rejected and humiliated us.
You no longer accompany our armies.
You make us retreat from the enemy;
our adversaries plunder us.
You’ve handed us over like sheep for butchering;
you’ve scattered us among the nations.
You’ve sold your people for nothing,
not even bothering to set a decent price.

(Psalm 44:9-12).

This is not the one-off, sinful musings of a person who has set their self against God. It is holy writ, taken up by the people of God and sanctified as the language of prayer and worship. Would you kiss your mother with that mouth, let alone your God?

An interesting case is Job, whom, as the story goes, God allows Satan to afflict by killing off his children and livestock, and striking him with sores all over his body. Job’s initial responses to the horror include praising God despite the situation — “The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name” (1:21) — and even defending God — “Will we receive good from God but not also receive bad?” (2:10). However, in the main body of text we encounter a seemingly different Job: “Does it seem good to you that you oppress me, that you reject the work of your hands and cause the purpose of sinners to shine?” (10:3). God does not just seem distant but positively evil: “You know that I’m not guilty, yet no one delivers me from your power” (10:7). Which of these set of statements is spoken in faith or worship? It is hard to imagine any liturgical context where such language is directed in faith to God above, that is, whatever faith in that context would mean! It should also be remembered that, after much dialogue with the friends who apparently came to comfort him, Job is answered by God himself with the longest uninterrupted divine speech in the Bible. At the conclusion of this speech Job affirms again his faith in God’s power. He is declared righteous in contrast to his friends who “didn’t speak correctly, as my servant Job” (42:8).

In what sense can these examples be considered doubt? Maybe not in James’ sense. At least in the case of the Psalms and Job, such utterances are directed towards God rather than in a place apart from him. They arise from the mouths of those who have faith because, despite the content of their complaints, they do not direct it at a subject other than God. They are not uttered “behind his back,” so to speak. And it may be too simplistic to consider them as wavering. There is an urgency in the examples given which seeks answers from heaven. The supplicants are persistent in seeking God to respond to their situations. Thus by doubt I mean that which arises from either having seen God at work in history or more generally from an expectation that God’s being means that life should prevail over death and yet does not see this at work at present: Biblical doubt concerns the cries directed towards the One who could and should be present but is yet absent.

Marcus Reichert's Crucifixion VII

Marcus Reichert’s Crucifixion VII

This brings us to a New Testament example. Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ last words on the cross as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken/abandoned me?” (Mark 15:33). By abandonment here I do not see some split in the Trinity (which is probably impossible and with which the world and God would cease to exist), but the simple continuation of the Old Testament tradition of the suffering righteous, as Psalm 22, the psalm Jesus quotes here, shows. Jesus has been abandoned by his Father insofar as his Father did not deliver him from those who crucified him. His abandonment is in the unanswered prayers offered in Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want” (Mark 14:36). It is Jesus’ abandonment which brings this form of doubt into the Christian life of worship.

This also allows for doubt to be seen in the context of new creation. Both the passion narrative and Psalm 22 point to Jesus’ deliverance: “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here” (Mark 16:6). God did not leave his servant to die but “he didn’t despise or detest the suffering of the one who suffered—he didn’t hide his face from me. No, he listened when I cried out to him for help” (Psalm 22:24). Doubt will be done away with. Yet, as long as creation remains the world of sin and death, doubt remains an important part of the Christian life. The end of Jesus and the psalmist’s story does not mean that there was never a middle. We are in the middle, the redemption of which will one day be brought to completion, and as such we cannot be detached from this middle but stand with it and share in its fears, worries, and doubts. In the same chapter we find the call to holistic worship we also find: “Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying” (Romans 12:15). We need to creatively incorporate doubt and protest into our personal and communal worship.

I end with three of my own doubts that I direct towards the only One who could possibly one day answer them:

  • How can I celebrate the victories and glimpses of redemption that you bring in my life and the lives of others when so many people are left seemingly untouched by grace and love?
  • I can see how you can redeem Jesus’ suffering, who took the cross upon himself willingly and was rewarded with resurrection life. But how can you redeem those who suffer unwillingly?
  • Through the work of the Spirit in the present it is possible to begin to imagine a world without sin and death. In this sense I can see the future of the world being redeemed. But how can this redemption touch every ugly and unspeakable corner of history? You can offer us a better future but how can you offer those who have suffered a better past?
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I’m currently researching for a chapter in my thesis on Moltmann’s innovative trinitarian understanding of divine passibility (God, as Trinity, suffers). Kevin Vanhoozer is a contemporary impassibilist whose book Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (2010) presents a meaty restatement of the classical theist (and, according to Vanhoozer, necessarily biblical) position on divine impassibility. One of the strengths of the book is Vanhoozer’s attention to words and definitions. He makes sure he defines his terms before using them (here, impassibility and emotion), which is too often left undone in other studies on the subject.

However, I just read Vanhoozer’s discussion of contemporary theory of emotion. He identifies two main theories. The first attributes emotion to bodily functions (“Non-cognitive (physicalist) theories”) and the second to the mind (“Cognitive (mentalist) theories”). Now, my lack of familiarity with the subject here may lead to some embarrassment on my part, but I just don’t get Vanhoozer’s rejection of the first:

“The physicalist view of emotions is not without significant problems, even apart from the issue of God’s corporeality [which camostar will not be addressing either]. First, such theories fail to acknowledge the importance of the influence of one’s beliefs on one’s emotions. It is not simply my seeing a snake that causes me to fear it but my belief that it is poisonous. Second, it is impossible to distinguish between emotions on the basis of physical sensations alone: fear, anger, and love alike may manifest the same physiological symptoms (i.e., rapid breathing). It follows that physical sensations are not themselves what we feel as emotions. Third, it is difficult to appeal to emotions as motives that explain a person’s behaviour if emotions are only bodily sensations. I do not shout at my neighbor because my heart is beating fast but because I am angry about what he did. Finally, while we regularly ascribe moral worth to certain emotions, it is difficult to hold persons praiseworthy or blameworthy for their sweaty armpits” (406-407).

Again, don’t treat me as an authority here, but I don’t see how these can be objections to a physicalist understanding of emotions:

  1. Why does Vanhoozer imply beliefs are non-physical? Obviously they arise in accordance with the environments that individuals develop within but this does not rule out the physicality of either those environments or the “cognitive” constructions that the individual develops. (By environment here neither do I make a distinction between nature and nurture. The environment is the individual and the individual is the environment. The distinction is nominal). Surely whatever beliefs are made up of that we identify as “cognitive,” for example memories, are a result of physical (at least if I’m reading this not as a Christian)* responses to the environment.
  2. Similarly, just because physical sensations are “smaller,” that is, occurring in the “mind” rather than the “body” like rapid breathing, the example Vanhoozer uses, they should not therefore be excluded from being physical sensations. Yes there is overlap between different emotions but to say that we can’t distinguish them physically is (a) to claim that the differences between them are unaccountable for physically, as if in the brain, too, the exact same thing is going on in both love and anger; and (b) comes close to the assumption that emotions are set categories anyway, whereas they developed pre/historically as organisms responded to their environments and, the same thing but accounted for in more recent terms, as human societies developed different socio-cultural contexts in which to be emotional. What if some emotions that used to be distinct are now “physiologically indistinguishable” and vice versa?
  3. Based on these first two objections to objections it should be clear now that shouting at a neighbour in anger can be accounted for in physicalist terms. It is a physical response as much as the heart beating is.
  4. Vanhoozer here shifts the argument. But just because we have socialised predispositions towards particular emotions, we cannot therefore make a theory of emotion conform to our ethics systems.

It looks like I’ve come down rather hard on Vanhoozer. That’s why I’ve titled this post as a question. The objections I have raised seem patent to me but I feel like I’m missing something of the complexity of the argument because of my unfamiliarity with the literature. It has otherwise been a very illuminating read so far!

*While not addressing questions of divine and human agency, my developing “Christian” understanding of physicalism accepts the classical theist “infinite qualitative distinction” (Kierkegaard) between God and the world. Through creation, God gives life to everyone and everything by the Holy Spirit, who in a very limited sense indwells them and guides them. In new creation, believers receive the Holy Spirit “properly,” in the same way Jesus received the Spirit, but for us as a deposit ahead of the resurrection. Included in Jesus’ divine sonship, we can live a life apart from the “physical,” though, in biblical terms, the world of sin and death, and instead live a life towards the new creation that God has brought in Jesus and will bring in Jesus.

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So my grades have been finalised which means I can put this online. For anyone interested it’s a postgraduate dissertation on Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Trinity in CD I/1, §§8-12. The first part is just exposition of these sections and then there are three chapters interacting with secondary literature that look at the relationship between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity, divine personhood and modalist accusations made against Barth, and pneumatology.

Download here.

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TRIGGER WARNING: Suicide themes

Ecclesiastes is my second favourite book of the Old Testament, after Job. I read it something like this: (a) Existence is cyclical and meaningless; (b and throughout) but we can kind of ignore it if we live in moderation and appreciate the simple things; (c) we can handle cyclicity and meaninglessness to an extent but a lot of life exceeds this cyclicity and positively sucks; (d) after all this, there is a lot we do not know so let’s do our best to live in accordance with the one who gave it to us.

You can find nice in Ecclesiastes, especially if you read it in one sitting, as I did before writing this. But there’s also a lot of unnice. So it would be a bit irresponsible to airbrush over these unnicities for the the sake of harmonising with brighter parts of the biblical picture. The doubts Ecclesiastes so willingly endorses are not to be overcome but allowed, like Jesus, to join and suffer with us.

Existence is cyclical and meaningless

Ecclesiastes scores low on eschatology. If there is a sense of judgement (12:14), this is not the Last Judgement where God sets the world to right,¹ but an immanent judgement where God deals justice in the here and now, though this is also problematised throughout (e.g. 7:15; 8:14; 9:1-2, 11)! Contrariwise, time is not heading to a roaring end but it calmly repeats itself:

A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow…

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.

(1:4-7, 9).

This theme dominates the first three and a half chapters. As in nature there is nothing new, so also human pursuits suffer from a lack of newness. Thus the Teacher, whom the writer implies is King Solomon (1:1), is presented as one who enjoys all the pleasures and achievements of the world yet is still dissatisfied (2:1-11). The famous poem in 3:1-8, “For everything there is a season…,” suggests that all worldly possibilities, for good or for bad (cf. 7:14), have their season and contribute to the totality which is existence. A later reflection situates the same principle of cyclicity in the individual: In the same way someone enters the world naked (i.e. with nothing), so they leave it (5:15).

Comprehending and transcending the totality

Not everyone experiences existence as meaningless, and I doubt that anyone who does experience it as meaningless would do so consistently. I understand the Teacher’s experience of meaninglessness to be related to cyclicity and totality as mentioned above. Firstly, existence is meaningless because instead of heading towards a telos, a goal, it reproduces itself in a cycle. Secondly, this reproduction is a result of its having limited possibilities. The Teacher experiences existence as a bounded totality outside of which there is nothing. Inside the totality there only has been, is, and will be what is already there. There is nothing new. Those who experience existence as meaningful are those who remain within in it. Conversely, through reflection the Teacher transcends the totality, no longer viewing it as something of which he is a part but stepping out of it and viewing it from the outside. And outside of being their is nothingness. In fact, through reflection he is straddled between the something of which he remains a part and the nothing beyond the totality which he comprehends. This reflection is an inevitable consequence of wisdom:

I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.

For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.

(1:16-18).

This I understand to be the logic behind the continual appeals to everyday distraction:  “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:24-25; and many similar conclusions throughout!). Outside existence is nothingness; let us then be distracted with an excess of somethingness! This is also the logic of the song posted above, Waitin’ Around to Die. We know death and nothingness are at the door, but for fear of boredom or despair let us grasp at and be distracted by this present moment.

The beyond within the totality

Whereas both the Teacher and the singer see the nothingness and run from it to distraction because at least something is preferable to nothing, others see the nothing and prefer it to their unbearable something. This is definitely the case with Job. Rather than being threatened by the same, the cyclicity, the totality, he is threatened by the different, the new, the particular. The new of perverse suffering ruptures his otherwise contented life. He desires that he was never born. He seeks to retroactively annul the day of his birth because its somethingness disrupts the peace of nothingness:

Let the day perish in which I was born,
and the night that said,
‘A man-child is conceived.’
Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
or light shine on it.
Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
Let clouds settle upon it;
let the blackness of the day terrify it.
That night—let thick darkness seize it!
let it not rejoice among the days of the year;
let it not come into the number of the months.
Yes, let that night be barren;
let no joyful cry be heard in it.
Let those curse it who curse the Sea,
those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan.
Let the stars of its dawn be dark;
let it hope for light, but have none;
may it not see the eyelids of the morning—
because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb,
and hide trouble from my eyes.

(Job 3:3-10, though see whole chapter).²

On seeing the oppressed living, the Teacher echoes Job’s desires (4:1-3). Yet elsewhere he claims that life is to be preferred to death (6:3-5; 9:4-6). Those who desire to remain living either have not experienced great suffering or prefer the something over the nothing, perhaps just a result of blissful ignorance: “They will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joys of their hearts” (5:20).

The new of suffering arises within the totality yet the individual experiences it outside of the totality. This is because the suffering is so excessive that the individual cannot arrive at it by way of all the possibilities within the totality. Great suffering is something new, that which subverts the totality from the inside and in so doing transcends it. Though I have little to say about it, love may also arise within existence as a newness, but with the opposite effect. Instead of directing the individual to nothingness, their whole existence is overwhelmed with colour, so much so that all mundanities, hitherto the exhausted possibilities of the totality, also take on a new existence, open toward the future for whatever good will come. The individual can now faithfully say that something is better than nothing.³

The beyond within and beyond the totality

Though the transcendent may arise within the totality, there is yet an even greater transcendence both within and beyond the totality. The Teacher notes God’s relation to the totality: “I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him” (3:15). Existence is complete and subject to God. Beyond it there is not nothingness but the God who birthed it, leading to worship. He later revisits the same distinction of creation and Creator: “Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few” (5:2). If we attempt to include God in our system, our comprehension of the totality, he disappears. It is not God we include. God is not subject to anything outside of God. Finally, with reference to God, the whole idea of a totality breaks down because there is no totality which can include God; rather, God includes the totality. Beyond the totality is not something comprehensible but mystery:

When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.

(8:16-17).

Perhaps, too, the Teacher would have understood life differently if he studied eschatology. Though now it appears that existence reproduces itself, through the coming of Jesus and the Spirit the infinite has entered into the finite. No longer is the finite many-things possible but only the immeasurable all-things. And these are good things. “[T]he blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:5). Ahead of the resurrection of all people, Jesus has been raised and the Kingdom is here. God is at work through the Spirit to reconcile the world to him. The cyclicity of history has been punctured thus with something itself could not produce and now it heads to its fulfillment when all things will be made new.

These are no doubt beautiful events which I am routinely reinspired by. To what extent does the beyond and mystery of God add meaning where there is none? If we are exposed to this excess of meaning can we still experience meaninglessness? Will there be occasion for experiencing meaninglessness in the new heavens and new earth? So the Teacher persists in his questions. This book is in our canon. Take and read!

* * *

¹This is evident in the lack of eschatological reflection on death (e.g. 3:19-21; 9:1-2). However, if the voice in 12:14 is different from the Teacher introduced in 1:1 (see 12:8-9) then it may refer to the Last Judgement. Regardless, a sense of eschatological judgement would still be missing from the words of the Teacher (1:1-12:8).

²Obviously because Job was a righteous man his prayers were answered. He was born February 30.

³This is not to say that love is an easily attainable answer to life’s lack of meaning. Nor would love not be difficult when the individuals arrived at it. Rather, it is capable of providing bursts of meaning to the otherwise mundane.

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There’s no way I can even hope to cover at least some of these, though one might be possible. Nonetheless you might elect to indulge on my part! (They’re all theology related).

 

bonhoeffer-the-assassin

10. Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, Daniel P. Umbel, with foreword by Stanley Hauerwas (Baker Academic: October 1, 2013)This book re-examines the popular thesis that Bonhoeffer attempted to assassinate Hitler, reviewing this in light of his writings, as well as exploring his ethics on pacifism. Check out the detailed and informed review from Roger Olson. Remember to read the comments section and this response to the review from one of the authors.

 

evan theol

9. Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction by Michael Bird (Zondervan: October 30, 2013). Michael Bird is an Australian New Testament scholar who has spent his time among Baptists, Reformed, Presbyterians, and Anglicans: “I would describe myself as an ex-Baptist postPresbyterian Anglican.” Because he’s writing from Australia, he doesn’t need to be too careful about what he says either! Some reviewers on Amazon are not too sure about his biblical studies background and think that more experience with systematic theology would do Bird well. I’m often of the opinion that more experience in biblical studies would do systematic theologians well! He’s also a bit hilarious. One reviewer cites his comments on penal substitution: “I do not wish to disparage Jesus’ death as an atoning, vicarious, substitutionary, and penal sacrifice for sin. May I be anathematized — or even worse, may I be tied to a chair, have my eyelids taped open, and be forced to watch Rob Bell Nooma clips — should I ever downplay the cruciality of Jesus’ sacrifice for sinners” (he goes on to qualify this; it’s just too long to include). Laidlaw, the Bible College I went to this year, is probably going to be adopting this 912 page introduction as the textbook for all theology courses from now on. It would be handy to have around as a reference!

 

end-of-apologetics

8. The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context by Myron Penner (Baker Academic: June 15, 2013). Not that I’ve looked into the basis for apologetics, but taking a leaf out of Kierkegaard’s book I suppose I’ve been quite ambivalent to it. It would be interesting to see how Penner attempts to reappropriate this sometimes controversial Christian inheritance.

 

journey

7. The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction by Roger Olson (IVP Academic: October 31, 2013). Olson, an establised and learned teacher of modern theology, traces the major developments over the last 300 (?) years, looking at the epistemological soup from which it emerged, Scleiermacher and liberalism, American evangelicalism, all those amazing 20th century Germans, and postmodern and postliberal theologies, plus more. At 720 pages, this probably more for reference than light reading, though the latter will most probably do you a lot of good!

 

inerrancy

6. Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy edited by J. Merrick, Stephen M. Garrett, and Stanley N. Gundry, with contributions from R. Albert Mohler Jr. (classical inerrancy), Peter Enns (historical-critical), Michael Bird (??), Kevin Vanhoozer (Augustinian inerrancy/something to do with theological interpretation of Scripture?), and John R. Franke (??) (Zondervan: December 10, 2013). Dear reader, during the course of writing this I bought this book on Kindle and somehow did not realise I would not have it for another couple of weeks! Anyway, Peter Enns is my homeboy. When I became a Christian I underwent a significant amount of confusion as to the role of Scripture in faith. It’s important to be aware of the different approaches out there and the strengths and weaknesses of each. Here’s a short introduction:

 

spirit power

5. Spirit and Power: The Growth and Global Impact of Pentecostalism edited by Donald E. Miller, Kimon H. Sargeant, and Richard Flory  (Oxford University Press: July 24, 2013). A collection of essays on global pentecostalism, including why it’s growing, pentecostalism and politics, gender, and an appendix with figures. How can you not be excited!? I’m not 100% but pretty sure it’s not the Blue Like Jazz guy.

 

twible

4. The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters or Less . . . Now with 68% More Humor! by Jana Riess (self-published (?): October 26, 2013). What a project! Apparently it’s both funny and does not shy away from the controversy which the Bible itself presents. Psalm 17: “Shortest Ps. ALL nations have to praise G b/c of what he did for Israel. We’re talking to you, Egypt & Syria. PTL, already.” 2 Chronicles book introduction: “Like 2 Kings, but with northern kings and history removed. This is SOUTHERN history, y’all.” Genesis 9: “They’ve de-arked. G sends a rainbow to promise he’ll never again murder us by flood. Keeps earthquakes, tsunamis & hurricans in reserve.”

 

hs

3. The Holy Spirit: In Biblical Teaching, through the Centuries, and Today by Anthony Thiselton (Eerdmans: June 1, 2013). Thiselton has written extensively on hermeneutics, as well as penning a large and impressive Greek commentary on 1 Corinthians. He is in (mostly suspicious) dialogue with postmodernism and explores Christian responses to this. He’s in his seventies and still going strong! Again, this is another sort of reference book (579 pages), briefly laying out biblical understandings of the Holy Spirit and then tracing these through history to contemporary approaches in theology.

 

Jesus-Feminist-Cover-copy

2. Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey, with foreword from Rachel Held Evans (Howard Books: November 5, 2013). Gender is one of the most important issues that evangelicalism needs to grapple with at the moment! Jesus and Paul, among other voices in the Bible, have been variously praised and criticised/critiqued for their approaches to gender. Sarah Bessey sees that there is at least some positive potential there. It will be interesting to see where she takes it!

 

paul-and-the-faithfulness-of-god

1. Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N. T. Wright (Fortress: October 17, 2013). What else did you expect? N. T. Wright is possibly the most prolific contemporary Pauline scholar. At 1700 pages (1519 of reading material), this is a force to be reckoned with. Love him or dislike him, this is required reading for anyone who wants to seriously engage with the New Testament.

 

elements

Bonus: The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth (Icon Books: No date… but quite recent!). I’m not all theology nerd! Forsyth is an etymologist, that is someone who looks at how words came about. In his new book he introduces his readers to the ancient discipline of rhetoric, that is, how to speak well.

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heinrich_fuseli_nightmare

Philippians has for a long time been one of my favourite books in the Bible. I’m not sure if I can justify that. Maybe it’s just because of the overall encouraging message set against the backdrop of persecution and eschatological anticipation. I jumped at the chance then to do my assignment on it for biblical interpretation — that and the fact that it was the shortest out of the books we had to choose from. Reading Philippians this morning was a good time to reflect on one of the book’s most influential verses for my own faith and what that looks like in terms of the whole:

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

(2:12-13)¹

Coming to this as a serious new Christian in a Pentecostal context there was only one way to interpret the passage: After Paul has given the model for faith and overseen young Christians as they come to terms with how to live that faith, they must then be weaned off their dependence on him and depend solely on God’s Spirit at work within them, existentially working out the faithful life in their individual relationship with God. This interpretation was no doubt consolidated by my enthusiasm for Kierkegaard and his use of “fear and trembling” for the title of his most famous work, one dealing with how the individual through relationship to God is an exception to the ethical context they find themselves in.

But there are some problems with this approach, especially considering the weight of importance Paul puts on the Christian community in writing to the Philippians. In reading the letter as a whole this sense of the individual working out their salvation in distinction to those who forsake the inner call of the Spirit is not as forthcoming as this reading of 2:12-13 would suggest. Au contraire, the sense is of the faith community at Philippi as a whole working in relationship with God.

2:12-13, starting with the “Therefore”, actually conclude the previous section where Paul sets out life in community demonstrated in the example of Jesus’ incarnation:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

(2:1-5)

As in v.13, God working within is the point from where the community works out their salvation, so at the beginning of this passage “encouragement in Christ” and “sharing in the Spirit” are the points from where the community learns to love each other in godly love. When Paul lays out the model of Jesus’ incarnation (vv.5-11) he only demonstrates in greater detail the point with which he has already begun. Therefore, a few verses later when Paul compares Timothy with selfish people, “All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (v.21), the interests of Jesus here referred to are actually those concering the welfare of the community at Philippi: “I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare” (v.20). The point is that a primary concern of the Spirit working among the Philippians is not to justify them each as individuals in their relationships with God but to live and love together as community.²

Ok, so Paul in Philippians definitely shows the importance of right living in community but isn’t the community just a collection of individuals whose communal love stems from each of their individual relationships with God? The love does not exist in the community itself but in the collective of individuals who existentially come to terms with the importance of expressing that love. But I don’t see much of a problem in saying that the community itself is something more than a collection of individuals. There is something that cannot be accounted for in community by simply tallying the individual spiritual values of all contained within it. What if the category of the individual for Paul is something completely different to the category we employ today?

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

(1:27)³

Here it is interesting that Paul uses the same context to make his point: Whether he is present or absent should not affect the faithful state of the Philippian community. But in comparison with 2:12-13 there is no possibility of misreading it as the individual’s relationship to God when external support is withdrawn. In this case the external support (Paul) may be with the Philippians or not but the Spirit will lead them as a community into unity with “one mind”: “Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you” (3:15). There will be differences among individuals within the community but these are not so much differences between some individuals and other individuals. They are differences between these individuals within the community and the mind of the community as essentially beyond a collection of individuals. The mature within the community mediate the one mind in spirit and together as a community, and the exceptions who are earnest in their commitment to the community will receive help from the Spirit to become fully a part of that community’s revelation.

The community as defined by the Spirit precedes the individuals within it, having a being both distinct from yet dependent on the individuals within it. This has been an attempt to explore that relationship, with more emphasis on the collective which individualistic Christianity, though sincere and a productive ground for people who would otherwise be caught up in the institutions of the status quo, largely ignores. I welcome any alternative readings of the passages and further discussion on the issue.

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¹All scripture quotations taken from NRSV

²Cf. Jesus’ focus on being reconciled to others before reconciliation with God: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24). Perhaps more difficult are his words on not being forgiven unless we forgive others (Mt 6:15).

³Little “spirit” here can also be read as “Spirit”. The Greek does not distinguish between the two. Also, it is unhealthy to say that Paul meant one or the other because saying this dismisses the possibility that Paul could be talking about both with a particular emphasis on one. Also notable is the use of the plural “you” in the Greek here and throughout Philippians.

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To fight aloud, is very brave—
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe—

Who win, and nations do not see—
Who fall—and none observe—
Whose dying eyes, no Country
Regards with patriot love—

We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go—
Rank after Rank, with even feet—
And Uniforms of Snow.

— Emily Dickinson

* * *

“Abraham cannot be mediated, and the same thing can be expressed also by saying that he cannot talk. So soon as I talk I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me.” — Kierkegaard, Fear and trembling

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Recently when I was reading Galatians I was struck with the unintelligibility of Paul’s call. Check out the words from the man himself:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! […] Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

(1:8, 10¹)

A running theme throughout Galatians is God’s plan and initiative above human tradition. Thus Paul can say right from the get-go in verse one that he is “sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father”. He can say later that in light of his divine call the leaders in Jerusalem “contributed nothing to [him]” (2:6). And this also gives meaning to the later distinction between Spirit and flesh (eg. 3:3, 4:23, 5:16…).

You’ll understand when you’re older, mum.

Paul’s statement on who he’s trying to please needs to be held up to closer scrutiny. How can he make his essentially unintelligible call intelligible to others? Or why is his call unintelligible in the first place? This is Kierkegaard’s existential insight in Fear and Trembling: Abraham is called by the Lord to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In his very old age his wife, Sarah, (who, too, is a fossil) manages to bear a son, no doubt a blessing from God. How can Abraham make it intelligible to others that the Lord is asking him to give up his only descendent² and forfeit his name? Mary is visited by an angel and told she will bear the Messiah. “Hey guys, I’m pregnant, but don’t worry I haven’t been sleeping around, it’s just that God in human form is in my womb”³. Kierkegaard says of Mary that the “one whom God blesses he curses in the same breath”. I came across another example in church last Sunday when the speaker spoke of Joseph’s story in Genesis: Joseph was shown in a dream that he would rule over his brothers, so he thought it would be a good idea to tell them, partly contributing to his almost being killed and sent into slavery by them (Genesis 37). Calling, whether or not it can be made intelligible to the called, is immediately unintelligible to those around him or her.

Paul’s call is after his conversion, in Kierkegaardian terms, no longer a duty to God through the universal, which would entail all the practices he was obligated to under Judaism, but a duty to God through the particular, that which God calls the individual to. As soon as Paul attempts to justify his call to other people, it loses its particularity between God and himself and enters the universal. No doubt Paul does attempt to justify something to his readers, because he is involved in matters that concern a whole lot more people than merely God and himself. Paul needs to justify to the Galatians that they need not be concerned with circumcision and abiding by the law.

Yet Paul also attempts to justify his calling, but on what terms? He must make his appeal through the universal not to the particular, because that exists only in itself, between God and Paul. Any attempt to even describe it undermines it by electing a universal criteria with which to describe it, like language, or by saying there is some commonality between God’s call to Paul and God’s call to another (though that we can even say there is particularity shows that there is a universality to particularity). Paul must then make his appeal through the universality of language to, in this case, the universality of divine retribution4. He can therefore bind himself to an oath (1:8) and speak not just before his human audience, but before God (1:20) to assert his honesty regarding his call. Other than the possibility that Paul is speaking truthfully on pain of damnation, three other possibilities arrive. (a) Paul is blissfully deceived; (b) he is speaking deceitfully before both man and God; or (c) he  is appealing not to a commonality that he shares with his readers but to one only they share among themselves, in the same way that someone can walk under a ladder or open an umbrella inside as an act of self-sacrifice for their unwilling, superstitious friends.

This is a witch. If I’m lying then the witch is going to kill me in my sleep. You’ll just have to take my word and the cat’s face for it.

These possibilities show the ultimately inaccessible particularity of Paul’s call to the Gospel. On one level it is universal and can be made known to other people, but on another level, that of the possibilities above, Paul cannot make himself intelligible to his audience when speaking of matters between himself and God, namely that he is telling the truth. Why then is the Epistle to the Galatians still available to use today? Why didn’t it get burnt by Gentiles zealous for the law? How is it possible that Paul is seen as speaking truth albeit being ultimately impenetrable? It is not only that Paul takes his theology from scripture, appealing to the universal throughout the letter, but that the early church depended on the universality of particularity: The Holy Spirit.

This is an absurdity not just of Christianity, not just of religion, but of all belief systems: Everything rational is ultimately taken in faith. All objectivity is subjectivity in disguise. All truth is untruth. Christianity takes as its chosen untruth, the Holy Spirit. This is the absurdity of Paul’s call: “The gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12). The writer of Acts renders Paul’s conversion experience in a certain way (Acts 9), but, as a rule, primary literature should first be taken into consideration. Paul claims that he has seen Jesus and later compares this to other post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (1Corinthians 9:1, 15:3-8), and his description of being caught up into Paradise possibly adds to this account (2Corinthians 12:1-4). What is absurd about Paul’s experience on which he bases his life purposes? What is absurd is that he privileges a particular finite means for access to the call of God. Some people may continually read the collected wisdom of thinkers ancient and modern to ascertain the meaning of life, some may view life as statistics and numbers and embrace the idiosyncratic nooks and crannies of nihilism, another may find their complete meaning in being in the presence of certain person. For Paul it is the experience of revelation which sits at the base of his call5.

It’s interesting to note that Paul’s call compels him to three years serving the Lord in Arabia, Damascus, and possibly other unmentioned places, before spending some time with Peter in Jerusalem and after another eleven or fourteen years on the mission field (the text is unclear) Paul returns to Jerusalem, surprise surprise, in response to another revelation (Galatians 1:15-2:2). Paul leaves it this long after his conversion to consult the leadership in Jerusalem, “in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain” (v.2). There’s a little bit of classic irony there, and I wonder if Paul himself saw the humour in his actions. Yet that Paul did this in response to a revelation will not be easily dismissed: revelation was still primary, though now it required supplement to be fully justified. His approval from leaders in Jerusalem was not something that revelation could be swayed by; his approval was commissioned through revelation. Notably, the individual nature of Paul’s call has not changed. What is the outcome of Paul’s Christian individualism? It is responded to and approved (2:7-9) by those who also, to some extent, work in the same medium of call as Paul does, and then supplemented by an appeal to a universal ethic, remembering the poor (v.10).

This is the universality of particularity. When both parties are responding to the call of the Holy Spirit then this call is common to both parties; it is universal. Thus Paul can say of those in Jerusalem “they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised” (2:7) because the leaders recognised that where God had been at work in their own lives and the lives of those around them, he had also been at work in the hearts of those who formerly actively opposed the Gospel (1:23-24). The only way that the conversion of their enemy was intelligible to them was through the work of God in their own lives. And this is the subjectivity, whether it be revelation in whichever of its infinite forms, which ensures Galatians in our modern biblical canon: The Holy Spirit was not just at work in Paul but in the hearts of his readers.

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¹All bible quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from the NRSV and the Book of Galatians

²Ishmael, born to Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid, realistically doesn’t hold as much value in this position, considering ancient Near East perceptions of family, etc.

³Noting, however, that an angel appears to Joseph to clear things up (Matthew 1:20) and John the Baptist’s mother was aware of it according to Luke too (1:43). In light of the other examples, allow a little room for Mary’s story to be read as Kierkegaard reads it, for the sake of the argument. Even so, he may have understood Mary’s original call to bear the Messiah, before elucidation to others, as strictly between her and God, and this is what he is focussing on in the example.

4 I use universality quite loosely here to refer to any commonality among a group of individuals, and I realise that this is the proper use, as true Kantian/Hegelian (?) universality which Kierkegaard uses as a reference point is undermined by Kierkegaard himself and Nietzsche onwards: There is no universal morality, code, ethics, etc. This universality that people refer to is a fantasy and only exists to some extent (though in absolute terms to none at all) within different groups of people. Thus language expresses the universal as much as ideas are universally accessible through it, but it is an approximation of the universal as much as the individual’s subjective perceptions of language allow for infinite nuances in interpretation.

5 The other sources of call given may disregard revelation by, for example, openly rebelling against God in light of the revelation, attempting to the revelation, dismissing revelation as human fantasy, etc.

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