Category: Incarnation and Embodiment

Eucharistic controversy

May 19th, 2010 — 11:03am

Here is E. Brooks Holifield, commenting on the eucharistic controversy between Charles Hodge and John Williamson Nevin in the mid-nineteenth century:

“The controversy illuminated two distinguishable tendencies in nineteenth century American Reformed theology. While remaining with the Reformed tradition, Nevin demonstrated a willingness to accept categories of continuity that at times approximated the Roman Catholic tradition: continuity between creation and redemption, between the divine and human natures of Christ, between the first Adam and the second, and between the visible Church with its efficacious means of grace and the ideal communion of true saints. Charles Hodge, on the other hand, carried almost to its logical terminus another pattern present within the Reformed tradition: the impulse to accent discontinuity, in various ways, as the prevailing theological category. In the course of their polemics, therefore, Hodge and Nevin not only delineated the contours of two divergent Reformed eucharistic doctrines, but they also displayed two conflicting modes of theological reflection and produced the indices for identifying a spectrum of sacramental positions.” (E. Brooks Holifield, “Mercersburg, Princeton, and the South: The Sacramental Controversy in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Presbyterian History 54 [1976], pp. 238–257)

Professor Holifield goes on to explore how, for these nineteenth century disputants, the question of the relationship between sacramental elements and sacramental grace was closely tied to the question (so fiercely debated in the fourth and fifth centuries) of the union of Christ’s divine and human natures, to the issue of the soteriological significance (if any) of Christ’s Incarnation, and to questions regarding a proper definition of the church. Variances in sacramental theology, both Hodge and Nevin understood, are intimately related to variances in Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology.

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Biblical dualism

May 12th, 2010 — 9:56am

An undeniable biblical dualism exists between things seen and transient and things unseen and eternal (2 Cor 4:18). However, the fact that something is heavenly in its origin, and invisible and eternal in its nature, does not prevent it from “taking flesh” and becoming visible (if this were not so, the Incarnation could never have occurred). The gospel is the inbreaking of eternal things (specifically, the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; the heavenly glory revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, and unveiled in Christ) into the hearts of the children of men (2 Cor 4:6; cf. 3:3), with the result that they receive the Spirit as a guarantee of the life that will one day swallow up mortality (2 Cor 5:5) and are incorporated into a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). And the new creation always makes itself visible (it takes flesh, as it were) in holiness of body and spirit (2 Cor 7:1), in liberality of grace and good works (2 Cor 8:2; 9:6–11), and in warfare against “arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor 10:4–5).

The heavenly pattern revealed to Moses on Sinai took visible shape in an earthly tabernacle, and later in the temple. The same heavenly pattern has now been manifested in Christ and the church. Along similar lines, the kingdom of Christ originates in heaven (it is “not of this world”), and yet it takes definite visible shape in the world.

It is not wrong to speak of a “dualism” of heaven and earth, of eternal and temporal, provided we understand that heaven insists on coming to earth – it simply won’t stay put. Which is to say, we are not permitted to put asunder by our “dualism” what God insists on joining together.

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Adversus haereses

April 15th, 2010 — 9:41am

It has been said that gnosticism is the perennial heresy. Certainly it shows up in many forms. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our own “Reformed” version. For many Reformed folk, at least here in North America, salvation seems to begin and end with finding a gracious God (solving Luther’s problem). Dare suggest that salvation might be more than this (though surely not less), and they will warn you against blurring the law/gospel distinction.

The “gnostic” ring in this is that it confines salvation to mental discovery of, and affectionate engagement with, a particular thing to be known: God in Christ is gracious. This discovery and engagement are awesome; I wish to take nothing away from that. But if divine grace is merely something to be known and delighted in, as an internal matter, then the whole of salvation lies in such secret (internal) knowledge – and this, unless I am very much mistaken, is the central tenet of gnosticism.

Reading in the letter of James, I have been freshly impressed with how anti-gnostic the biblical gospel really is. Our salvation is not merited by what we do, but it blessedly includes our outer life (our works) as much as our inner life (our beliefs). Notice how James parses this out in the first chapter of his epistle. He sets before us “the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him” (v. 12). This is an object of faith; it is something promised; it is something to be known and believed. But there is a fair stretch of highway between here and there, and James tells us something else to sustain us in the daily battles of the present world: we may resist the deceptive allurements of sin (vv. 15–16) by reminding ourselves that the really good gifts are “from above,” from the Father of lights whose goodness and kindness toward us never change (v. 17). This ever-good, ever-giving God has – note the language – “brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creation” (v. 18). This is really important: part of what we are to know and believe, part of the objective truth upon which our faith stands, is that our Father has “brought us forth.” He isn’t simply gracious; He hasn’t simply given us His Son; He has also brought us forth into a new life, a new creation – we are to “know this” (v. 19).

But this “gospel gnosis,” unlike that of gnosticism, is, if I may so express it, just the beginning. It opens up to us a whole new world, in which we are expected to live. If we genuinely know and believe we are a kind of firstfruits of a whole new creation (flowing from the unchanging grace and goodness of the Father of lights), we don’t just sit around and think about it. We live it! We do something with it. We “receive with meekness the implanted word” (v. 21), in order to go out and do the word (v. 22). We visit orphans and widows (v. 27), for example, all the while keeping ourselves unspotted from the world.

Blurring law (do of the word) and gospel (receive the word)? Well, I don’t see James making a very hard and fast distinction here. For him, the busy life that flows from the implanted word is an enormously important part of what it means to be saved (notice I did not say, the basis upon which God decides to be gracious to us and save us). If we moved the busy life into a different position – if we placed it as the basis for divine grace – we would be blurring faith and works in a way neither Paul nor James would countenance. But there is surely some sense in which we must say, if we are to be faithful to either Paul or James, that the “law” here is “gospel”: the new life is part of what we know and believe by faith, and it is no small part of what it means to be saved. And this is as anti-gnostic as can be. Thanks be to God.

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Petition for the goods of life

March 29th, 2010 — 3:09pm

“Many earnest Christians are struck as they pray the Psalms by how often the petition for life and good fortune occurs. From a glance at the cross of Christ there comes to many the unhealthy thought that life and the visible, earthly blessings of God are in themselves at least a questionable good, and in any case a good not to be desired. They take, then, the corresponding prayers of the Psalter to be an incomplete first stage of Old Testament piety, which is overcome in the New Testament. But in doing so they want to be more spiritual than God himself.

“As the petition for daily bread includes the entire sphere of the necessities of physical life, so the petition for life, health, and visible evidences of the friendliness of God belong necessarily to the prayer which points to the God who is the creator and sustainer of this life. Bodily life is not disdainful [not to be disdained]. Precisely for its sake God has given us his fellowship in Jesus Christ, so that we can live by him in this life and then also, of course, in the life to come. For this reason he gives us earthly prayers, so that we can better recognize him, praise him, and love him. God wants the devout to prosper on earth (Psalm 37). And this desire is not set aside by the cross of Christ, but is all the more established by it. . . .

“Therefore we need not have a bad conscience when we pray with the Psalter for life, health, peace, and earthly goods if we only recognize, as do the Psalms themselves, that all of this is evidence of the gracious fellowship of God with us, and we thereby hold fast to the fact that God’s gifts are better than life (Psalm 63:3 f.; 73:25 f.).

“Psalm 103 teaches us to understand the entire fullness of the gifts of God, from the preservation of life to the forgiveness of sins, as a great unity and to come before God thanking and praising him for them (cf. also Psalm 65). The Creator gives us life and sustains it for the sake of Jesus Christ. . . . Only for the sake of Jesus Christ and at his bidding may we pray concerning the goods of life, and for his sake we ought to do it also with confidence. But if we receive what we need, then we ought not to cease thanking God from the heart that he is so friendly to us for the sake of Jesus Christ.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible)

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On multitasking

March 22nd, 2010 — 7:32am

Plug time. Those of you who don’t subscribe to the Mars Hill Audio Journal really ought to. And if you do not, you should at least download and listen to Volume 94. It’s outstanding even by the high standards of MHAJ.

A footnote or two from the interviews with Maggie Jackson: First, a question. Is “multitasking” an attempt (in many cases unconscious) to escape our embodied finitude, particularly the God-ordained limitations of time and space? We were made to do only so much at once, to bear only so many orientations at once, and our time/space limitations provide kindly boundaries against “disorientation” (Ken Myers’ word). Nowadays, however, we are trying to do so much so fast, enabled by the operation of multiple machines simultaneously, that one must ask if we are taking our God-created limitations seriously. We no longer concentrate on one thing, then the next, then the next; our minds and lives are crowded with a barrage of simultaneous stimuli, to any one of which we are incapable of giving isolated and sustained attention.

Now let me put this more positively. A well-cultivated life is one in which one pays attention to things. To this book one is reading (one cannot absorb a book’s richness while distracted). To this person one is talking to (meaningful relating does not occur beyond a certain speed). To this God one is praying to. To this sunset one has been privileged to view. To this meal at this table in the presence of these loved ones. To pay attention, I must inhabit a particular moment in a particular space. I must be all there, must draw near, must behold. I must give up omnipresence so as to be somewhere in particular, and to open myself to the thing at hand.

The problem with this, says Jackson, is that it is, well, boring. Real life occurs in real time – and real time is slow. Not everything happens at once. It’s not an omni-connected experience like the evening news (or the average surf on the Internet). I have to deal with this one conversation and make something of it. I have to keep reading this until I understand it. I have to engage with this thing until it begins to rub me; and when that happens, I desperately want to go check my email. We naturally love novelty, especially when we are young, and real life in real time offers only so much novelty. What it offers instead is rhythm, participation in rituals and habits (and other such predictables) that – for those truly engaged – become not old and wearisome but ever richer and deeper and fuller. It’s much more fun (perhaps) to be ever rushing on to the next thing, or to try to cram it all into one bloated moment. How many people can I “IM” at once? Quite a few, but how did we come to a place where we think of this as communication? It’s sitting at a command center (Mark Bauerlein’s metaphor), playing god. The moment a “conversation” gets old, I can just shut it down and move on to the next. Thank God real life doesn’t work that way . . . if we can figure out how to get back to the real thing.

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Looking out at nature and history

February 10th, 2010 — 9:53am

Can Christianity be world-affirming, or perhaps better creature-affirming, without falling into idolatry? Bavinck says yes, precisely because God reveals Himself in nature and history. But in order to see and hear His revelation in created things, God’s children must position themselves “in the Christian faith, in special revelation [Scripture], and from there look out upon nature and history” (Reformed Dogmatics, p. 1.321). “And now,” says Bavinck, “they discover there as well the traces of the God whom they learned to know in Christ as their Father.” He then puts forward this beautiful passage:

“Christians, equipped with the spectacles of Scripture, see God in everything and everything in God. For that reason we find in Scripture a kind of nature poetry and view of history such as is found nowhere else. With their Christian confession, accordingly, Christians find themselves at home also in the world. They are not strangers here and see the God who rules creation as none other than the one they address as Father in Christ. As a result of this general revelation [God’s self-disclosure in nature and history], they feel at home in the world; it is God’s fatherly hand from which they receive all things also in the context of nature.”

 No wonder Solomon “spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish” (1 Kgs 4:33). And One greater than Solomon said, “Consider the lilies of the field.”

 This is the kind of religion that will capture the hearts of children’s children with its sheer beauty and enchantment. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

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