Monday, July 19, 2010

Not speech, but flesh

A brief word for evangelicalism, which is so very over-wordy in all its doings:

"Why is the Lord's Supper not celebrated every Sunday in every church (at the very least in the presence of the whole congregation)) - even if this is at the expense of the length of our sermons and our excessive organ music? It would be legitimate liberation for the preacher and the audience...!  And occasionally baptism could form the beginning of the whole service (also without an unnecessary flood of words).  Would this not make us a comprehensive "church of the Word" - the Word which did not become speech, but flesh?"

Karl Barth

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Serpent's Academy

Have you ever noticed how Genesis 3 reports the founding of the two oldest faculties of the University?  

The first is theology.  The serpent asks the question: "did God actually say..?"  And, I imagine without substantial reflection and without consideration of the consequences, Eve joins in a conversation about God - the first such conversation.  It does not end well.  There is an inherent risk in the pursuit of theology, and a monumental danger.  Talking about God in the absence of God, which is the nature of the conversation in the garden and is the nature of most academic theology today, leads with tragic inevitability to the assertion of my own opinions about God and his nature (I have in mind here the subtle failure of Eve to accurately quote God), which are no match for the enemy's counter-opinions (the serpent's assertion that God is a liar).  My opinions about God may be good, in so far as they go, but unless they are based squarely on God's word - and may I suggest, not God's word as a remembered entity now absent (for the danger of misquoting is too great), but God's word as a present experience - they leave my understanding of God vulnerable to heretical distortion.

The second is ethics.  The serpent suggests that eating from the tree will make human beings "like God, knowing good and evil".  As has often been remarked, this does not mean that Adam and Eve are imagined as having no knowledge of the meaning of these terms; if that were so, the temptation could hardly be appealing.  Rather, the temptation is that they could become like God in being able to discern what is good and what is evil.  And of course, being able to discern this very quickly becomes being able to decide what is good and what is evil.  Here is the launch of ethics as the pursuit of autonomous human beings.  Rather than accepting God's word on the subject - "he has told you, O man, what is good" - human beings seek to work ethics out (and later, to impose their preferences under the cloak of ethics) in God's absence.

What a dangerous place to be the university is!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Not God

Here are some things which evangelical Christians might be tempted to mention in the same breath as God, implying that they are to be loved and/or worshipped in the way that God is to be loved and worshipped:

  • The Bible - it is the word of God, and is to be loved as such, but it is not God.  It witnesses to God and his salvation, it does not substitute for it.
  • The Church - it is the family of God, and is to be loved as such, but it is not God.  It, too, witnesses to God and his salvation; it must never be ranked too highly.
  • The natural world - it is the creation of God, and is to be loved as such, but it is not God.  Day and night it witnesses to God and his salvation.
The thick dividing line must be drawn between, on the one hand, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God now and forever, and on the other hand, everything else.  The line is so easy to blur, in little and apparently insignificant ways, but we must not permit it to happen, even at the risk of being seen to have 'a low doctrine of Scripture' or 'too little love for the local church' or 'a gnostic attitude toward creation'.  God is God, and nothing else is.

I've been reading about the Barmen declaration; could you tell?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Veiled in Flesh

The curtain in the tabernacle, and later the temple, seems to serve one important purpose according to the Scriptural testimony: it keeps sinful people away from God.  That was both a burden and a blessing.  A burden, because it cut human beings off from the fellowship with God for which they were designed; a blessing, because in fact in their sinful state human beings could not stand that fellowship.  No one can see God and live.

I have been wondering whether there is something else going on here, as well as the obvious.  The question 'where is God?' sounds, to us, hopelessly naive, but it was a question to which the OT Israelite would be able to give three answers.  Firstly, God is in heaven, whence he does whatever pleases him.  Secondly, God is throughout the world, directing and sustaining all creation.  Thirdly, God is in the Most Holy Place, in the tabernacle/temple.  These are all true, and some of the tensions between them are captured in Solomon's prayer of dedication at his great temple, recorded in 2 Chronicles 6.  What strikes me, though, is that it is surely the third answer which gives the Israelite the greatest comfort, and upon which his faith rests.  The fact that the OT often reports the perversion of this faith, portraying Israel as presuming upon God's favour because of his presence in the temple (see Jeremiah 7:4), merely reflects and underlines the fact that for Israel the presence of God in the temple is the foundation of their confidence.

Why is that?  Why is the Lord's presence in the Most Holy Place more significant for Israel than his presence in the highest heaven?

I would suggest that it is only by taking up residence behind the curtain that God can be Israel's God, or rather that they can know him as Israel's God.  The God of the heavens, and the God of the cosmos, are frankly not entities which can be known.  Where is God?  If not behind the curtain, if merely everywhere, what answer can we usefully give to the question?  And doesn't the God who is not behind the curtain - not in a particular place - all to easily become the God who has no particular characteristics, and finally not a particular God at all but a vague and unknowable force?  Whether we then go for pantheism, or prefer polytheism as a way of filling the gap between this unknown God and us, we certainly lose the real God, the personal God who is with us and for us.

Ironically, it seems that God has to curtain off a small section of the cosmos he has made in order to show himself as the Lord of the whole cosmos; ironically, in order to reveal himself as the God he really is, Yahweh must conceal himself behind a piece of cloth.

Consider, then, Hebrews 10:19-20: "...we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh..."

Granted, the author of Hebrews has in mind primarily the curtain as the separation between holy God and sinful man - the more obviously Biblical application of the temple idea.  But he does make the point that the tabernacle curtain was a sign of Jesus' human body - more than that, of his flesh, his whole human space-time existence.  The particular God - the God who actually exists and is for us - takes flesh and hides himself in it so as to be revealed.  God cannot be known in the abstract.  He can only be known if we can give a satisfactory answer to the question 'where is God?'; and the answer we give is that God is in Christ.

In Hebrews, of course, the curtain is opened up.  That, too, has happened.  Christ's body, torn open on the cross, reveals God as he truly is - the crucified One, God in the depths, God suffering in my place.  Is that, I wonder, why the veil of the temple was torn in two just as he died?

Irony: man in his sin hides from God, and is thus revealed to be the sinner he is; God in his righteousness hides himself from man, and is thus revealed to be the righteous God he truly is.

Implication: where do I look for God?  Is it in his hidden-ness, or do I always clamour for the glory of the general God, the no-god?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Old self/New self

I've been mulling over the relation between the gospel and holiness.  On Sunday I preached an inadequate sermon on the Holy Spirit in Galatians, the main point of which was that Paul really seems to expect that we will be made holy in our actions by the Spirit (not our own efforts), and that we receive the Spirit as we hear the message of Christ crucified and respond in faith.  Therefore, the key to practical, lived-out holiness is focussing on and believing the gospel.

I think there is something similar going on in Ephesians 4:20-24.  Paul has just told them to change their behaviour - "you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do".  Then he refers them back to their experience of hearing the gospel - "assuming that you heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self... and to put on the new self..."

Three things that I see going on here:
1.  They heard about Jesus - that is to say, they heard the message about what happened to Jesus in his death and resurrection.  They heard that Jesus truly died, and rose again.
2.  They were taught in Jesus - which I take to mean that they were taught about what it means to be in Jesus, to be joined to him in his death and resurrection.  In him, they also died and rose.
3.  They put off the old self and put on the new - which simply means bringing their behaviour into conformity with what is true about them because of their unity with Jesus in his death and resurrection.

The key, again, is the mind - thinking and believing the gospel.  But this is not just CBT.  It is not just thinking ourselves into holiness.  The foundation of it all is the little phrase "as the truth is in Jesus".  This is not sanctification by wishful thinking; it is sanctification by the fact that my old self is really dead, and I have a newly created identity.  I am a new man (note that old self/new self is old man/new man in Greek - this is literally the abolition of the person I was and the institution of a whole new person).  This has happened to me, because of what has happened to Jesus.

The struggle of sanctification is the struggle to see myself "in Jesus", and therefore as dead and raised again.