Apostle Paul

Al Mohler and the Perils of Naive Biblicism

Author’s note: although this blog post is critical of some of Dr. Mohler’s statements (and the assumptions underlying them), I am grateful for his presence as a public Christian leader. Indeed, his efforts to maintain theological orthodoxy in the face of increasing cultural hostility, and to publicly witness to that orthodoxy, are both brave and deeply encouraging.  

Introduction

Dr. Al Mohler, “the reigning intellectual” of American evangelicalism, is a figure often wreathed in controversy. Of course, this is partly a consequence of being a leading conservative churchman in a country busily divesting itself of its Christian heritage. Proclaiming the exclusivity of Christ is bound to scandalize others, particularly when so many people are wedded to modern tropes concerning tolerance and diversity. But the venerable President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary occasionally exceeds the gospel’s intrinsic offence with a statement that is rather questionable, even within the sub-culture of conservative evangelicalism. Recent headlines, in which Dr. Mohler has been roundly criticised for past comments concerning the Bible and slavery, are illustrative.

Controversy arises

Why the commotion? Last month, religion reporter Jonathan Merritt wrote that a TV transcript had been unearthed, featuring a relatively young Dr. Mohler talking with two other guests on Larry King Live in 1998. While the discussion was originally concerned with what Scripture says about wives submitting to their husbands, it turned to the question of slaves and masters. Resting on Ephesians 6:5, Dr. Mohler claimed that although the Bible does not endorse slavery, it does enjoin slaves to remain obedient to their masters. When pressed on the matter, he reiterated his position, arguing that “if you’re a slave, there’s a way to behave”. Even as King tried to tease out the logical implications of what Dr. Mohler had said by raising the issue of runaway slaves in pre-civil war America, he appeared unmoved – arguing there “really” was no “loophole” to the command that slaves submit to their overlords. Dr. Mohler finished by implicitly contrasting this allegedly biblical view with what “popular culture” might say about owning human chattel. A stunned King quickly cut to a commercial break.

We should note, of course, that Dr. Mohler recently repudiated those earlier comments, condemning them as “stupid”. And one mustn’t forget that they were uttered over two decades ago, amidst the cut-and-thrust of live debate. But there seems to be little to account for his apparent interpretive shift; no principled reason why he now rejects his earlier understanding of the relevant texts. Moreover, while Dr. Mohler has written eloquently about the need for a sophisticated theological hermeneutic, a simplistic, literalist reading of Scripture is not, for him, an isolated incident. He has, for example, spent a good deal of energy arguing that Genesis straightforwardly teaches a young earth (presumably by adding up the genealogies in Chapters 5 and 11), and that the book’s first chapter speaks plainly of “days” as 24-hour units of time. In contrast with Dr. Mohler’s performance on Larry King Live, those efforts have come in the form, not of hurried, impromptu rejoinders, but of scripted remarks that reflect a mature, considered position.

There are multiple issues at play here. But I want to focus on what Dr. Mohler’s handling of Scripture reveals about some of the assumptions embedded in his approach to divine revelation. Both his slavery comments on Larry King Live and his premeditated statements on the age of the earth reflect several crucial interpretive and hermeneutical defects.

The problem of naïve biblicism

The crux of the problem is this. Dr. Mohler’s apparent view of Scripture too often verges on what one might call a naïve biblicism. It’s been described as the illusion of a “pure” understanding of biblical truth, shorn of all presuppositions and historical considerations. A naïvely biblicist approach to the text of Scripture tends towards the conviction – often unstated – that the Bible is a uniformly timeless document, communicating self-evident propositions with pristine clarity. The reader, armed with little more than good faith and common sense, is easily able to understand and appropriate those truths.

This basic view generates a cluster of interlocking practices, all of which can be harmful to good readings of Scripture: a belief that biblical statements do not require interpretation, but can be read off the page in unmediated fashion; a failure to properly grapple with the historic Christian tradition, and what it might say on questions of exegesis and theological method; and the assumption that the Bible’s prescriptions can be applied straightforwardly to modern contexts, quite apart from the issue of hermeneutical or cultural “gaps”. As some of Dr. Mohler’s public remarks seem to imply, he is at times guilty of succumbing to all these deficiencies. Sadly, he is not alone: his views are shared by a great swathe of people within (American) conservative evangelicalism.

Dr. Mohler’s comments suggest that the only prerequisite for the good faith reader is direct engagement with the relevant texts; understanding that exceeds the semantic or the syntactical is, on this view, largely unnecessary. Hence, Paul was handing down clear and exceptionless oracles about the relationship between slaves and masters. Hence, Genesis 1 is divided into seven solar days, each one of 24 hours’ duration.

This is Dr. Mohler’s first error. He neglects the need for anything more than a “thin” notion of interpretation, at least in these instances. But “thick” interpretation – that is, genuine, substantial elucidation of a text – is often necessary for two, mutually reinforcing reasons. Firstly, we must reckon with the fact that the text emerged out of a particular thought world, a particular socio-cultural matrix, which is very different from our own. What is foreign requires de-mystifying, and what may seem obvious can require nuancing. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright perceptively observes that all Scripture is “culturally conditioned” from beginning to end – having been produced, not only in, but in many respects by, a particular time and place. Even a simple reference to “day” may conceal an entire cosmology – a mental universe – that is radically different from our own (something Old Testament scholar John Walton has done much to emphasise). Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Bible is so opaque that it cannot be understood. I certainly don’t recommend one abandons the Reformation commitment to the broad clarity of Scripture. But deep cultural and intellectucal shifts over the past 2,000 years provide prima facie evidence that apparently simple biblical references may mask a good deal of ambiguity. Moreover, when both apostolic and denominational tradition suggest that Holy Writ might not always offer a clear window into the mind of the biblical author, we do well to exercise caution.

Any would-be exegete must contend with the fact that comprehending biblical texts requires both internal interpretation (i.e., understanding the internal logic of the passage, and its function within the narrative flow of the book), and external interpretation (recognizing the historical “situatedness” of the passage, its relationship to other biblical texts, etc.).

An analysis of Ephesians 6:5 makes this clear. Several points commend themselves. Far from embodying timeless, universal truth, Paul’s command to slaves in the congregation at Ephesus was intimately tied to his broader aims in the letter. He was not rendering judgment upon the institution writ large, but upon concrete situations as they arose in the church. Moreover, Timothy Gombis has persuasively argued that in Ephesians, Paul sought to articulate the lineaments of a “new humanity” – an alternative arrangement within the politeia of God, which counterposed the harsh, often capricious social order in which the early Christians found themselves. He addresses slaves directly (and before masters), thereby “granting them a place of dignity and honour”. His admonition to masters (v.9) is grounded in the fact that the same Lord presides over both parties. With a few swift strokes, Paul relativises the position of sovereignty a slaveholder might otherwise have adopted. Finally, the remarkable demand that masters treat their human holdings well (cf. Col 4:1) would have contrasted sharply with prevailing cultural wisdom (Aristotle, for one, characterised the master-slave relationship as one of tyranny).

Much of this corresponds to what biblical scholar William Webb has dubbed the “redemptive movement” of Scripture: an ethical dynamic established by the biblical texts, advancing God’s redemptive project (sometimes incrementally) in the face of countervailing forces. Indeed, the apostle’s indirect challenges to slavery’s harsh excesses in Ephesians and Colossians are exceeded by his letter to Philemon, where he speaks of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, as a fellow “brother” (Phil 16). As N.T. Wright suggests, the note of radical equality resident in the term “brother” “set a time-bomb” beside the entire system. And while one looks in vain for explicit condemnation of slavery in Paul’s letters, it cannot be stressed too often that the early Christians were a persecuted minority, bereft of the kind of power needed to challenge head-on a “ubiquitous institution” (so William Klein). The upshot of all this is that to read a passage like Ephesians 6:5ff as if it were offering abstract commands of an exceptionless character is to miss the point entirely. It also substitutes a mechanical, isolative reading for one that is more sensitive to the text’s literary contours and historical milieu.

Secondly, all of us are ensconced within a certain way of understanding reality. That understanding inevitably acts as a lens through which we observe a text. No one approaching a biblical passage does so unencumbered; we all bring to it certain presuppositions, biases, and so forth. Some have been formed by the ambient culture (and are frequently imbibed unconsciously). Others involve the conditioning of a specific theological or denominational tradition. Thus, a Baptist and a Presbyterian can read the New Testament and derive very different ecclesiological models from it – the one opting for a style of congregationalism, the other for a governing body of elders. To say this is not to counsel interpretive despair: it is still possible to arrive at a robust understanding of scriptural truth, despite the ongoing influence of contemporary context. But the point is that having been catechized into certain patterns of thinking by the secular and religious worlds we inhabit, we may well be predisposed towards certain readings of the Bible – some of which will compel us to patiently engage in exegetical negotiation with the text.

Dr. Mohler has implicitly tried to circumvent these realities by invoking the “plain sense” of Scripture or “common sense” readings of a passage. I’ll say more about so-called “common sense” below. But for now, it’s worth noting that Dr. Mohler’s appeal simply re-locates the problem: what constitutes “common sense” in the first place is likely to vary depending on one’s historical location. Public consensus on all manner of questions inevitably changes. This is as true of scriptural interpretation as it is of slaveholding, or the earth’s relationship to the sun. An ordinary person living in the 21st century will approach these issues in a manner very different from that of a resident of the 1300s – or, for that matter, from someone living in first-century Palestine. Contrary to what Dr. Mohler may think, the unadorned individual, apprehending the message of the text apart from the mediation of cultural frameworks, is largely non-existent.

Put another way, Dr. Mohler’s claims embody an entirely ahistorical view of Scripture – as if it were a product of pure transcendence, unmoored from time, history, and culture. How else does one explain his publicly articulated positions on the contentious subjects under review? They evince little conscious recognition of the historical and contextual distinctives of either Genesis 1 or Paul’s admonitions regarding slavery. Tacitly treating the texts in free-floating fashion, Dr. Mohler has only succeeded in isolating them from the originating environments from which they emerged.

‘Solo’ Scriptura and the devaluing of tradition

This brings me to Dr. Mohler’s second major error. The current of ahistoricism running through some of his approaches to biblical interpretation also underlies his depreciation of tradition and its role in exegesis. This, too, is a consequence of biblicist naivety. As more than one theologian has argued, Christians – and the church at large – cannot avoid dependence on the growing body of critical reflection upon Scripture. Conducting an ongoing dialogue with past voices is an important part of deep biblical knowledge – relativizing one’s own perspective on the text, and exposing the historical contingency of so many “plain” readings. Attentively listening to those voices invariably shapes one’s views; at times, the exercise may even overturn previously untroubled interpretations of a passage. As N.T. Wright notes, if we fail to remember that exegetes of every period have left their “mark on subsequent readings of Scripture”, we will simply fail to realize “why we ‘naturally’ read the text” in the way that we do.

For Dr. Mohler, it seems that simply being in possession of a supposedly “timeless” Bible is enough; evolving historical interpretations of biblical passages are eschewed, or at least muted. Some may wish to call this sola scriptura, or the primacy of Scripture, in a misguided attempt to stave off the influence of tradition upon one’s reading of Scripture. But it’s a departure from the Reformation cry. At times, Dr. Mohler seems to drift towards what might be characterised as ‘solo’ scriptura: Scripture alone and isolated, detached from both its own socio-cultural matrix and the streams of subsequent interpretation that have come down to us through the ages. Of course, Dr. Mohler himself is a child of the Reformation, having been self-consciously shaped by the Reformers and what they achieved. But on certain questions, he reveals a limited horizon, failing to recognize the role tradition inevitably plays, even on putatively unmediated readings of Scripture.

Dr. Mohler’s apparent position is father to several problems, not least of which is a superficial engagement with historical interpretations. Witness his comments regarding Genesis 1. He has claimed that prior to Darwin, biblical interpreters were largely unanimous in their understanding of the oft-repeated reference to “day” (vv. 5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). To be sure, he appeals generically to the history of exegesis on this question, but it’s one that appears to be heavily conditioned by the limits of his own biblicism. The reality is far more complex and ambiguous. Robert Letham, for one, has provided ample evidence from a variety of commentators – all of whom lived before the emergence of Darwin’s theory, or the development of modern geological dating – to show that there was hardly a consensus regarding the “days” of Genesis 1. While Reformation luminaries such as Martin Luther adopted a largely literal approach, others like Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas sought different ways of understanding the text. Commenting on the evident variety of exegetical options, Letham concluded that “claims that a literal reading of Genesis 1 is obvious fall down when the history of interpretation is taken into account” (emphasis original).

Is it “common sense” or Common Sense?

Irony abounds at this point. Although Dr. Mohler seems to appeal to the idea of “mere” readings of Scripture, his position actually represents the incursion of certain philosophical traditions into the American evangelical psyche. Chief among them is what has come to be known as Scottish Common-Sense Realism (CSR). A reaction against Humean scepticism, it rests upon the belief that one’s perceptual apparatus provides direct awareness of objects as they really are. Church historian Mark Noll has traced the influence of CSR throughout conservative evangelicalism in the United States. A “cluster of convictions” associated with CSR, he has argued, “furnished broader habits of mind” and consolidated certain intellectual conventions, especially as evangelical thought evolved in nineteenth-century America. Conservative evangelicals past and present have appropriated CSR’s epistemological naivety regarding perception of the external world, tacitly applying it to an understanding of Scripture and its teachings. The consequence has been an equally naïve understanding of the individual reader’s capacity to apprehend the meaning of biblical texts.

CSR predisposed many nineteenth-century conservative evangelicals to study the Bible in a strictly inductive manner, on the analogy of a scientist studying nature. Hence, Princeton theologian Charles Hodge could liken the Bible to a “great store-house of facts” that one just needed to apprehend and arrange. The biblical scholar or exegete was like a botanist, simply observing the scriptural “ecosystem” before him. CSR has persisted, and its legacy may be discerned in current readings of Scripture within large sections of conservative evangelicalism. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, wherein the author advocates just such an approach, is perhaps the most well-known example of that legacy. As Noll writes of such readings:

“The most immediate result of this approach to theological construction was to eclipse systematic study of Scripture that relied self-consciously on the insights of theological tradition, or that sought to understand the fullness of the historical circumstances surrounding the actual writing of Scripture(emphasis mine).

In his apparent approach to biblical interpretation, the status of the individual reader, and even the role of theological tradition, Dr. Mohler is, in many ways, an epistemological heir to CSR. His exposition of the “days” of Genesis 1 as a straightforward reference to 24-hour periods of time is a case-in-point: he reads the chapter as it stands, without interrogating the cultural conditioning reflected in either the text or his interpretation of it. Dr. Mohler’s capacity to perceive the semantic content of the passage is, in good “Common Sense” fashion, sufficient for accurate apprehension. As much as he may wish to lay claim to a direct encounter with the supposedly plain meaning of Scripture, his interpretive decisions have seemingly been shaped by extra-biblical patterns of thought.

A window into a wider malaise

I haven’t time to examine Dr. Mohler’s neglect of the hermeneutical “gap” between our era and that of the biblical authors. Others have made sage observations in this direction, questioning his apparent assumption that some biblical strictures can be applied in the modern world without any need for cultural or historical “translation”. In any case, this isn’t simply about the President of SBTS and his interpretive failings. The simplistic readings into which Dr. Mohler has occasionally fallen reflect a wider malaise within conservative evangelicalism. That malaise is characterised by a flat, mechanical approach to scriptural exegesis, a strictly prescriptive appropriation of biblical texts, and ignorance (often wilful) of the church’s grand interpretive tradition. In its crudest forms, this stance issues in a “concordance” method to the study of scriptural truth (something that Dr. Mohler has, in fact, criticised); as the term suggests, it simply requires the unconditioned reader to collect all biblical passages bearing on a particular subject in order to discover what the Bible, construed as a straightforwardly unified document, has to say about it. Deep methodological flaws notwithstanding, the approach remains endemic to the conservative evangelical world.

As Dr. Mohler’s unfortunate comments on slavery demonstrate, an attitude of naïve biblicism may also yield implausible – as well as morally dubious – conclusions. Not only does this fall afoul of Augustine’s caution against provoking ridicule from unbelievers; it also saddles believers with a series of positions that may collapse under the weight of their own absurdities. Yes, Christian leaders are called to be faithful to the Word of God. However, zeal wedded to impoverished models of biblical truth is injurious to the credibility of the church’s witness. In an aggressively post-Christian society, such harm may prove fatal.

Re-thinking the Virgin Birth

Introduction

The birth of a new child truly is extraordinary, being perhaps the closest thing that our secular, materialistic world has to a miracle: a small cluster of cells, endowed with an innate propensity towards life, is mysteriously transformed by nature’s unseen hand into a living, breathing human being. Witnessing the emergence of an infant – writhing and crying and seeking comfort – out of what was once inert matter is something to behold.

If people of all stripes are prone to seeing faint reflections of the transcendent in such an occurrence, then Christians should surely celebrate the true miracle of the one birth (or more precisely, conception) that could genuinely be called “unique”. Of course, I am referring to the birth of Christ himself, an event that his followers will soon have the privilege of commemorating. Its annual recurrence means that Christians are accorded at least one opportunity each year to formally mark an event of epochal significance. Alongside nativity plays and Christmas hymns will be dramatic readings of Matthew and Luke, as the story of the Christ-child coming into this world is rehearsed through song and word and sign. For many, it is still a time of sober reflection and humble gratitude.

But amidst the yuletide pageantry, it’s easy to forget just how momentous the birth of Christ was. Indeed, the very regularity of the tradition can induce a conventional, almost unthinking, approach to it: we hurriedly attend our Christmas services, sing (or more likely, mumble) the relevant songs, and laugh good-naturedly at stilted acting or forgotten lines. Meanwhile, our minds are straining ahead, occupied with what many of us perceive (perhaps subconsciously) to be the real purpose of Christmas – presents and feasting and games of backyard cricket. None of these things are wrong in themselves, to be sure. Far from it. Nevertheless, it can mean that recalling God’s gracious inbreaking via the person of his Son is inadvertently relegated to a mere step along the way, rather than being cherished as the very reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place. To the extent that this is true – and in all honesty, I think each of us has been guilty of it – then it should not be. Perhaps if we were to examine Jesus’ birth afresh, we might then be in a better position to celebrate it with renewed fulsomeness.

Three Key Categories

There are a number of categories that can help us think more clearly about the birth of Christ – conceptual aids, if you like, that allow us to grasp more surely its manifold significance. A few such aids immediately spring to mind. We might refer to them as the union of humanity and divinity, a signpost of new creation, and a revelation of true kingship. These don’t exhaust the event’s meaning, by any means, although they do offer three convenient avenues towards greater understanding. I’ll examine each category in turn.

The Union of Humanity and Divinity

The ministry of Jesus Christ can be interpreted in a dizzying variety of ways. But one of the broad purposes of his appearing was to set in motion the (re-)union of humanity and God. More than that, it was by his own person that this cosmic reconciliation was to be accomplished. The pages of the New Testament are replete with references to what Christ achieved in this regard. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, for example, the apostle Paul waxes lyrical about the fact that in Christ, God was reconciling himself to the world (i.e., humanity; cf. 2 Cor 5:19). In a similar vein, 1 Timothy 2:5 refers to Jesus as the “one God and the one mediator between God and mankind”. These are just two of a multitude of texts that could be cited.

Reconciliation within a Christian schema, however, far exceeds the resumption of cordial relations between previously-estranged parties. For the writers of the NT, it means nothing less than the transformative union of God with his people. A battery of images is deployed, which try and convey the substantial nature of this divine-human concord. Paul compares the joining together of Christ with his church (and thus, with each individual Christian) to the “one-flesh” union between husband and wife. So profoundly intimate is the relationship between the Messiah and his people – one that is secured, of course, via the operation of the Spirit – that the apostle can use, as an analogy, the deep and comprehensive unity of the spousal bond (Eph 5:31-32). Or what about the Fourth Evangelist? In a stunning development of “new temple” theology, the Johannine Jesus speaks of making his “home” in the one who believes in him and does his will (John 15:23). This, too, surpasses mere unity of purpose or direction, and veers into the province of ontology [1]. It is why the author of 2 Peter could write that part of the goal of the Christian life is, remarkably, participation in the “divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This isn’t to say that Christians somehow become divine. But the consistent witness of the NT is that those who are “in Christ” are consequently joined to the Triune God, in a process that entails the fundamental re-ordering of their beings.

I say all this by way of context. Jesus’ birth represents this union, this “marriage”, in his own person. And whilst the incarnation (i.e., the act by which the eternal logos took on human flesh) was possible without a miraculous birth, his spirit-generated conception dramatizes the joining together of those two natures – divinity and humanity – thereby foreshadowing the salvific reality his people will enjoy as they become temples for his presence. This is no arbitrary point. We shouldn’t forget that just as the NT is adamant that God’s people will experience immersion in the unsearchable depths of divine reality, it is equally convinced that Jesus Christ exemplifies (and indeed, enables) this kind of life. He is the pristine model for a truly human existence – human, because it is joined to, grounded in, and pervaded by, God’s nature and life. What is true of him will, in a sense, be true of his people as well (e.g., 1 Cor 15:47-49).

Of course, Jesus was (and is) unique, in that he is truly God and truly man; as I have already noted, the telos of the Christian life is reformation and renewal via a mystical bond with the divine, not divinization in a literal sense. Still, we can look to Jesus’ conception and birth – where God graciously imparted his own life into the womb of a young Jewess (Luke 1:34-35) – as an embodied reminder that it was always the Creator’s intention to forge a people who would live in perfect and constant communion with him. It was there, in the darkness of that womb, that the Creator “stitched together” (as it were) two, apparently irreconcilable categories of being [2]. The manner of Jesus’ first advent was at once authentically human and entirely the product of divine grace – signalling, in concrete form, a believer’s transfiguration as he or she is drawn into the divine nature.

Earlier parts of Scripture bear faint witness to this glorious prospect. Genesis 1-2, with its positioning of God’s image-bearers as the capstone of his creative work, is one of the more familiar texts in this regard. But the Nativity signals something far more substantive for those who are found to be in Christ. Again, what it does is provide us with a vivid picture of the goal that lies at the end of God’s redemptive enterprise: the establishment of a body of individuals who have not only conformed themselves to his will, but who are united to him in an act of spiritual betrothal.

A Signpost for New Creation

The prospective “marriage” between God and each believer (such that those who are being saved might enjoy the life-giving permeation of divine energy) is one element in the wider goal of liberating creation from its “bondage to decay” (cf. Rom 8:21). Here, too, the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth is instructive. In addition to providing us with a picture of that perfect union between the human and the divine, the Nativity also acts as a signpost of new creation. To be sure, the Bible’s salvific narrative climaxes with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It was there, and not at the point of his birth, that sin and death were broken; moreover, with the raising of Jesus from the dead, new creation truly began, breaking into the present, decaying world. One might even say that from a Christian perspective, history pivots on the resurrection, for in that event, we discover the commencement of the new age in microcosm – i.e., in the resurrected body of one man. Christ’s birth did not change the course of history per se, so to that extent, it differs structurally from the event of his resurrection. Nonetheless, it points (however unobtrusively) to the dawning of that greater reality. The birth of Jesus represented a fresh act of the Creator God, who imbued life into a willing Mary. With it, something unprecedented happened, as the fecundity of the divine took root in a broken, earthen world. This wasn’t simply the product of the created order’s internal drives and forces. Rather, it was the result of an apocalyptic work of God, who pierced the veil of death shrouding the old world with the shear of fresh life. His was an incursion into creation, achieving what no natural process could. In this way, then, the virgin birth continues to offer Christians an incarnate symbol that directs them to creation’s renewal – something that includes, of course, God’s reclaimed image-bearers, who experience their own supernatural birth.

This brings me back to the Nativity’s significance as it applies specifically to the people of God. If Jesus’ birth unveils the goal for redeemed human beings (whose lives are being conformed to his), then it also offers up a symbolic parallel for the spiritual “new birth” that every Christian enjoys. Latent in that term is an idea drawn from the third chapter of John’s Gospel. During a night-time rendezvous, the Johannine Jesus declares to an uncomprehending Nicodemus that anyone seeking entry into God’s kingdom “must be born again” (John 3:3, 5). With the assured finality of God’s incarnate logos, he claims that this is the only way a person can enter salvation. What Jesus seems to be saying is that the believer must undergo such a radical change of one’s being, one’s nature, that it can only be described as being “born again”. It is a deep-rooted transformation that God alone can accomplish (which explains why the phrase is sometimes rendered as “born from above”).

The beginning of one’s life in God is indeed akin to a new birth, for it represents a comprehensive break with the old world of sin and death. Jesus’ birth – and behind that, his conception – offers a concrete sign of this reality. Commenting on John’s theological perspective in the first few chapters of his gospel, the theologian, A.N.S. Lane, wrote that the evangelist may have even drawn a deliberate correlation between the believer’s regeneration and Christ’s virginal birth (cf. John 1:13) [3]. In any case, it is both a signal that new life had been unleashed upon creation, and, within that process of renewal, a witness to the Christian’s own “transfer” from one realm to another. The virgin birth reminds us that what is required is nothing less than the commencement of a new form of existence – a “supernatural begetting” (C.K. Barrett) – wrought by God’s (re)generative power. At this point, I can do no better than quote from N.T. Wright, who wrote about the miraculous nature of Christ’s birth thus:

“And if we believe that the God we’re talking about is the creator of the world, who longs to rescue the world from its corruption and decay, then an act of real new creation, anticipating in fact the great moment of Easter itself, might just be what we should expect…it is the notion that a new world really might be starting up within the midst of the old…”

A Revelation of the True King

So far, I have examined the birth of Jesus using the categories of biblical and systematic theology. Its function as a revelation of Christ’s kingship, on the other hand, is tied more closely to the biblical narratives themselves. Matthew, for instance, has Magi from the East visit Jesus, who worship him and present gifts as a form of tribute (Matt 2:1-12). The royal overtones of those acts are difficult to miss. The First Evangelist also quotes from Micah 5:2, applying that messianic (read: kingly) prophecy to the remarkable baby born to Mary and Joseph. Luke, for his part, sets his infancy narrative within the context of Roman history. His reference to an imperial decree, ordering all subjects of the Roman Empire to return to their ancestral lands for a census (Luke 2:1-3), subtly establishes a contrast between the earthly power of Caesar and the cosmic power – then hidden – of the world’s true Lord.

Strictly speaking, a miraculous birth was not necessary to ground an acclamation of Jesus’ kingship. However, it witnesses to the unique form that kingship took. Not only was Christ Israel’s king and a rightful heir to the throne of David; not only was he the nation’s messianic saviour; he was also her (and the world’s) transcendent king, having come in the flesh – a remarkable fulfilment of Yahweh’s promise to return to his wayward, exiled people (note the use of Isaiah 40:3ff, not only in Matthew in Luke, but in Mark and John as well). As I have already suggested, the virgin birth reveals the perfect union of humanity with divinity in the person of Jesus. But in so doing, it testifies to the fact of Jesus’ cosmic lordship.

Luke’s retelling of the event is illuminating in this regard. In his account, an angel appears to Mary and declares to her that she will bear a son. The language used to describe the still-future child is of a clearly regal nature: “Son of the Most High”, a descendant of David, and king over an eternal dynasty (Luke 1:30-33). When Mary asks how all this can be (given the fact of her virginity) the angel states that God’s own spirit and presence will “overshadow” her (v.35), enabling the young Jewess to conceive. The second half of verse 35 is crucial. Application of the title “Son of God” to Jesus is somehow linked to his spiritual conception, as if the latter is reason for the former being given (cf. v.35b: “So…”). Now, “Son of God” was a term familiar within Jewish culture, given its traditional connection to royal/Davidic figures. This is seen, for instance, in a passage like Psalm 2:7, which bears some affinity with 2 Samuel 7:14. By the time of Jesus’ advent, it had come to be associated with hopes for a messianic deliverer. However, the title was also used of the emperor at the time, Caesar Augustus – the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who himself had been formally deified after his assassination in 44BC. It is no accident, then, that Luke lodges his birth story within the context of a manifestation of imperial power; the fact that the emperor appropriated the status of God’s son only serves to sharpen the implied contrast I have already noted.

Paired with the promise of a miraculous, spirit-impelled birth, Luke’s use of “Son of God” functions as an important titular signpost, not merely to Jesus’ status as Israel’s anointed liberator, but to something far loftier. Like the other evangelists, Luke often employs the phrase in an elevated sense; as his own gospel unfolds, it’s apparent that Jesus conceives of his relationship with God in a way that only a son would with his father. It was a relationship that stretched back to the very beginning of his earthly life (and beyond); an intimate reality, in other words, to which the virgin birth testified. The NT scholar, Darrel Bock, observesd that “the presence of a divine element in [the Lukan] Jesus’ birth” suggests that for the Third Evangelist, “Jesus is from God in a unique way” (emphasis mine). It provided evidence that Christ was not merely sent by God, as an emissary might be commissioned by his master, but that he proceeded from the eternal Godhead as someone who, remarkably, shared the same nature.

The Lukan rendition of the virgin birth vividly shows that Jesus’ sonship was not exhausted by the prerogatives associated with mundane royalty. To be sure, it encompassed such notions, such that it was co-extensive with the belief that he was the promised Davidic heir. But that status – and the title through which it came to be expressed – exceeded all previous understandings of the concept, touching upon the very being of the transcendent Creator. Although Luke does not greatly emphasise the ontological overtones of Jesus’ sonship in his birth narrative (and is certainly not as explicit as, say, the Gospel of John), the basic contours of his theological convictions can still be detected. Whatever declarations others might have made regarding a unique, filial relationship with the Deity (particularly Caesar), they remained mere charlatans – parodies of the reality to which they aspired. Eclipsing them all was the world’s true sovereign, who alone could claim divine “parentage”: singularly conceived by God’s own creative power, and born to a poor Jewish couple on the margins of imperial society.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this little essay has revealed new insights into the significance of Jesus’ birth. Much more could be said, of course. But in it, I have tried to set down some markers for how to think about this momentous event. This is important amidst ongoing scepticism, even among Christians. In some quarters, the virgin birth is relegated to the status of mere myth or legend (where the term “myth” is synonymous with what is historically dubious). Aside from a philosophical prejudice against miracles, such a conclusion seems to be driven by the unstated assumption that Jesus’ birth constitutes an act of arbitrary wonderworking – and as such, is unworthy of God. But as I have sought to demonstrate, the virgin birth pulsates with theological meaning. It was not the work of a capricious deity, keen only to advertise his supernatural “bag of tricks”. Rather, it offered, and continues to offer, a window into the nature of the One who even now presides over creation. In his birth, Jesus was revealed as the true Son of God, who proceeded from the Father to assume his rightful role as saviour and regent. Moreover, the Nativity brims with the promise that those who are “in” him – who yield to his loving authority – will shed their old lives and enjoy life in union with their redeemer. These are things we can, and should, joyfully celebrate this Christmas.

[1] Using a term like “ontology” in relation to a believer’s relationship with God is always fraught with danger. Let me emphasise that I do not want to suggest that as Christians are conformed to the likeness of the Son, or participate in the divine nature, they thereby become gods (“quasi-divine”) themselves. This is idolatry. However, one gets the sense when reading the NT that what is envisioned is a substantial transformation of the redeemed individual, down to the very roots of his or her nature. Indeed, when Paul spoke of those in Christ being “new creations” (2 Cor 5:17), I think he intended his words to be read as more than mere metaphor or hyperbole.

[2] Again, care is required, lest one takes the birth of Christ to be an instance of two natures being brought together in such a way that the resultant individual is half-human, half-God: a tertium quid, but neither wholly human, nor wholly divine. This is not what I am aiming at with my (admittedly) metaphorical use of language. I merely mean to suggest that the virgin birth, in witnessing to the union of divinity and humanity in the person of Christ, functions as something of a symbol and pattern for Christians’ own lives.

[3] It’s quite possible that John was aware of a tradition concerning the unusual circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. See John 8:41b.

Meaning and God’s Attributes

My last few blog posts have tackled some fairly controversial issues, which have a habit of arousing very strong emotions. The intensity of those debates can tax both the mind and the soul, so every once in a while a change of pace is warranted. This brings me to the topic of the present piece, namely, the nature of God. Lately, I have been reflecting on some rather thorny questions concerning God and certain of his attributes. Some may think this a boring, irrelevant or altogether esoteric matter. However, if (as I believe) God is the very foundation and source of all there is — the ground of all being, as it were — then it’s difficult to think of anything more exciting, or important. Moreover, as a Christian, it is my duty (and indeed, a rare pleasure) to try and develop as clear a picture of the Creator as my finite mind will permit.

I don’t intend to examine the existence of God per se. Instead, I want to explore two related features of the Christian conception of God, the problems they can pose for understanding, and the means by which they might be illuminated in new and fresh ways. I am referring, on the one hand, to God’s dual nature — at once transcendent and immanent — whilst on the other, to the uniquely Christian declaration that Christ is the principle of unity within creation. These are heady concepts, to be sure; a word about each is therefore in order.

To begin, Christianity insists that God is simultaneously transcendent over creation and immanent within it. Other monotheisms — Judaism, for example — share this way of talking about God, though the way the doctrine is expressed and extrapolated in those traditions may be somewhat different. Christians consistently affirm God’s complete and utter sovereignty over the creation; creation itself relies on his conserving activity to remain in being, moment-by-moment. Given he is the metaphysical ground of all there is, God is not confined by what he has created: he is not limited by it, or susceptible to its influences (unless he deigns to be so influenced). He is radically distinct from the world he has fashioned, operating, if you like, on his own, unique plane of being. Additionally, God is neither exhausted nor fully comprehended by our conceptual categories; the frames of reference we may have devised to understand him are necessarily limited, for their “object” transcends them all. Indeed, for all their intellectual and theological value (and they can be very valuable), those categories cannot possibly capture a being — Being itself — who is by nature completely unbound by finite reality.

At the same time, God is no absentee landlord; rather, he deeply involved in this creation. The world over which God presides is filled at every point by the divine presence; God’s immanence means that he is intimately related to  it, permeating every nook and cranny so that creation brims with his essence. This dual nature is beautifully captured by Isaiah 55:9-11, which speaks of Yahweh’s purposes being higher than those of man — “as the heavens are higher than the earth” — even as he sends out his word, his wisdom, into the world to nourish his works. It is also why the Apostle Paul can declare in Ephesians 4:6 that God is not only “over all”, but “through all and in all”.*

The second attribute is, to my mind, probably more difficult to comprehend. It is the somewhat astounding theological claim that Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God, is the principle of unity within creation — that is, the One in whom “all things hold together”, as Paul declares (Col 1:17). The doctrine bears some resemblance to certain strains of Greco-Roman philosophy, even if its formulation under the aegis of apostolic and patristic thought was quite unprecedented. Like the ancient Stoics, the writers of the NT held that the phenomenal world is not simply a random, unintelligible mass: they affirmed the belief that it is an ordered place, pervaded by a principle of rationality which bequeaths to it unity and coherency. For the apostolic writers, this principle has an intrinsically personal — indeed, relational — dimension. Whether this was expressed in the Johannine concept of the incarnate Logos (John 1:1, 14), or by way of Paul’s wisdom Christology (e.g., Col 1:17), the writers of the NT declared that the world is pervaded by the cosmic Christ — God’s very word, wisdom and mind. Borrowing ideas from the OT’s wisdom tradition (e.g., Prov 8:22ff), they claimed that Christ is just that principle of rationality to which the Stoics and others referred. As the medium of God’s creative prowess, he provides the unifying structure for what would otherwise be a fragmented or chaotic realm; he draws together the various members of the created world into a harmonious whole, “sustaining” it in power (Hebrews 1:3).

It should be noted that these doctrines are deeply intertwined. Christ’s role as the principle of unity within creation presupposes a God who is both intimately involved with it, whilst remaining utterly sovereign. Indeed, if Christ, a reflection of the divine character, was not transcendent, then he could not be the sustaining, unifying cause that underlies creation; he would simply be a finite part of it, as little able to govern all things as we are. If he was not immanent, he would not — could not — be the principle of unity holding the disparate parts of creation together. He could not be the metaphysical “cement” that inheres, and adheres, all things. Conversely, God’s dual nature comes to full expression in the cosmic Christ’s powerful conserving activity, as he penetrates and upholds the created order. His immanence is not amorphous — a vague and nebulous presence — but guarantees the wise and ordered nature of the world we inhabit. Similarly, his transcendence does not entail distance, but omnipresence, so that everything is imbued with, and held together by, his own effulgence.

Intertwined, complementary…and also rather arcane**. However clear these summaries may be, they do not change the fact that we are handling some very enigmatic ideas — ones that have caused an endless parade of philosophers and theologians (not to mention laypeople at large) a great deal of intellectual angst. The fact that God is not an object of sense experience, and so is not susceptible to empirical observation, makes this task even more vexing. Trying to comprehend such stubbornly elusive concepts is like attempting to grasp the rapidly fading tendrils of an early-morning mist. For instance, I’ve tried to offer an intelligible snapshot of the doctrine of Christ as the principle of creation, but how can we understand the truth that lies behind it? In what way does the invisible and immaterial God hold material things together (that is part of the larger question of how an immaterial God interacts with materiality)? How does one actually conceive of the Christian’s claim that the apparently disparate elements of creation find coherency as they are drawn together by, and in, the divine Logos? As for God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence, this has been a stumbling block to many people, and can appear at first glance to be inherently, embarrassingly, contradictory. As just one example among many, the atheist blogger Austin Cline has argued that at an “irresolvable tension” exists between these two poles of the divine nature. He is of the opinion that something simply cannot be transcendent and immanent simultaneously, and that any affirmation to the contrary forces one into an intellectual muddle.

Theologians and philosophers of a theistic bent have tried to offer solutions to these problems over the centuries. For example, Thomas Aquinas wrote that God’s transcendence actually entails his immanence. Far from being irreconcilable or contradictory, Aquinas argued that they are, in fact, complementary attributes. Because he is the sustaining cause of all that exists (and as such, transcends all things), God must be present — that is, immanent — in order to uphold the entire cosmic production. Moreover, because being is, according to Aquinas, a thing’s fundamental quality, then God must be present “in all things innermostly”. I, for one, think this is quite persuasive. I am also persuaded that, however difficult it may be to think of the world as pervaded by a kind of cosmic rationality (understood in personal terms by Christians), it seems likelier than the atomistic, mechanistic picture favoured by many moderns. At the same time, I also recognize that formulations like Aquinas’ are bound to strike some as recondite as the (apparent) conundrums they are designed to unravel. Is there any way of making these doctrines a little more intelligible? A “real-world” analogy, perhaps, that concretizes what might otherwise appear to be abstract and vaporous? I think there is.

Meaning as an Aid to Understanding

The concept of meaning can act as an aid to understanding as we grapple with the aspects of God’s being (as conceived by Christians) that I have outlined. It can shed light on how God can be simultaneously transcendent and immanent, whilst illuminating the view that there exists a (personal) principle of order and rationality that permeates the phenomenal world. But what do I…er…mean by “meaning”? Simply this: meaning could be described as the “aboutness” of something, be it a sentence, a picture, or a facial expression. For something like a sentence, meaning is the message “encoded” in the combination of words the author or speaker has chosen to use. It is the information that the user (broadly defined) intends to convey in his or her message. My writing this blog post is designed to communicate certain propositions, thoughts, etc., which are reflected in the words I have chosen to deploy.

The above will suffice as a good, working definition of meaning. Let’s see, firstly, how it can help us understand God’s dual nature. Take the following sentence: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. If you’re a competent user of English, you’re likely to recognize the scenario the sentence is about — that is, the event to which it points. It will inevitably conjure a particular image, consisting of a male child using a casting action to convey a spherical object (often of recreational value) to a female child. The marks that compose the sentence will be readily understood as constituting an intelligible message. Indeed, the message is immanent within the sentence, in that the latter is “invested” with the former. Meaning is also immanent within individual words. By means of physical markings, “boy” means, points to, or represents a male child (usually under 18). Going back to the level of syntax and sentence structure, it would seem that not only does a message somehow “infuse” the physical marks one might use to communicate it; as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, author of the stimulating book, Is There A Meaning in This Text?, has argued, meaning “cannot grasped apart from them [i.e., those marks]”. As he goes on to say, the intangibility of meaning is known through the tangibility of written characters (or, alternatively, audible sounds).

And yet, meaning is not confined to a particular collection of markings. It’s not “shut in”, as it were, but transcends any one set of words. “It is more than vocabulary and syntax”, as Vanhoozer observes. It may pervade those markings, but is neither restricted nor reducible to them. Indeed, the meaning of a sentence is more than the sum of its constituent parts. We might think about it this way: whilst I can write “the boy threw the ball to the girl”, and successfully convey my intended meaning, this in no way precludes others from simultaneously doing the same thing. Conversely, their writing the same sentence does not evacuate meaning from my own scribblings. We can all successfully “point to” the objects that are represented by the words we are using, even if the sentences we write are identical. If meaning were to be tied to words in a non-transcendent way, this would be impossible. As it is, whilst meaning and words are intimately related — such that it could be called a relation of “immanence” — it does not exclude the former’s capacity to outstrip the limits of the latter. In fact, being able to convey the same information, using the same words as other language users, presupposes it.

Like God, then, meaning bears a dual nature: transcendent on the one hand, immanent on the other. As we have seen, these qualities are not contradictory; rather, they are complimentary, and necessarily so. If something as mundane as the meaning of words and sentences can be understood in this manner, then whatever other difficulties attach themselves to grasping the divine nature, the simultaneity of his transcendence and immanence should not be one of them.

So much for that conundrum. What about the idea that, for Christians, there exists a principle of order or rationality within creation, one that is identified with Christ, the very wisdom of God (cf. John 1:1-4)? Again, meaning provides a model for comprehension. As we have seen, the meaning of words invests them with intelligibility, whilst the principles of language supply shape and coherency to an otherwise random assemblage of markings. Of course, this is not the whole story. As Vanhoozer (among others) has noted, meaning is as much a verb (something that results from human action) as it is a noun (something that is “embedded” in words). The principle of unity is ultimately sourced in the intentions of the speaker/writer. Nevertheless, meaning acts as the proximate principle of unity, order and rationality for a chain of words a language user may string together. We may use our stock example once more: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. Each word is imbued with its own meaning, such that the marks are no longer unintelligible etchings, but vehicles of representation that can be understood by other language users. Similarly, the sentence as a whole is ordered by those same principles of intelligibility: the words that compose it are rationally related, in that they are arranged in a given sequence to communicate a particular message. Meaning, though immaterial, is a substantial reality, and is mediated through the variety of linguistic combinations (“deeds and events”, as one literary theorist put it) to which it bequeaths order.

Hopefully, you can see where I am going with all this. Christ, the divine Word, permeates the created world, supplying it with a kind of order that resembles meaning’s relationship to words and sentences (incidentally, the example I am using also offers us very rough analogy as to how something immaterial [meaning] can exert some kind of influence over something material [written or spoken words]). Like meaning’s role in structuring the sounds and signs of which a  certain message is composed, the divine wisdom structures this world in a way that ensures its rational intelligibility. It is a world of reasoned cause-and-effect, of patterned beauty, which is (in principle, anyway) susceptible to rational, scientific explanation. Both meaning and divine wisdom act as adhering agents, cementing the various constituents of their respective worlds — one linguistic, the other phenomenal — in a comprehensible way.

Conclusion

My aim in this essay has been to show that certain Christian doctrines, whilst apparently guilty of incomprehensibility, can in fact be readily understood. If I am right, there is no need for special pleading here: the common example of meaning’s relationship to words — something of which we are all intuitively aware — suggests that superficial contradictions regarding God’s nature, or allegedly esoteric claims about cosmic principles of rationality, have analogues in the world of everyday material things.

*Yes, I am aware that some scholars dispute Pauline authorship of Ephesians. I myself think that Paul wrote the letter, but I acknowledge that not everybody sees it that way.

**Of course, this is not the same as saying they are untrue.

 

On Faith and Floods – God’s Response (Part 3.1)

Over the past few months, I have engaged with the issue of evil and suffering from various angles. The job of doing so appears to be quite pressing at the moment, given what we have seen occur around the world. I began this series shortly after the devastating floods inQueensland. But the destruction they wrought has been dwarfed by the unimaginable numbers of dead and missing (not to mention the tens of thousands of homes destroyed) by the recent earthquake and tsunami off the coast ofJapan. And all the while, people in other parts of the world continue to endure violence and bloody suppression at the hands of unjust dictators, whether inLibya or Syria. To remain unaffected by these events probably means that one has not truly understood their magnitude, nor the suffering involved.

In previous posts, I attempted to grapple with the different interpretations of evil and suffering in the world, pointing out the deficiencies of an atheistic perspective whilst also trying to provide some rationale for belief in God amidst hardship and tragedy. However, those posts were written at the level of general philosophical engagement and speculation, and whilst they may have been successful in their respective aims (people perusing this blog will have to judge their success!), they were abstract renditions of the problem. Further, whilst they may have created space for belief in God, they in no way automatically validated the Christian faith. In these posts, I hope to provide a fully Christian account of evil and suffering, in addition to giving some insight into God’s response. I mean, it’s one thing to claim that the so-called “free will argument” (for example) makes the existence of God and the presence of evil theoretically consistent; quite another to claim the truth of the Christian faith and to tell the story of what God is actually doing about evil and suffering in the midst of a messy and chaotic world. I trust, however, that readers will have gained some insight into these issues by the time you finish these articles.

No account of evil and suffering that claims to be truly Christian can be so without a robust account of sin. These days, it seems that sin is a “four-letter word” (despite only having three). People – even some Christians – are reluctant to speak about it, and our increasing theological illiteracy (among other things) has made the concept opaque and offensive. But although unpopular, sin is a much-needed antidote to the rather shallow and trivial accounts of human wrongdoing that sometimes abound. Far from being an easily malleable species, whose perfectibility is simply a matter of the right environment, humanity has proven itself to be in dire spiritual and moral need. I am not arguing that human beings are incapable of goodness and of right moral action; the contrary is demonstrably the case. But what is clear – at least from the vantage point of Christian theology – is that humanity’s nature is deeply corrupt. Against the progressivist, who might argue that all people need is a good dose of post-Enlightenment thinking to see them on their merry way towards the summit of human existence, it is apparent that there is something intrinsically warped about humanity, which no amount of education or moral reasoning can completely ameliorate. That warped nature is ultimately the result of humanity’s ruptured relationship with God; a rejection of the One who has created this world and in whose image we have been made; and a repudiation of the source of goodness and truth. I said in my previous post on this topic that humanity has been endowed with free will, and that much of the evil and immorality that we witness is a consequence of free will’s abuse. That is indeed true, but a Christian interpretation goes further, making the claim that even free will has been strangled by human sin, such that God’s image-bearing creatures, who were made to reflect the goodness of their Creator, are now unable to escape the distorting effects of primal disobedience. Each of us has, to varying degrees (though I would not like to speculate on that point further), been “infected” by this spiritual, moral and ontological chaos, with the consequence that all are separated from God, and are confirmed in that separation through actions that render us both victims and perpetrators of seemingly irrevocable evil.

Paul speaks at some length regarding this existential predicament in his letter to the Romans. There, with broad brush strokes, the Apostle highlights the dire state of man (Rom. 1:18-32). Using the creation narratives in Genesis as a backdrop, he argues for the present state of humanity being both a recapitulation and reflection of the first man’s willful separation from his Creator. What is more, Paul makes the very startling claim that not only humanity, but all creation, is in a state of chaos, and that the latter’s “slavery” is bound up with the former’s rebellion (Rom. 8:19-22). God created this world as his good world; he launched his project of creation by bringing it forth from the chaos (Gen. 1:1-2, where water symbolizes chaos, a common motif in Jewish cosmology), and by giving humanity the task of stewardship – exercising his wise order over the earth he had made. But, humanity failed in that task, and rather than being an unambiguously good and fruitful place, creation became marked by the encroaching chaos – darkly signified by death, the ultimate manifestation of humanity’s separation from the Author of Life. Man has bowed to sin’s monstrous performance on history’s stage, and the litany of sins Paul reels off at the end of Chapter 1 points to his (man’s) estrangement from God as well as his willing embrace of evil. What we witness now, with horror and with tears, flows from that distorted inclination within man.

This, at least, is a compact Christian rendition of humanity’s – and hence, the world’s – predicament. Even here, in the prosperous calm of the west, we are not immune to the more banal expressions of evil. Thus, the question arises once more: what is God doing about evil in the world? Some might think that God is unmoved by the brokenness and the suffering that abounds; I mean, it does appear that he has simply left the world to its own devices, and is eerily quiet when disaster strikes. But no. God has provided the solution to the problem of evil – not by “solving” it philosophically, as if it were a puzzle; and not by vanquishing it through an awesome display of destructive, worldly power (though he has vanquished it, and has done so through power). Instead, he has defeated evil in the most surprising fashion. Evil – at least in principle – has seen the curtain come down on its presence, though not in the way one might expect.

Of course, I am referring to the ministry of Jesus, climaxing with Calvaryand the empty tomb. His advent was the culmination of a redemptive project that God began with the calling of Abraham (Gen. 12). Through Abraham’s descendents, Israel, God set about reclaiming his world. But Israel, too, proved to be infected with the same sin that had corrupted the rest of humanity; God’s chosen instruments of rescue needed rescuing themselves. So he did the unthinkable – he involved himself, radically and intimately, in the fate of his people, and thus, the fate of the world. The transcendent Creator achieved the apparently impossible feat of becoming part of his creation. And as redeemer, he made a way through sin and death and evil and injustice by allowing himself to be momentarily crushed by these forces, even as he nullified their power through the events of Easter. And so it is here that the cross and the resurrection take their rightful place together at the heart of Christianity’s answer to the problem of evil and God. So much could be said about this epochal event (and they must be taken together as one event), but here I want to concentrate on just a few passages that shed light on the nature of the climax of Jesus’ ministry, and through them, weave together a theological tapestry that presents the full sweep of God’s climactic response to evil’s malevolent cry. Many of us have asked God what he is doing about it all. Through Jesus Christ, he has answered. That answer, however, will have to wait for my next post.