Creation

Christian Reflections on the Coronavirus: A Rebuke to Modern Illusions

Introduction

Like so many people over the past few months, I have been somewhat unnerved by the Coronavirus outbreak. Never in my lifetime have I experienced a phenomenon whose reach has been truly global, even as its effects are felt in the most intimate corners of daily existence. A lingering atmosphere of confusion brims with tales of the virus, abetted by rumour and exaggeration. Signs of its presence have been everywhere: in nations trying to wall themselves off to halt the spread of infection; in the pangs of hesitation one feels over the simplest of social interactions; or in the eerily empty streets of once bustling city centres. An unceasing stream of media reports have revealed the apparent power of the contagion to warp social reality – threatening to unravel those dense webs of habit and custom within which a safe, predictable life is made possible. That COVID-19 is a silent, spectral force only seems to add to the prevailing mood of unease.

Shattering human illusions

One thing that has struck me about this crisis is the way it has dramatically laid bare many of the illusions that beguile human beings, especially those of us who have been conditioned and shaped by the modern world. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our distorted relationship with nature.

Enslaving nature

Human beings have long sought to dominate the natural world, convinced that it would placidly submit to the hand of man. It’s a conceit to which people in the West are particularly vulnerable, something that has been true since at least the time of the Enlightenment and its immediate precursors. Whether one traces this turn to the early scientific work of Francis Bacon – who sought to expand the bounds of humanity’s imperial enslavement of nature – the Cartesian separation of the mental from the physical, or even the emerging mechanistic picture of creation (for machines can usually be manipulated at will), the Enlightenment has led inexorably to the conviction that human mastery over the natural realm is both possible and desirable.

The development of science was a key part of this attempt to exercise sovereignty. It was believed that through scientific discovery and technological progress, human beings would succeed in wresting nature’s secrets from her, enabling them to predict, channel, and control her course. Beneath this enterprise lay a thoroughly instrumental conception of nature, which held that the natural environment was valuable only insofar as it could be exploited by humanity in its relentless pursuit of advancement; as theologian Michael Northcott has eloquently observed, nature was seen merely as “malleable matter available for reconstitution in the service of human wants”. Any notion that it was a force of independent or intrinsic worth, to which human beings would sometimes have to defer, gradually receded.

Belief in the inevitability of technological progress and its unrivalled ability to tame nature has, of course, seeped into Western consciousness during the succeeding centuries. The expectation that human beings will ultimately succeed in pacifying ever-larger tracts of the natural environment is now an article of secular faith. Similarly, the idea that sufficient application of technical acumen to a particular problem will solve it is now a cherished part of the modern canon.

It is certainly true that scientific advancements have had remarkable success in allowing people to enjoy respite from nature’s onslaught. Nor can it be denied that harnessing natural forces has brought immeasurable gains to vast numbers of people. A mixture of stunned amazement and humble gratitude is often the most appropriate – indeed, the only – response. Of course, one may ask whether this alone justifies the Panglossian predictions made for human capacity. Just as relevant is the fact that as such progress emerged and took root, it inevitably changed the relationship between human beings and their environments. Humans consequently began to view themselves, not as integrated members of the natural order, but as something above and apart from it.

Trying to break out of nature’s orbit

To talk of human transcendence over nature is to highlight a second key presumption inherent in modernity. Its connection with human attempts to domesticate the natural order is one of mutual reinforcement: allegedly sitting above the system of nature in an ontologically exterior realm, humanity came to see itself as free to shape that system at will; meanwhile, the undeniable success of such efforts simply legitimised the expansion of human empire, reinforcing the exalted position they had arrogated for themselves. It is not inaccurate to say that the accomplishments of science both bred and buttressed a metaphysical and ethical position concerning the relationship between human beings and their environment. Whatever the logical defects of that move, it, too, is part of the philosophical foundation of the modern West.

Descartes’ views on the connection between the mental and the physical may help explain these shifts. The Cartesian divorce between the intellectual and material dimensions of human beings had its external analogue in the separation between humanity – the only earthly beings possessed of rationality, the sine qua non of the mental – and nature-at-large. As science writer Alex Blum has observed, Descartes’ metaphysical commitments unwittingly structured modern science so as to conceive of human being existing “outside” nature. The French philosopher himself talked of humans becoming “masters and possessors of nature”, a phrase which also reflects the highly instrumentalist character he attributed to it. Combined with the objectifying gaze of emerging scientific discourse, the transcendence of the human person over nature was now churning within the bowels of Western culture. With the establishment of this hierarchy, human beings – now metaphysically unshackled from the natural world – could act as its overlords, manipulating their environment “to suit [their] own ambitions”.

Coronavirus and the unseating of modern dogmas

The rapid emergence of COVID-19 over the past three months is a rebuke to such hubris. It is also a stern reminder that for all the confidence we place in human ingenuity, nature cannot finally be tamed. Whatever local forms of control human beings exert over their environments, they remain contingent or provisional – and, more to the point, far more vulnerable to collapse than we would care to admit. Many people in the global South are inured to nature’s caprice, of course; to the devastation it has wrought, whether through a decades-long drought or a deadly Ebola outbreak. It is citizens residing in the developed world – those who often enjoy the luxury of being able to avoid nature’s encroachments – who are now experiencing life in the shadow of something that continues to elude the most assiduous efforts to control it. That vulnerability, long concealed by a seemingly unending conveyor belt of technological marvels, is now being unmasked.

All the economic might and technical sophistication of the modern West has, in many places, failed to stave off the spread of the virus. In fact, it’s precisely those symbols of Western-inspired progress – international travel and trade, ageing societies, industrialisation, and high-density urban environments – that have amplified the threat, contributing to the spread and lethality of COVID-19. Far from conquering the natural world, people are now quite literally retreating in the face of nature’s advance: leaving their cities bereft and empty, and ensconcing themselves in their homes to evade the contagion’s grasp. And even where it has been successfully suppressed, victory has only been secured at the cost of economic ruin.

Yes, human beings have successfully shaped aspects of the natural world. Such will no doubt continue after the present crisis subsides. But the virus has jolted us into recognizing an obvious truth: that nature’s teeming complexity persistently outstrips our ability to fully comprehend – and therefore fully control – its many secrets.

The world of economic networks provides a useful analogy. Philosopher Edward Feser recently wrote about the late F.A. Hayek, arguing that the Anglo-Austrian economist believed that the “deep reason” socialism could not work in practice is that human planners simply cannot hold within their mental grip the “vast aggregate” of human needs and wants composing an economic system. Imagine, then, attempting to firmly grasp (much less dominate) the entire scheme of nature, including its near-limitless ensemble of organisms and ecological cycles. The natural world is a great, roiling cauldron, its various ingredients clashing – sometimes violently – in ways so diverse that they defy human calculation. Moreover, as anthropologist Nicholas Kawa has written (in relation to modern Amazonian farmers), our environments, far from being docile or compliant, frequently exhibit a “robust, defiant vitality” in the face of human efforts to conquer them. COVID-19 is only the latest manifestation of that defiance. What can this mean but that total sovereignty over the natural world will forever remain a vaporous dream – a “chasing after the wind” (to borrow from Ecclesiastes)?

This basic lack of control applies even to that part of nature we know best: our own bodies. Whilst there have been far deadlier pandemics in human history, the Coronavirus is probably the largest mass health event of the late-modern age – an era of rapidly ageing populations, advanced medicine, and the miracle-like defiance of death’s ravages. Although the world’s immiserated past and present have known that life is a delicate gift, modern folk are “culturally insulated…from the notion of death…”. The relentless, exhausting ubiquity of the present outbreak, uprooting and frustrating every dimension of the ordinary, or tearing at communities in highly developed nations, has forced us into a reckoning with our own mortality – the necessary sequel to our finitude and creatureliness. Human illusions have once again been exposed by the pathogen, particularly where they have taken root in cultures that simply expect inexorable progress. Rather than bending nature to the force of our collective will, we are invariably its subjects.

In similar fashion, the contagion shatters the belief that humanity occupies a position of transcendence over nature. That much should be apparent from what I have said about the virus and the human body, with our native fragility exposed in the most intimate fashion. COVID-19 forces us to recognize the sobering fact that human beings, for all their unique capabilities, remain denizens of the natural order. We are not so thoroughly different that we can claim some kind of ontological autonomy; the boundaries between humanity and the rest of the created world remain permeable. Whatever else it is, humanity is ineradicably physical, having been formed by the same material compounds that compose the environments we inhabit and the resources we consume. Not only do we depend on propitious circumstances within nature for our survival; we are also shaped by the natural world to a remarkable degree, even at the level of deep genetic change (as the field of epigenetics is rapidly discovering). Our corporeality means that we are conditioned by the natural world – whether for good or for ill – for we cannot exist as fully enfleshed human beings apart from that framework. As theologian Christopher Benson has rightly pointed out, our embodied state means that we cannot be completely “sealed off”, as it were, from the external world. We cannot avoid the truth that we are integrated members of precisely the same ecological system that produced COVID-19. All of us are bound to a system that not only sustains us, but also leaves us vulnerable to its predations.

Seeking guidance from a more ancient source

The pathogen has surely succeeded in undermining modern pretensions. But might it not also clear ground for new attitudes to take root – attitudes that are more consistent with reality as one finds it?

The Christian Scriptures and the wisdom they have inspired lay out the rudiments of an alternative approach to the natural world. For one thing, the Bible provides clear witness to nature’s untameable power. Whether one envisions the present natural world as an Augustinian corruption from a paradisal state, or as an unfinished project still wrestling with discordant elements, the fact remains that it is replete with titanic forces that frequently issue in destruction. Even a brief glance, say, at the psalms reveals word after poetic word concerning creation’s ferocity. The sea, for example, was often used as a particularly arresting image for the looming chaos that threatened God’s people (e.g., Pss 29:3-10; 69:14-15; 77:16; 104:6-9). Such was its raw, inscrutable, untamed power that it functioned as the perfect embodiment for cosmic evil. Only Yahweh himself, Israel’s covenant God, was able to tame those unruly forces, shutting up the sea and subduing the mythical beasts of Leviathan and Behemoth (Ps 104:7-9; Job 41). These elements resonated as well as they did because people intuitively understood that the natural world is a fearsome, independent power, often exceeding – and even overwhelming – humanity’s capacity to control it.

The book of Job, with its extended meditation on suffering, offers particular insights in this regard. By the end of his confrontation with God, Job himself arrives at a fresh understanding of the limits of his own vision. He recognizes anew his small and restricted place within the grand production of nature: a world that exhibits both comforting regularities and the rude shock of unexpected destruction (Job 42:3b). His sober conclusion comes after the divine speeches, in which the Creator humbles the protagonist with a battery of rhetorical questions about the nature of creation (Job 38-40). Such questions serve to underscore the relative powerlessness of human beings in the face of creation’s apparently unbounded character. The unavoidable implication is, of course, that only the sovereign Creator is capable of bringing to heel the natural world.

The appearance of COVID-19 should provoke us towards a similar change: a re-orientation of our relationship to the natural world, which reflects the sobriety of scriptural tradition. To be sure, the ancients were at the mercy of natural forces in a way that isn’t quite true for many of us today. But with the virus having undercut the modern aspiration of control over nature and her ways, the time is ripe for re-acquaintance with the biblical picture of a dynamic, sometimes unbridled creation – at once fit for human habitation and a place of lurking, unseen risk. Reflecting on the Joban experience, physicist (and practising Christian) Tim Reddish has observed that Scripture often conceives of the boundary between chaos and order in the natural world as an “unpredictable”, porous one: chaos has of course been assigned its place by a sovereign God, who corrals and even uses it. But chaos has not been eradicated.

Seen through the lens of a biblical theology of creation, the Coronavirus provides an object lesson in humility before the sometimes-dangerous freedom of nature, especially for modern people accustomed to its apparent domestication. Re-appropriating a biblical view of the natural world as something that continues to exhibit such independence may also lay the psychological and spiritual groundwork for a new preparedness, a new resilience, in the face ecological calamity. Those who can humbly acknowledge the enduring reality of an untamed creation – consistent with the truth of our own finitude and limitations – will be better equipped to withstand the maelstrom, even when it threatens to thoroughly strip everything away. This isn’t to counsel fatalism or passivity in the midst of disaster; human beings ought to do what they can to mitigate nature’s destructive power, and alleviate suffering wherever they find it. But if clinging to the narrative of complete human sovereignty over nature can lead to existential crisis when it revolts, perhaps the opposite attitude will – paradoxically – anchor us during such travails. In fact, the equanimity won through adoption of a biblical perspective undergirds precisely the kind of existential and moral strength needed if a person is to extend herself in love to others during times of disaster.

Scripture also challenges the idea that humanity somehow sits outside the natural order, bestriding it as an overlord. Of course, this claim is bound to raise some eyebrows: ever since Lynn White, Jr. argued in 1967 that the Judeo-Christian view of the natural world was at the root of the present ecological crisis, many people have assumed as much without question. It’s true that the Bible’s foundational creation stories posit both humanity’s uniqueness and its role over the rest of creation, acting as God’s steward and vice-regent to “subdue the earth” (Gen 1:28; cf. Psalm 8). At least two points, however, must be borne in mind. First, the early chapters of Genesis envision, not the despoliation of nature as a result of human arrogance, but the natural world being harnessed and shaped so that it might flourish all the more. Second, we must also contend with the fact that to tend the earth is, according to Scripture, part of what it means to be made in God’s image (cf. Gen 2:15). Loving husbandry of the natural world is a reflection of God’s own creative character. Christians, moreover, remain convinced that this key vocation is refracted through the person of Jesus, who provides for us the supreme expression of the imago dei. His own life offers the true model for the relationship between human beings and the natural world, for it reveals the posture of humble service – not ruthless exploitation – lying at the heart of authentic humanity (e.g., John 13:1-17).

In any case, whilst Scripture envisions human beings as acting on God’s behalf to bring order to that which he has fashioned, it is under no illusions concerning the place his image-bearers occupy within the natural order. Man may have the breath of life flowing through him, but he is also of the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7). We straddle the ontological “border” between the material and immaterial, but that does not change the fact that we are composed of the same physical “stuff” as the rest of creation. Indeed, humans share a certain kinship with the natural world, given our common “earthiness”. Scripture resolutely recognizes this: it acknowledges that humans remain denizens of creation, participating fully in an ecological order that sustains them (cf. Ps 103:14). As the legendary OT scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, Genesis 2:7 conceives of “the human person [as] fundamentally and elementally material in origin and composition, genuinely an ‘earth-creature’, subject to all the realities and limitations of materiality”. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once reflected on the same text, “the essential point of human existence is its bond with mother earth, its being as body” (emphasis mine).

The book of Genesis sees humanity as a member of nature’s ensemble of creatures, sharing in the same qualities as non-human animals – and, of course, the same vulnerabilities to disease and death. In fact, it depicts the relationship between human beings and the rest of creation in almost covenantal terms, with a tight causal nexus existing between God’s image-bearers and the natural world. Humanity cannot escape the vagaries of that world, at least not entirely, and certainly not on this side of redemption. Theologian Terence Fretheim suggests that the cosmos is “communal” in nature; “its basic relatedness” means that “every creature will be touched by the movement of every other”. And in this present, discordant reality, those interactions include the lethal effects of a global pandemic, as a microscopic pathogen spreads decay and disorder simply by acting according to its nature. COVID-19, for all the misery it has wrought, has also exposed something important about our relationship with nature. Christian tradition brings that relationship into sharper focus – encouraging renewed respect for the natural boundaries that have been placed around us, as well as our own obligations as participating members of the natural world’s web of life.

Concluding thoughts

Several writers and commentators have termed the Coronavirus “apocalyptic”. In deploying this term, they do not mean to suggest that the end of world is at hand, or that we are soon destined for a cosmic conflagration. Rather, it has been used in its original sense, to refer to an “unveiling” or “revelation”. And so the contagion has proved, exposing many uncomfortable realities that lay just beneath the surface, and overturning previously settled narratives. The ones I have surveyed here are perhaps some of the most deeply-rooted in the modern psyche, having the benefit of centuries to consolidate themselves within Western culture. Nevertheless, a catastrophe like COVID-19, with its capacity to leave people reeling existentially, is enough to call them into question. But the dislocation many have experienced may ultimately bring some good in its wake – auguring a transformed, more wholesome, relationship between humanity and the rest of the nature, and encouraging a far more proportionate understanding of the place human beings occupy within the “robust…vitality” of the ecological system.

Moreover, the Christian tradition offers the resources needed to sustain a more humble, self-effacing engagement with the rest of the natural world, which even now acts as a check on the (illusory) idea of borderless human power. Indeed, that tradition happily acknowledges the persistent fact of humanity’s limitations – its conditioned existence, in other words – living in a pre-established order that does not always bend easily to our whims.

Christians, of course, are compelled to go further. The advent of COVID-19 may also stimulate a re-appropriation of the great fact underlying our true place within the natural world: the reality of divine sovereignty over creation. This has the effect of underscoring our own dependency as beings constituted by finite matter, who only exist as a consequence of God’s gracious sustenance. Far from being the unconditioned masters of nature, we rely, not simply on the panoply of the created order, but upon the One who sustains it. As the Apostle declared, “in him [i.e., God] we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). From a Christian perspective, the pathogen’s advent is a challenge to re-affirm, not the unrestrained attempts of human beings to exploit a passively-waiting environment, but the boundless God’s ruling hand over something that pulsates with his life and power. By deflating the modern ego, COVID-19 has, perhaps, created space for a return to a theologically-centred view of the natural world, in which human beings abide by the natural limits set for them.

Such a journey is both humbling and comforting. It is humbling for two, complementary reasons: first, it requires humans to accept their places within (and not above) a finely-balanced ecological network; but, second, it summons people to de-centre themselves, to abandon the anthropocentric proclivities of the modern age, and to focus on the Creator instead. But in that re-orientation lie the seeds of true comfort, for it encourages trust in Him whose providential control persists, even during the tumult of a global pandemic. Whether one turns to Genesis 1 to read of the Creator assigning places to the sun and the moon (which were worshiped as deities by many ancients), or Psalm 104, which extols God’s dominion over the things he has made, Scripture is unswaying in its declaration of his kingship. Whereas the story of human sovereignty over nature now lies in tatters, Christianity offers an alternative account: of the wise, loving, and ultimately redemptive power exhibited by the One who alone can rightfully claim this world for himself.

Postcards from the Marriage Wars – Part Three

The last time I examined the issue of same-sex marriage, it was by way of a response to the (predictable) views of a Fairfax journalist. However, it is one thing to hear from commentators on this issue; quite another to listen to those directly embroiled in the matter. Perhaps they have a unique insight that mere pundits lack. Roger Munson, a Uniting Church minister who conducted a wedding ceremony between two men during the ACT’s brief interregnum on SSM, is one such individual. Here he is in his own words, explaining his reasons for supporting such a momentous shift:

“Jesus never said anything against people who are homosexual…Jesus always welcomed people, had compassion and never judged people…These people should be allowed to marry because they want to express their love for each other through a public right as anyone else does.”

Leave aside the fact that Jesus’ personal opinion of homosexual individuals hardly settles the public policy debate regarding the nature of marriage; Mr Munson’s views are nevertheless likely to appeal to those of a more liberal persuasion (by the by, it’s interesting that one Christian can be feted for holding views that the Left has already embraced, whilst another Christian can be howled down and accused of illegitimately trying to inject religion into a public debate if he so much as breathes a conservative sentiment). I have already talked about the possible pitfalls of trying to ground marriage in the subjective and transient (if intense) emotions that exist between two people, so I won’t cover old ground. Suffice it to say, it seems that Mr Munson assumes precisely this: people who wish to marry should be able to “…because they want to express their love for each other.” Note the consequential word, “because”: marriage should in effect be afforded to those who declare their love for each other, based precisely on this quality. According to Mr Munson (if his stated view is any indication), the only thing required for a marriage to be codified is the presence of such feelings. On its face, this view is compelling, generous, open and seductive. It reflects the mores and norms of a permissive, liberal age, and is likely to be celebrated with increasing enthusiasm. There’s just one, small problem: it’s wrong. And it’s wrong on several counts, not least of which is Mr Munson’s analysis and application of Jesus’ alleged views. It is upon this particular dimension of Mr Munson’s argument that I wish to focus.

Now, Mr Munson is absolutely correct that Jesus never said anything explicitly about homosexuality – or at least it’s true that the evangelists never mention Jesus saying anything about it. We simply have no record of Jesus’ utterances on the matter. But that’s the first problem; suggesting that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality as a way of legitimising SSM is an argument from silence. Arguments from silence, I should point out, are notoriously feeble. Because the gospels – the only records we have of Jesus’ putative teachings – are so brief, we simply have no way of knowing whether Jesus did have anything to say about the matter. So basing one’s support for homosexual relationships upon the apparent silence of the founder of Christianity is fraught with difficulty. The most we could say is that if Jesus said anything bearing upon homosexuality specifically, the evangelists – for reasons known only to themselves – decided to omit it from their writings. Moreover, I am sure many people can think of other instances of (purported) moral impropriety – behaviour that might well attract near-universal criticism – about which Jesus was absolutely silent. A few examples come to mind; whilst attracting widespread opprobrium today, they are things on which we have no (expressed) opinion from Jesus. Ought we tale his silence on those matters as synonymous with approval? My point is that arguments from silence trade in ignorance – in this case, ignorance about what Jesus actually thought when it came to the question of homosexual acts.

But Mr Munson’s citation of Jesus’ (apparent) silence regarding homosexuality runs into another difficulty – namely, that it seems to reflect a fairly simplistic view of theological ethics. Let me explain. To ground (at least in part) the legitimacy of an act in Jesus’ silence on a particular matter is to give credence to the idea that ethical truths – in this case, prohibitions – are to be found only in explicit commands. But this is false, both in terms of ethics generally, and biblical ethics specifically. Surely Mr Munson knows that, when it comes to a biblically-informed ethical worldview, narrative substructure and underlying perspective are just as important as any explicit endorsement or proscription. This is germane, for once one introduces Scripture’s underlying narrative or ethical worldview, things take on a decidedly different complexion (as we shall see). Ironically, Mr Munson’s view seems to represent the worst kind of “reverse” proof-texting – the obverse of the sort of superficial ethical reasoning for which fundamentalist Christians are regularly (and often rightly) castigated. But of course, when such thinking is pressed into service to shore up presently accepted norms and mores, people are willing to overlook its demonstrable woolly-headedness.

* * *

These are just preliminary remarks, of course. But they point to intrinsic weaknesses in Mr Munson’s position. Moreover, and contrary to what Mr Munson seems to think, I believe that it’s possible to suggest – at least with some justification – what Jesus might have thought about the vexed question of homosexuality. I cannot argue that this case is “air-tight”, for the argument from silence can be a double-edged sword: that Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality means that we cannot be certain – at least from the biblical evidence before us – that he condemned it outright. Still, by examining what Jesus did say about sexuality generally, as well as clear-headed reflection upon the religious-ethical matrix within which he and his primary interlocutors operated, I think we can reasonably suggest that Jesus held to what would now be seen as a “conservative” position on matters sexual.

To begin, Jesus’ comments on sexuality do reveal his views fairly clearly – and, by implication, his views on homosexuality. Take, for example, his debate with a contingent of Pharisees on the question of divorce in Matthew 19. His opponents come to him in order to test his devotion to the Law of Moses (v.3). There are interesting contextual roots to this discussion, pertaining to the differing interpretations of the relevant OT material. Two schools of thought, congregating around the rabbis Hillel and Shammai, debated the meaning and scope of passages such as Deuteronomy 24:1. The former was more liberal in his interpretation of the verse, particularly its references to “displeasing” and “indecent”, whilst the latter adopted a more restricted understanding of legitimate grounds for divorce.

Jesus’ reply to his interlocutors, however, seems to bypass this internecine debate entirely. Indeed, he seems to point to the central meaning of the marriage covenant. Over and against this kind of rabbinic minutia, Jesus holds fast to the underlying ideal of marriage, as outlined in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, by stating in vv.4-6 that marriage was always meant to be the lifelong, one-flesh union between a man and a woman. If one were to say that Jesus didn’t explicitly rule out other kinds of couplings, it would appear that, implicitly at least, he did. Note verse 4, where Jesus quotes specifically from Gen 1:27 – humanity was created male and female. NT scholar Craig Blomberg, in commenting on this passage, has said that the Genesis text set the paradigm, by which “heterosexual, monogamous marriage” was established “as the most intimate of interpersonal relationships and as the only relationship in which sexual union was appropriate” (emphasis mine). The creational ideal, it would seem, meant the distinction between male and female – or sexual complementarity, if one wants to use contemporary language – as the underlying basis for the one-flesh union. The Genesis texts, which the Matthean Jesus took to be foundational and authoritative, offer us a picture of marriage marked by two, intrinsic features: sexual distinction; and fleshy union (i.e., sexual intercourse). It encompasses these complimentary dimensions as structural elements of its own reality. To say, then, that this is the ideal (as Jesus seems to have done), is to implicitly screen out other sexual combinations and permutations, whether they occur within, or beyond, the constraints of some kind of formalised commitment. This includes SSM; however much Mr Munson might like to believe that Jesus would have no problem with two men or two women marrying each other (assuming that such an event is ontologically possible in the first place), it seems that the data contained in the gospels present a rather different picture.

Mr Munson, and those who have trod this path before, might want to argue that even if Jesus presented marriage in these terms as the divine ideal, his silence on homosexuality specifically might reflect a lack of interest in the subject. But this represents a failure to take into account the context within which Jesus and his opponents operated, and the influence it likely had on the shape and complexion of the debates that took place. Let’s take Jesus first. His reliance upon the OT’s premier text as a way of cutting through the debate over divorce suggests that, whatever else might be said, he saw the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative. Indeed, Jesus’ reliance upon the Genesis texts to make his case functions as a window through which we may glimpse his embrace of the OT’s normativity – particularly as it pertains, in this case, to sexual relations. Take Matt 5:17-20, for example, where Jesus spoke of his relationship to the Hebrew Scriptures, and the implications his coming had for its authority. Certainly, the advent of Christ meant (to some extent) the radical redefinition of the Torah and its place in the life of the people of God. But his words in this passage do not indicate that it was thereby abolished. Quite the contrary, in fact. Jesus declared the ongoing legitimacy of the “Law and the Prophets”, even as he fulfilled them. And this would have included everything pertaining to sexuality generally, and homosexuality in particular. Far from abolishing the law, or diluting its force, Jesus actually intensified it.

As noted, there are debates over what place the OT plays in the life of the church today, and how it is to be applied. Furthermore, Christological fulfilment meant, in some case, the rescinding of certain laws (think food laws). But it cannot be said that Jesus dismissed the authority of the OT as a result of his ministry, or implied that its ethical strictures – including those related to sexual relations – were thereby null and void. The Sermon on the Mount clearly illustrates the point; there, in talking about matters such as murder and adultery, Jesus deepened the righteous requirements to which disciples were beholden (Matt 5:21-30). He certainly contrasted his teachings with those found in the OT. However, he did not present a new, liberalised application of Torah, but rather something that went beyond the outward acts proscribed by the Hebrew Scriptures. The point is that on the evidence, it seems unlikely that Jesus would have held anything less than an orthodox understanding of the authority and interpretation of the OT. This has important implications for his views on sexuality. Even though the evangelists did not record anything Jesus might have said about homosexuality, his general attitude towards the OT suggests that he would not have endorsed it.

As a good Jew, Jesus would not have been unusual in this understanding; many, if not most, of his co-religionists and ethnic kin believed the same. This brings me to the other side of the historical-contextual coin: the beliefs and attitudes of Jesus’ interlocutors (whether hostile or otherwise) towards sexuality and sexual relationships. Far from being a strange omission, Jesus’ apparent silence on the matter of homosexuality is easily comprehensible – perhaps doubly so, when one takes into account his own (likely) attitudes – in light of the social, religious and cultural matrix within which the bulk of his ministry occurred. The main recipients of his mission, it would seem, were fellow Jews. To be sure, Jesus made occasional forays into Gentile territory, and spoke with non-Jews. Moreover, his ministry seemed to provide the guiding resources – and indeed, the theological legitimacy – for later missionary activity within largely Gentile areas. That said, it seems reasonably clear to me that Jesus directed most of his vocational energy towards his fellow Jews – urging them to be the Israel of God they had been called to be, and to turn with penitence towards their true sovereign. From the perspective of the evangelists, first-century Israel had many problems, but acceptance of homosexual practices was not one of them. Similarly, and despite its pluriform character, first-century Judaism was unanimous in its rejection of same-sex acts. If Jesus’ ministry took place largely within this context, it is hardly surprising that he should not mention anything on this topic. Arguing that Jesus’ silence in this regard is morally significant is like claiming that an archbishop’s silence on the question of papal authority amongst a gathering of priests has any bearing on whether the Pope is the acknowledged and infallible head of the Catholic Church. For first-century Jews, the moral propriety of homosexuality was uncontroversial, precisely because of it near-universal rejection. It was simply a given – part of the assumed “plausibility structures” of the Jewish worldview, in other words. As such, if Jesus was silent on the issue, we do not have to wander terribly far to discover why.

* * *

Mr Munson’s views are neither new nor revolutionary. Rather, they simply reflect the dominant cultural and sexual narrative in today’s West. His Christological invocation, besides being simplistic and naïve, is little more than a veneer, masking a position that has been formed on quite different grounds. The “givenness” of sexual differentiation, as reflected in the biblical narrative (and which seems especially clear at key points) has given way to an individualised conception of marital relations – one that is largely based upon the pattern of desires and attractions of the participating individuals (whoever they may be). To be sure, Mr Munson is free to disagree with a biblical theology of marriage and the underlying significance of sexual difference. But one thing he is not free to do (logically speaking, anyway) is to pretend that a view owing much to late-modern Western constructions of sexuality and individual choice is, in fact, deeply and authentically Christian. Apart from anything else, I have tried to show that any such pretensions founder on the rocks of biblical and theological reality.

Woman and Wisdom: Reflections on Proverbs 31:10-31

Here is another essay that I wrote for my Old Testament class earlier this year. It concerns the literary relationship between Proverbs 31:10-31 and the rest of the book of Proverbs. Enjoy!

Introduction

The relationship between Proverbs 31:10-31 and the rest of the book has long been a vexatious question for commentators. Despite perennial uncertainty, there exists a certain literary kinship, at once subtle and multifarious. Characterised by recurring verbal and metaphorical motifs, Prov. 31:10-31 fittingly concludes Proverbs – linked to both the compendium of ethical maxims for which the book is most famous, and its deeper, structural worldview. The ways in which the passage brings closure to Proverbs will be unfurled in the following analysis. After a brief exegetical survey, this essay will explicate the passage’s concluding role under three, broad rubrics. First, it will show that the subject of Prov. 31:10-31 is valorised as an exemplar of the wise and virtuous living commended by the book’s main section. Second, it will consider how the passage offers an embodied picture of Wisdom, tapping into the feminine imagery that pervades the book. Third, it will suggest that Prov. 31:10-31 – particularly when seen in light of the book’s intended audience – consummates the entire vision of Proverbs with an epitome of Wisdom’s loving embrace.

Exegesis

Prov. 31:10-31 opens with a rhetorical exclamation of the high value of the ideal woman (v.10);[1] what follows is a paean to this individual. The question of whether she is specifically identified as a wife (or merely a woman who happens to be married) is, at this point, immaterial. That she is a woman is, as we shall see, of deep, structural importance. In any case, she is presented as a blessing to all who fall within her beneficent orbit. Her husband is completely enriched by her, and consequently, is able to flourish (vv.11-12, 23).[2] Subsequent verses offer a digest of the ennobling heights this woman reaches: she faithfully cares for her family (vv.15, 27), and works with vigour and industry (vv.14, 17-19); her labours span both the domestic and public spheres of life (vv.15-16, 18); and her actions and speech are characterised by integrity (vv.25-26). More than a maelstrom of activity, the woman plans ahead, and with considered judgment makes a profit on her work (v.16). Changing circumstances do not disturb her, for she uses foresight to respond to them (v.21). The ideal woman “laugh(s) at the days to come,” harnessing wisdom in the pursuit of successful living (v.25b). It is not just her family that is blessed (cf. vv. 27-28): this woman is generous to the poor (v.20), and her servants are cared for (v.15). Her circle of concern thus extends beyond her kin, and for that she can be seen as just and righteous. Punctuating the poem is a number of verbs evoking a sense of controlled energy.[3] Together, they construct a picture of someone who is engaged in constant, though profitable, activity (v.27b).

However, the universal wisdom this woman uses is not merely secular or profane. The poem’s climax praises her as one “who fears the Lord” (v.30).[4] Echoing what has been dubbed the motto of the entire book (1:7; cf. 10:27), the author extols the wisdom that flows from, and is oriented towards, an acknowledgement of God. Remaining within the sphere of godly devotion informs the woman’s acts towards others.[5] It channels, drapes and shepherds true understanding about one’s position in God’s creational and moral order.[6] This is but one (important) linkage between Prov. 31:10-31 and the rest of Proverbs, reflecting its role as an appropriate conclusion to the book.

Prov. 31:10-31 – an Exemplar

Most obviously, Prov. 31:10-31 showcases a woman who practices the wise advice commended in the pages of Proverbs. Specifically, it poetically describes many of the qualities the book repeatedly exhorts, whilst also offering subtle evidence against the folly that is consistently denunciated. A short review reveals the many connections between Prov. 31:10-31 and book’s main body (10:1-29:33). The kind of foresight the woman displays is frequently upheld (30:25). So, too, is her industry (10:4; 12:11). Verses encouraging justice for, and generosity towards, the poor, find expression in the woman’s openness to the needy (18:5; 19:17). King Lemuel’s wise sayings, immediately preceding Prov. 31:10-31, encourage its audience to “…defend the rights of the poor” (30:9b). We may also cite those passages that speak well of wise speech (10:19-21; 15:2), not to mention commendation – both implicit and explicit – of marriage to a wise woman (14:1; 12:4; see esp. 18:22). This last category of wisdom sayings is particularly pertinent, for, as will be shown, the eulogizing of the woman of Prov. 31:10-31 is quite deliberate when viewed in terms of the book’s intended readership.

Space prevents a more thoroughgoing analysis. However, it is clear that, far from being merely an epilogue, separated from Proverbs’ main collection of adages, Prov. 31:10-31 weaves those adages together into an artfully constructed literary individual. Like the tributaries of a great river, the seemingly disparate sayings of Proverbs eventually merge into a unified picture of enlivening sagacity. The ideal woman is offered as an exemplar, a paragon, of wise living;[7] a dramatic figure who, in her work and character, reflects the virtues repeatedly commended in the book’s main body.[8]

Proverbs 31:10-31 – an Embodiment

Probing deeper, the ode of Prov. 31:10-31 taps into Proverbs’ foundational structuring of wisdom and wise living, which find extended expression in the book’s first nine chapters. In so doing, it helps to frame Proverbs with the substantive reflections of Chapters 1-9. This is made clear, firstly, by the aforementioned inclusio pertaining to “fear of the Lord” (31:30; cf. 1:7).[9] That alone suggests that Prov. 31:10-31 should be read as one part of a literary frame, orienting Proverbs theologically. Other linkages imply that the woman of the passage in question is to be seen as more than a pristine exponent of wise living. Indeed, the linguistic inclusio reflects the reality of a broader metaphorical framework, tying the beginning and end of Proverbs together.[10]

Most germane are specific echoes, found in Prov. 31:10-31, of wisdom’s personification in the book’s longer sapiential reflections. Through periodic interludes, Proverbs 1-9 presents wisdom in decidedly feminine terms. Lady Wisdom constantly beckons her audience to a life of wisdom (e.g. 1:20-33; 3:14-17; 8:1-36), offering herself up as a dazzling distillation behind such an existence. She is wisdom’s guardian and an attribute of God, submitting the resume of cosmic creation as evidence of her claims (8:22-31).[11] There are several, allusive connections between the ideal woman and Lady Wisdom: both see wisdom and fear of the Lord intermingling within the female persona (1:29; 31:30);[12] like Lady Wisdom, the ideal woman is compared with precious jewels (3:14-15; 31:10);[13] and the ideal woman is to be “found”, just like Lady Wisdom (3:14; 31:10; cf. 18:22). More subtly, both figures bestow riches upon those who are near, building homes and supplying feasts (8:18; 9:1-2; the entire tenor of Prov. 31:10-31).[14] These verbal cues are held together by the overarching use of feminine imagery, which suggests the subject of Prov. 31:10-31 functions as an embodiment of Wisdom herself.[15]

To be sure, the woman of Prov. 31:10-31 is not to be equated with Lady Wisdom, as if they were one and the same persona under different guises. Whilst Lady Wisdom is presented almost prophetically[16] – publicly beckoning all people to accept her teaching – the ideal woman is more interested in wise activity; she is not seen primarily as a teacher.[17] Conversely, although Prov. 31:10-31 depicts its subject as a mother, Lady Wisdom is never imagined in these terms. Caveats notwithstanding, the implications of the forgoing analysis are profound. The presentation of the ideal woman in Prov. 31:10-31 allows the passage to hook itself into the sapiential substructure of the book. Having been described in feminine terms, Wisdom now “re-appears,” – this time, incarnated as a woman. Though historicized and literal, the ideal woman is such that the boundaries between her and Lady Wisdom blur.[18] The power of cosmic creation has become embedded in the labours of an individual.[19]

Wisdom personified directs her readers to the anthology of Prov. 10:1-31:9, which then find concrete expression in a woman par excellence[20]she of Prov. 31:10-31. The passage climactically fulfils the book’s honouring of Wisdom: manifesting, not only the disparate pieces of sapiential truth already surveyed, but also the underlying unitary wisdom personified in (for example) 8:1-36.[21] As if to underscore the ideal woman’s status as such an embodiment, Wisdom’s antithesis is also given voice: Dame Folly (see 9:13-18, for e.g.), and her historicized counterpart, the female stranger (5:1-6; 7:1-27).[22] Chapters 1-9 present the intended audience of Proverbs with a choice between wisdom and folly, life and death. If Lady Wisdom promises the former, then Dame Folly, with her alluring (yet deceptive) words, reflects and offers the latter.[23] They consistently encourage the pursuit of Lady Wisdom; Prov. 31:10-31 completes the lesson – offering a subtle rebuke to the siren song of Dame Folly – with a dramatic portrait of Wisdom-in-action.

Proverbs 31:10-31 – an Epitome

To say that the ideal woman is an embodiment of Wisdom brings us to the book’s two-fold vision, and the consummating contribution that Prov. 31:10-31 makes to it. It is consistently upheld in the foundational chapters of Proverbs, and brought into sharp focus with the book’s final poem.

The subject of Prov. 31:10-31 acts as the literary capstone for the idea that wisdom, far from being an unattainable force, has condescended to the realm of ordinary human experience (cf. 8:31). As a contingent embodiment of Lady Wisdom, the ideal woman allows the book of Proverbs to unveil a most remarkable claim: that the cosmic wisdom of the Lord – the divine summons with which creation is suffused, and by which it was brought into being – is to be reflected and applied, even in the quotidian events of life.[24] The lofty apologia of Lady Wisdom, so beautifully unfurled in Chapter 8, is precisely the same power by which the ideal woman of Prov. 31:10-31 lives. Thus, she is more than the concretization of a metaphor; she is idealized evidence that the seemingly mundane aspects of human existence are to be governed and shaped by that which God used to establish the created order.[25] Although it is foreshadowed in Prov. 9:1-2, the totality of wisdom’s reach – even into domestic life – comes to complete expression in the book’s final poem.[26]

Simultaneously, it is precisely the domestic arena that links the ideal woman to the other part of the two-winged vision of Proverbs. That Prov. 31:10-31 centres upon kin and domicile suggests it is playing on the motif of domestic instruction Proverbs establishes in its early chapters.[27] Here, the intended male readership becomes particularly noteworthy. This audience, set within such an environment, is consistently implied (1:8; 10; 15; 2:1; 3:1; 4:1),[28] and the teaching of young men on the cusp of adulthood drives, in part, the goal of Proverbs.[29] Moreover, the book’s foundational chapters exhort their readers to pursue wisdom and reject folly[30] (see the programmatic statement, 1:1-6) – whilst also implying that wisdom (or Wisdom) is “wooing” them. Indeed, Proverbs envisions a kind of union, even “marriage,” between the book’s intended readership and the wisdom that has reached down to delight in humanity.[31] Wisdom is commended to it (male) readers with intimate language (4:5b-8);[32] she “loves” those who “love” her (8:17); and there are constant warnings against adultery, matched by a moving account of marital fidelity (5:15-20).[33] Marriage, then, is to be seen as kind of metaphor for Wisdom’s embrace, and the young men of Proverbs are called upon to reciprocate like a husband with his beloved.[34] Prov. 31:10-31 fits snugly into this goal, which ultimately explains her (and Lady Wisdom’s) femininity. Functioning on a plurality of levels, the ideal woman epitomises more than just the union between humanity and Wisdom; acting as a historicized surrogate for the object of the wise man’s pursuit, she is also presented as the epitome of the ideal marriage partner in this divinely-mandated project (cf. 14:1; 18:22).[35] Together, the wise man and the ideal woman are to be seen as reverently channelling the cosmic wisdom of God into the seemingly jejune (even secular) sphere of domestic life. Prov. 31:10-31 closes that vision by demonstrating the enduring fruits of such an aspiration.[36]

Conclusion

Despite the apparent disjunction between Prov. 31:10-31 and the rest of the book, the passage is actually a deeply integrated part of the message of Proverbs. More than that, it provides fitting closure to literature that repeatedly extols and commends the pursuit of divine wisdom. The window of literary inclusio allows us to discern the links between the subject of Prov. 31:10-31 and all that precedes her. Through her life, she functions as a paragon of the wise advice laid out in the main section of Proverbs. More deeply, we find a figure who climactically embodies the unifying power of Lady Wisdom, so beautifully personified in the book’s foundational chapters. These strands are woven together into an enlivening portrait of womanly wisdom-in-action for the lasting benefit of the implied audience of Proverbs – young men, who are urged to unite themselves with wisdom as a man expresses fidelity to the woman he loves. Thus, Prov. 31:10-31 showcases an individual who draws on the cosmic wisdom of creation to successfully fulfil her daily obligations, whilst also capping off the book’s entire, manifold vision with alluring evidence of Wisdom’s life-giving charms.


[1] Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 10-31: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Yale Bible; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 891. Throughout this essay, the woman of Prov. 31:10-31 will be called the “ideal woman.” Despite various translations (e.g. the woman/wife of noble character), uniformity is most prudent.

[2] John A, Kitchen, Proverbs: A Mentor Commentary (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 712.

[3] A sampling: “brings,” “selects,” “provides,” “considers,” “grasps,” “opens,” “makes.”

[4] Derek Kidner, Proverbs: an Introduction and Commentary (TOTC; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1964), 15.

[5] Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs – Chapters 15-31 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 535. See also Frank E. Eakin, “Wisdom, Creation and Covenant,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 4, 3 (Fall, 1977), 231.

[6] Ronald E. Murphy, “Wisdom and Creation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 104, 1 (March, 1985), 7. See also Kitchen, Proverbs, 34; James L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom – An Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 10.

[7] Bruce Francis Vawter, “Proverbs 8:22 – Wisdom and Creation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 99, 2 (June, 1980), 213.

[8] Kidner, Proverbs, 25.

[9] Leo Purdue, Wisdom and Creation: the Theology of Wisdom Literature (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 79. See also Roland E. Murphy, Proverbs (WBC; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 63.

[10] Murphy, Proverbs, 249. See also Vawter, “Proverbs 8:22,” 215.

[11] Murphy, “Wisdom and Creation,” 10.

[12] Ibid, 255. See also Tom R. Hawkins, “The Wife of Noble Character in Proverbs 31:10-31,” Bibliotheca Sacra 153, 609 (Jan-Mar, 1996), 16-17, for a list of similarities between the ideal woman and Lady Wisdom.

[13] Vawter, “Proverbs,” 216. See also Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life – An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature (ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1990), 27.

[14] Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes – An Introduction to the Wisdom Literature (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1985), 23. See also Claudia V. Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985), 189.

[15] Hawkins, “The Wife of Noble Character,” 15.

[16] Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 80.

[17] Fox, Proverbs 10-31, 908. However, see Prov. 31:26.

[18] Vawter, “Proverbs,” 205.

[19] Hawkins, “The Wife of Noble Character,” 18-19.

[20] Murphy, Proverbs, 11. See also Vawter, “Proverbs 8:22,” 205.

[21] Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1-9: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 293, 356. See also Hawkins, “The Wife of Noble Character,” 15.

[22] Murphy, Proverbs, 246. See also Waltke, The Book of Proverbs – Chapters 15-31, 519.

[23] Ibid, 282.

[24] Kathleen M. O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, (Message of Biblical Spirituality; Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1988), 16.

[25] Perdue, Wisdom and Creation, 86.

[26] O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, 17.

[27] Murphy suggests a village setting. See Murphy, Proverbs, 49.

[28] Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 24.

[29] Hawkins, “The Wife of Noble Character,” 13. See also Fox, Proverbs 10-31, 889.

[30] Ibid, 22. See also Murphy, Proverbs, 52; Murphy, The Tree of Life, 18.

[31] Murphy, The Tree of Life, 18. See also O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, 61.

[32] O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, 76.

[33] Kidner, Proverbs, 69. See also Fox, Proverbs 1-9, 207; Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine, 100.

[34] Perdue, Wisdom and Creation, 82. See also Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, 22. Of course, this shouldn’t be taken to imply that wisdom was not for women also. Everything said about the ideal woman of Prov. 31:10-31 – including her very inclusion within the book of Proverbs – should be enough to disabuse one of that notion.

[35] Kidner, Proverbs, 69. See also Fox, Proverbs 10-31, 912. See also Murphy, The Tree of Life, 17; O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, 79; Kitchen, Proverbs, 723.

[36] Ibid; see also Camp, Wisdom and the Feminine, 101.

The God Beyond Compare

Perhaps I am a little slow, but this essay could be “old hat”, so to speak, for some readers. Still, it reflects my recent, meandering meditations upon a rather grandiose subject: God. One might even say they constitute a revelation, or at least a crystallization of latent thoughts. My conception of God has, I think, drawn closer (ever so slightly, of course) to the reality of who he is. It has taken a while for this truth to dawn; but, like the day’s first streaks of sunlight upon a dusty landscape, it has illuminated something that was previously shrouded in darkness and shadow. Of course, pure speculation cannot bring a person much closer to the truth of God. Still less can one possibly apprehend God in his totality, even given enough time. If that were true, then the object of one’s reflections could not possibly be called God. Indeed, if he can be likened to an ocean, then my recent revelations would nary fill one glass. We stare into the abyss of the divine, and our minds can only offer us a small lamp’s worth of illumination.

The above should be considered a caveat, for I will nevertheless attempt to share the meagre fruits of my reflections. When ruminating upon God, it is appropriate to begin with his being, or ontology. What is he in his nature? Clearly, he is quite unlike the material beings that populate this world. In fact, it is quite wrong-headed to think of him as a being at all – as if he were confined within the cosmic framework of the universe, just as his creatures are. It’s not simply that he is different in degree, or even in kind; much the same could be said when comparing humans and microbes. They are both created; God, on the other hand, is being uncreated and self-existent. He is not confined to any cosmic framework for the very simple reason that he is that framework (and more). To suggest otherwise would inadvertently constrain and domesticate him. If God is God, then he is so infinitely, absolutely, exclusively. If he can be called “a being”, sitting alongside other beings (only far more powerful, wise or good), then he is implicitly reduced to the level of finitude and contingency. Instead, the God of whom I speak is the transcendent One, beyond the constraints of time, space and all but the most blurred and opaque of human categories. He is wholly necessary, for there was never a time when he was not, just as there could never be an occasion in which he could not be. Between God’s ontology and that of his creation, there lies an unbridgeable chasm.

The contemporary Catholic philosopher, Edward Feser, puts it very well:

“…God…is not ‘a god’ among others, precisely because He isn’t an instance of any kind in the first place, not even a unique instance. He is beyond any genus. He is not ‘a being’ alongside other beings and doesn’t merely ‘have’ or participate in existence alongside all the other things that do. Rather, He just is ‘ipsum esse subsistens’, or Subsistent Being Itself”.

God, then, is not a mere being; he is, rather, absolute being (note the absence of any kind of preposition before “absolute”) in his own essence – the ground of all existence, the foundation of original and ongoing life. His existence is not like ours’ at all. He is simply existence itself. He does not participate in this phenomenon, for he is the self-existent One who simply is (cf. Ex. 3:14); and, of course, there was never a time when he acquired this attribute. He does not even “possess” it, in the way that we conventionally understand that term. Humans have life, but it remains a quality in need of constant support by the hospitality of propitious circumstances. When it comes to the affairs of men, all existence is qualified, contingent, finite. It requires something more foundational in order to be actual. Otherwise, non-existence reigns. God’s existence operates according to a different scheme entirely. We might say that his essence is existence (just as his essence is everything else that can truly be said of God. I shall return to this theme later). In like manner, it is a mistake to talk of God as being “real”, if by such a remark we inadvertently imply that it is conceivable for God to not be real. Better the idea that God is not simply real, but constitutes the overarching “structure” within which reality pulsates and emerges.

With this in mind, we ought not to think of God as somehow “sitting” above his creation, or even sitting outside it – as if cosmic geography somehow determined his relationship with his creation. Neither should we think of God as possessing the kinds of attributes that humans have, only more so. It is not simply the case that the divine qualities resemble human characteristics, but without limit. All conceptions of God that lean this way – without going any further – are desperately incomplete, for they have a propensity towards excessive anthropomorphism. That is, they take human instances of existence, or will, or intellect, or power, or morality (or whatever), and, treating those instances as the foundation for developing an understanding of God, simply multiply them in order to approximate the notion of divinity. Thus, God possesses power, only much more so than any other being; thus, he is wise like the greatest sage, only much more so. This could be recapitulated time and again. The point is that human examples of these qualities are taken as definitive. They are then tweaked in order to try and accommodate the vastly greater dimensions of God – all in an effort to clear a metaphysical gap that can only be bridged from one side.

In saying this, I am not arguing that employing anthropomorphisms is intrinsically wrong. It is quite clear, for example, that the biblical authors used everyday language and images as a way of trying to express the ultimately ineffable nature of God. Our finitude makes such concessions necessary. And, their legitimacy turns on the fact that, at some level, we can suggest a vague and imperfect likeness between humans and their Maker (think Genesis 1-2, for example). The problem lies in taking these images as either literal or exclusive depictions of God’s character – concretizing, and therefore limiting, his boundless qualities. The essence of his nature means that whatever quality we care to mention is, like the divine life I mentioned earlier, simply him. In other words, God does not merely possess his attributes in far greater quantities than his creatures; he simply is those qualities, in unbounded, unalloyed form. They constitute essential “elements” (an imperfect, though unavoidable, term) of his perfect being.

Let us take love as an example. “God is love”, as the Beloved wrote (1 Jn. 4:8).  It’s not simply the case that God loves or is loving. Those statements are true, so far as they go. However, the One whom Christians worship cannot be separated from the infinite love that characterizes him. His love is inseparable from who he is. He is the very definition of love, allowing for the reality of each contingent instance of compassion and good will we experience or exhibit. Unlike humans, who may acquire a loving disposition, or lose it, or allow it to grow cold – or even fail to develop one in the first place – God does not acquire or lose his attributes. They do not deepen over time, much less recede with the passing of the ages. Their breadth, just as much as their depth, stretch beyond both the confines of finite human thought and the limitless expanse of eternity itself. Whatever attributes we possess are faint shadows, muted echoes, of what is eternally intrinsic to the Godhead.

What humans have can only be the case because of what God is in himself. His bequests to us occur because those qualities have been, and are, eternally actual in the divine being. Moreover, each of us is a composition of parts, both natural and spiritual, having been formed by our Creator and further shaped by our environments. We develop, change and regress over time. The undulating nature of our lives is an inescapable part of who we are as finite beings, and our attributes find their source in divine artifice. By contrast, God’s infinitude, and his utter simplicity (meaning that he is not, unlike his creation, “composed” of anything) means that he and his attributes are eternally bound; there is no distinction, for he is one in himself. Whether love, or wisdom, or goodness, or strength – all these exist in perfect harmony with each other within the Godhead, for the unitary nature of his being makes any kind of distinction (other than for merely conceptual means) muddle-headed.

Let me delve into Scripture a little more in order to flesh out what I am trying to say. A moment ago, I alluded to Exodus 3:14. Anyone familiar with that portion of Scripture will remember that it concerns Moses’ first encounter with Yahweh, who met with the great man in order to call him to the office of Israel’s law-giver and liberator. When Moses asked God what he should say if the Israelites demanded to know who sent him, God simply replied, “I AM WHO I AM”. Later versions of this self-appellation simply render it, “I AM”. To say, “I am” without appendage is to declare with simple brevity complete and utter self-existence. God’s statement to Moses revealed his existential simplicity, and therefore, the stark contrast between the Creator and his creation. Unveiled was Yahweh’s eternal nature, sui generis. Neither made, nor composed, God simply is, completely untouched by the vissicitudes of time and circumstance, and yet in magisterial control of both. He has no origin and he has no cause, for he is the ultimate origin and cause of all that is. Whereas the existence of everything depends on him for the gift of actuality (for what else is it, but a gift?), God’s uncreated actuality is an eternal truth within which all other truths must sit.

Or take the prophet Isaiah. In 55:8, he speaks on behalf of God:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts // neither are your ways my ways…” // “As the heavens are higher than the earth, // so are my ways higher than your ways…”

Isaiah’s words reveal the utter transcendence of the mind of God. If one thinks of the heavens in relation to the earth, one knows that the latter can never reach the former. And so it is with the wisdom and will and ways of God. He is, by definition, “above” his creation, in that he has never been, and can never be, tamed or confined by it. In fact, the truth is the complete reverse. There exists a fundamental gap between God’s wisdom and our own – an infinite disjunction that we can never hope to cross, precisely because of the absolute uniqueness of the Godhead. It is a gap that has been complicated by the baleful effects of sin, no doubt. But our noetic limitations in relation to the divine are, fundamentally, metaphysical. This is not a comparison between two beings of differing levels of insight or intelligence. Divine knowledge and understanding exist and function upon their own, self-caused plane of reality.

What are the implications for believers? Can the average Christian draw anything useful from these apparently irrelevant musings – which appear to have little to do with the quotidian challenges of normal life? Firstly, and at the very least, one’s imagination should be irresistibly expanded. I’m not referring to one’s fictive powers, but rather the mind’s sanctified ability to receive a “picture” of the divine. Whilst so much of contemporary Christianity shamelessly downgrades the idea of God, I trust that the above conception can engender a certain loftiness in one’s thinking about matters divine and eternal. The church is only as good as its conception of God. Rather than the celestial magician, or the “big guy upstairs,” or even the implicitly carnal depictions of God as one’s lover [1], we ought to cleave to the awful majesty of the Godhead; the limitless, unbounded magnitude of the uncreated Creator; the unfathomable depths of the divine being, whose existence is the one necessary fact upon which all other facts (including that of our own existence) humbly rely. Even those who rightly eschew the simplistic character of the aforementioned images may themselves fall into the trap of excessive dependence on created categories to define the One who defies them all. If the understanding of God I have been trying to elucidate – transcendent, holy, wrapped in unapproachable light – fails to evoke within us silent awe, then I don’t know what could. Given that Christians formally acknowledge their utter dependency on him, a return to a true apprehension of God can only quicken and enrich that confession.

It behoves us, then, to exhibit a deep humility before the demonstration of such resplendence. Everything that humans have comes from God. For all our advancements, we are simply mimics; talented artisans who use what we have been given to harness and re-arrange the pre-existing elements of the created order. Even the most powerful of us are nothing but an ephemeral vapour, sourced in the mind of the Almighty. The relationship demands and entails complete dependence on the part of God’s creatures. That dependence, however, is well-rewarded. Whereas people are given over to corruption, apathy, or moral fatigue, God is not. He is the changeless One, whose moral perfections infinitely surpass the qualities of his creatures. Looking to the divine Sovereign for help and sustenance is the surest thing a person can do. Indeed, it is the surest thing a Christian can do, even as we live in a world that offers the illusion of self-sufficiency. It is true, then, that we rely entirely upon God’s nature for our survival and actuality, irrespective of a person’s acknowledgement of that truth. A.W. Tozer’s words are worth quoting at this point. In The Knowledge of the Holy, he said of man’s existence in relation to God:

“Man for all his genius is but an echo of the original voice, a reflection of the uncreated light. As a sunbeam perishes when cut off from the sun, so man apart from God would pass back into the void of nothingness from which he first leaped at the creative call. Not only man, but everything that exists came out of, and are dependent upon, the continuing creative impulse”.

This is surely a check on anthropocentric hubris. It is also an encouragement to those who, on bended knee, have decided to cleave to God as both the source and goal of life’s riches.

If humanity depends entirely on God, then it is equally true that God, being completely self-sufficient and self-existent, does not need humanity. My reflections thus far naturally entail a concession to the absolute otherness, the utter holiness, of the One in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Since God is the foundation of all reality – including all created reality – then attempting to define him apart from his gracious self-disclosure is an exercise fraught with risk. God’s being represents a deep challenge to the idolatrous notions that abound within the minds of men. Part of the folly of idolatry is that it attempts, either implicitly or by design, to reduce God to a possession of the material realm. Of course, it is possible to grasp at least something of the divine nature. But our metaphysical and harmatological [2] limitations make a pure apprehension of God impossible. At this point, Paul’s Letter to the Romans is instructive. Romans 1:21-25 details, in mytho-poetic terms, the futility of humans attempting to worship “created things rather than the Creator” (v.25), for the very reason that the objects of worship are, in the same way as those who worship them, mere artefacts of the divine will. Divine transcendence means that God can never be defined, much less bound, by the limits of material objects. How can one possibly grasp the untamed God, whose very existence frustrates our efforts to understand him by our own lights?

Of course, God’s absolute transcendence does not preclude his personhood, even if it does preclude overly personalistic accounts of his nature. For starters, God is not simply the cause, at one moment in time, of all that exists. He has not created this world in order to remain irrevocably distant from it. Rather, via his providential work, God continues to uphold all things. Not only “in the beginning”, but at every moment since, the Creator has been at work to sustain what he has made. As Paul put it, “he is” not only “before all things”, but “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). That in itself suggests a deep involvement, a richly textured engagement, with the created order.

However, one can be far more specific when celebrating the sovereign God’s simultaneous immanence. Immediately after speaking of the transcendence of the Lord’s thoughts and ways (see above), the prophet Isaiah proclaims:

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven // and do not return to it without watering the earth…” // “…so is my word that goes out from my mouth: // It will not return to me empty // but will accomplish what I desire // and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s word, or wisdom (the two concepts are normally synonymous in the Old Testament), should always be seen as an indelible manifestation of his character. Proverbs 8:22-36 personifies this eternally begotten attribute of the Godhead (Pr. 8:22-25). Thus, it is above and before creation in precisely the same way that God is. And yet, Isaiah could speak of God’s word proceeding forth from the eternal abyss to bring life to his world – wending its way through the created order, like a river sluicing a path through a desert, bringing life in its train. The transcendence of the divine nature is, at exactly the same time, the intimate word/wisdom that sustains, heals, enlivens and illuminates the material existence in which we dwell.

Old Testament seers and sages are not the only biblical figures that speak of the sovereign God’s immanence within creation. The New Testament also celebrates the bridge he has forged between his own, transcendent reality, and the comparatively lowly reality of the creation. The various manifestations of God’s wisdom – the means by which the world was fashioned; the law, given to Yahweh’s chosen people, meant to lead them in righteousness; and the healing, redemptive word offered up to a wayward nation by the Lord’s chosen agents – culminated in the radical and astonishing rupture of all expectations pertaining to divine-human relationships. John the Beloved speaks of it in terms that can only be called sublime:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made…the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1-2, 14).

With prose that reaches beyond the veil of the material world, John grasps at the eternal Word, or wisdom, of God. His reference to the Word’s intimate identity with God “in the beginning” is an allusive nod to the Genesis creation narrative (Gen. 1:1). The Word was indeed God’s supervening agent as he fashioned his world. The poetics of Proverbs 8 wax lyrical about this epochal event. But the Beloved goes further, insisting that God’s Word/wisdom is not simply a principal or force; he is personal in the same way, and to the same (infinite) degree, that God is. More than that, the evangelist announces the advent of another epochal event. It is the glorious fact of the Word’s incarnation – his deep identity with the created world, such that he became a part of it.

The transcendent God’s simultaneous immanence found complete expression in the embodiment of his Word: Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, the bridge between divinity and humanity, whose very person brought into existence the reconciliation between those two natures. He “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” (Hebrews 1:3). But the reflection of that divine resplendence was “made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7), inhabiting mortal existence in the most intimate of ways. Paradoxically, the God who could never – and can never – be constrained by his creation, made the decision (the genesis of which occurred in eternity past) to immerse himself in its flow. Equally paradoxical is the unbounded power of the divine nature, whose gracious incarnation defies every category humans have to make sense of this world. I have spoken much about God’s fundamental difference from his creation; his absolute otherness, and the seemingly unbridgeable chasm that separates him from his creatures – even his image-bearers. Nevertheless, as Karl Barth wrote, “It is when we look at Jesus Christ that we know decisively that God’s deity does not exclude, but includes his humanity” (emphasis original). God is largely incomprehensible on his own terms, to be sure. Whatever we can grasp of the divine apart from his own unveiling is a thin mist that barely covers our own ignorance. Still, God has performed the impossible in adopting our nature. He has drawn out the pure idea of humanness from within his own depths, and entered the contingency of the material world as the glorious ideal to which man, by the enabling power of the Creator, may aspire.

[1] Of course, I am not suggesting that God is not our lover in some sense. But his love is of an altogether greater variety than the love that exists between humans (this even applies to husbands and wives, although that love – more than any other kind – is best placed to provide an analogy). In addition, the statement to which this footnote is linked refers more to contemporary images of God as one’s “boyfriend”, “mate” or even the risible “homie”. These may be rather extreme examples, but their presence within the church means that somewhere along the way, we have lost that sense of God’s awesome power and limitless, inexhaustible magnitude. More to the point, they are only the most crude manifestations of a spiritual infestation that has corrupted the church’s previously high view of God.

[2] “Harmatological” basically means “pertaining to sin”.

The Manifold Significance of the Resurrection (Part 3.2) – New Creation and the Individual

A dense and layered truth rests in a person’s hands when he or she scrutinises the resurrection. It is for this reason that I have required several posts in order to delve into it and explicate its “manifold significance” (to borrow from my title). Following my exploration of the interweaving connections between resurrection, justification and sanctification, my last post on this topic was an examination of the victory of Christ as a paradigm for a new order, indeed, a new creation. That, as I have said, takes place on a multiplicity of levels. Having looked at the model and first step of new creation, it is now time to turn my attention to what it means for individuals. Using the creational motif that I have employed previously (and which the Bible itself uses as an overarching theological theme to help elucidate the redemptive work of God), I shall attempt to offer a glimpse of the ultimate goal of justified, sanctified Christian life, of which the resurrection is the pattern. The New Testament is replete with references to resurrection, new life and the consummation of salvation as they pertain to individuals. And, although a comprehensive look at what the NT says on the matter is impossible, no account of resurrection as the fresh creation of believers can be considered faithful to its witness without a cursory glance (and hopefully more) at the statements that compose it. The NT, both explicitly and implicitly, makes the astonishing suggestion that those who have been united to Christ will participate in his resurrection. It has not simply secured our initial justification; nor has it merely provided us with new, spiritual life in the present. Rather, it takes up both those stages of a Christian’s salvation, and completes them in his or her total reception of new life. It is something Scripture depicts as a recapitulation of the original creation of humanity; and yet, it passes well beyond the first fashioning of God’s image-bearers to a kind of existence that is beyond death, chaos and decay. I want to make all this plain, but in order to do that, I must also challenge popular notions of Christian hope: not so that long-cherished beliefs are destroyed, but so that the actual truth of a person’s resurrection – according to the riches of Christian theology – may become clear. I shall say more in due time.

But first, traversing over old terrain is, perhaps, necessary. As I noted in earlier essays on this topic, a person is neither justified nor sanctified if Jesus is still in the grave. In like manner, no one has escaped death if Jesus himself – the true man and humanity’s representative – did not triumph over it. The notion of new creation is but a forlorn hope without it. As the Apostle Paul emphatically states in 1 Corinthians: “…if Christ is not raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor. 15: 17, 19). But if Jesus has been raised from the dead (and I believe he has), then this life is not the end. The present creation will pass away, but only so a new creation can take its place. And those of us who are “in Christ” and united to him will receive the blessed gift of new, incorruptible life. To put it another way: death could not maintain mastery over Christ, for the Creator and source of all life could never be held by it. In like manner, all who belong to Christ will share in that same release, precisely because they share in his paradigmatic act. Such is the strength of this fact that Jesus himself could call believers “…sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36).

We must examine more closely the connection between Christ’s resurrection and the new life accorded to those who are united to him. Romans 6:1-9, which I surveyed previously, is a good place to start. After dispensing with the hypothetical argument made against his case for salvation through the grace of God, Paul speaks of believers having been baptised into Christ’s death (v.3). If that be the case, Paul effectively asks, then a person has been separated from sin; it no longer has mastery over them. Just like Jesus, we who are “in” him (that is, united to him spiritually) are raised to “new life” – something Paul emphasises in verse 4. That new life has been secured by Christ’s death and resurrection; we cannot isolate them. It is because of the triumph of the one man, Jesus (which I examined in the previous essay on this topic), that any one of us can be said to have new life. Death to sin is, by itself, meaningless. In commenting on this passage, I. Howard Marshall puts it this way:

“…the baptized could be said have died to their old life in which they were under captivity to sin…But this would be no freedom if the believers were simply dead rather than passing through death into a new sphere of existence” (New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel, p.317).

That “new sphere of existence” is patterned on the inaugurating work of Jesus. He died his death to sin, but because he has been raised from the dead, never to die again, death cannot have mastery over him (Rom.6:9). We who are united to him in his death are thus united to him in his life.

To be sure, this certainty is a future expectation (though it emphatically commences in the present). Still, the point is that it will happen. What has already begun in the life of a follower of Jesus will be completed, consummated – radically fulfilled – by the same Spirit that brooded over the waters as he preserved God’s original creation (Gen. 1:2; cf. 8:11). What was subject to decay and death will be immersed, if you like, in immortality. What was perishable will become imperishable. What was vulnerable to the fatal effects of sin will be impervious to them. One day, a believer’s body will leave behind the fetters of mortality for good, and death will be “swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:50-54). Incidentally, it is here that a connection between individual new creation, justification and sanctification becomes apparent. Having already spoken of resurrection’s importance to these stages of the Christian life, I will not detain readers with a detailed recapitulation. Suffice it to say, if justification is God’s judicial act of counting someone righteous, what could better reflect the consummation of that initial decision than one’s final resurrection, one’s new creation? In the Gospel of John, marked as it is by a creational-redemptive framework, Jesus himself touched upon this. Using the forensic language often linked to justification, he said that those who have “done good” will enjoy resurrection and life at the end (see John 5:29). Similarly, if sanctification is the progressive unfolding of righteousness in a believer – and, with it, the progressive erasure of sin – then the consequences thereof (ie. death) will eventually be vanquished. The notion of resurrection forms the ground and the goal of sanctification, and, therefore, new creation.

At this point, the reality of the larger narrative of new creation, and its relevance to the individual, has simply been implied. But, as these passages suggest, the paradigm of Christ’s life cannot be understood apart from the notion that his resurrection was the first step in God’s efforts to re-make his world – to redeem it from death, and to inaugurate, in effect, a new creative order. The fate of individuals sits snugly within that project. Nevertheless, we do not have to travel far in order to see how explicit the idea is at certain points, particularly in light of the prominence of the original creation as a theological motif for many of the NT writers. One might easily point to John 3, which famously has Jesus exhorting Nicodemus to be “born again”. The phrase itself evokes images of new life, in keeping with John’s overall theological scheme. But we may also look to places such as 1 Corinthians 15, Hebrews 2:5-9, or even 2 Corinthians 5:17 – a verse which uses the precise phrase “new creation” – to see how the concept has woven its way into the structure of apostolic thinking. To take just one example: 1 Corinthians 15, to which I have already alluded. Before Paul embarks on an extended discussion on the necessity of the resurrection of believers, he sharply contrasts two, paradigmatic men. On the one hand, lies the first Adam; on the other, the second Adam, Jesus (1 Cor. 15:45-49). The former, Paul says, was of the earth – mortal, finite, vulnerable to corruption. The latter, however, was of heaven – immortal, infinite, free from spot or blemish. The point is that the apostle deliberately invokes Adam as a motif, in order to draw a contrast between two “creations”, or “reigns”. The first man was the head of a humanity prone to sin and death, as the Bible’s opening book points out (cf. Gen. 1-3). The latter man was, and is, the representative of a humanity that will enjoy his likeness (cf. v.49).

Talk of new life, even resurrection, is all well and good. However, it is important to speak about what kind of life this will be, for even the notion of resurrection can be misunderstood. When the authors of the NT speak of new life, they do so with a degree of specificity. It is not the case that Paul and others were envisioning some vague kind of existence beyond the material world. To do so would have negated the goodness of God’s creative work, and undermined the thematic power of the original, material world. Ancient Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul; popular, present-day renditions of the afterlife imagine disembodied spirits enjoying some manner of heavenly joy in the hereafter. But if we look to the Apostle to the Gentiles for a moment, we find him speaking deliberately of resurrection. As N.T. Wright has commented, the term was only ever used to denote “re-embodiment, not…disembodied bliss”. Indeed, in Rom. 6:5, which we have already surveyed, Paul states that those of us who have been united to Christ in his death will certainly be united to him in his “resurrection”. Erroneous imaginings of ultimate Christian hope notwithstanding, resurrection was seen as a bodily, material phenomenon. It was certainly a new mode of existence, to be sure. But that newness was viewed as emphatically physical. Christ’s triumph over death only makes sense because his resurrection was bodily in nature. In the same way, those of us who have escaped the old life, held in bondage to sin and death, will take on new bodies. New life will be transmuted, but it will definitely remain physical. By the same token, if new life remains physical, then it will definitely be transmuted. As Leon Morris has said:

“The Christians thought of the body as being raised. But also transformed so as to be a suitable vehicle for the very different life of the age to come” (New Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, p.1010. Emphasis mine).

If the resurrection of Jesus – being bodily in nature – is the ground for the new creation of the individual, then it seems that our redemption will follow his representative act. As I have noted, he is the pattern. He is the “firstborn from amongst the dead” (Colossians 1:18). And if that be the case, then our resurrection will be like his; “we shall be like him”, as it were (1 John 3:2). Paul’s letter to the Romans is once again instructive.  In chapter 8, we find the apostle talking about life in the Spirit. In the present, the Spirit changes and transforms a believer’s spiritual and moral life. In the future, though, all of one’s life will be transformed, including his or her body. It will be a complete and total change. We might look at 8:11, for example. Once more, Paul suggests that the new life of a Christian is patterned on the resurrection life of Christ. The Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead will certainly “give life to” one’s “mortal body”. Nothing in this verse implies an escape from the body. In fact, it suggests quite the opposite: an enlivening addition to the present “body of death” (Rom. 7:24). It may constitute a radical transformation, but one that does not abandon the material realm. We should not think that it would be otherwise. And, with Paul’s multiple allusions to freedom, redemption, and creation itself (cf. Rom. 8:19-25), it is clear that for the apostle, a believer’s ultimate hope rests in a renewed creation – that of God’s world, redeemed from the bondage of death, and of those who will receive bodies fit to dwell within it.

 *          *          *

The drama of God’s redemptive activity, being played out on the stage of history and creation, is also being played out in the life of every believer. New creation will occur, not just on a cosmic scale, but on an individual one, too. What will happen universally is happening now, in the present, in the lives of believers. The triumph of the resurrection means that the old creation is passing away. All this is through Jesus Christ, who was the primary agent of both creation and new creation (see John 1:1-3). His own resurrection was the climax of his redemptive agency, and constitutes the model for believers. Those of us who have embraced that triumph will participate in his triumph, and, as members of both the old creation and the new, we have the unique privilege of seeing that sanctifying transformation happen in our midst. Christ’s resurrection body served as the first sign of new creation. Our own bodies, having already been enveloped by the Spirit, are also signs that the old has gone, and the new has come. We may still be vessels of broken clay, living in an ambiguous period between the announcement of God’s reign, and its final coming. Nonetheless, if new creation is a reality, then it is a reality that begins as a seed within each believing individual. That seed – that new birth, if you like – anticipates the wider renewal that will embrace a groaning world, as it waits on tiptoe for the children of God to be revealed. That, however, is the subject for a future post.

Prayer and the Divine Community

Over the weekend, I traveled to a small, isolated cottage near Mansfield, Victoria. The rustic charm and secluded setting made thinking – so often a harried and interrupted process – quite a joy. Rarely does one get the chance to think and reflect in such a relaxed way, without feeling the need to attend to more “practical” matters. Such contemplative times are to be prized, all the more so because they often bear fruit that does not grow in less fertile surroundings.

As I was reading a spiritual classic (by A.W. Tozer. If you haven’t read anything by him, please rectify the situation now), I began to reflect upon certain aspects of my spiritual life. Following Tozer’s words, I wondered whether my conceptualization of various areas of Christian discipleship has been inadequate. More than once, I have been struck by the deep and abiding intimacy he enjoyed with God. Inhabiting Tozer’s world has, I believe, taught me to think afresh various dimensions and spiritual disciplines pertaining to the Christian faith.

Prayer is one such dimension. My thinking regarding prayer instinctively (or unconsciously) assumed some kind of separation between the believing individual and the God to whom he was coming. Not that that separation was judicial or legal, mind you. I am talking about a Christian – someone who had already been justified before God, based upon his faithful reception of the atoning work of Jesus. But I still thought of prayer in terms of coming to God, as if there was some distance one had to travel in order to reach that point. It was as if God was “over there” or “out there”, and it was up to the Christian to make the trek across time, space and the cacophony of everyday life to reach Him who had already welcomed him.

I don’t know exactly when the thought came to me (it’s often like that – a thought can bubble away in the subterranean reservoirs of a person’s unconscious before welling up to the surface, almost fully-formed). Regardless of its origin or length of genesis, the thought was clear: prayer constitutes one’s participation in the divine community that has eternally existed.

I want to unpack this, just in case I haven’t made myself very clear (entirely likely, given my propensity to use several words where one will do). This insight regarding prayer rests upon an acknowledgement of the personhood of God as a divine community and a divine communion. More specifically, what I am referring to here is the Trinitarian community of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Although God is one, it is part of Christian dogma to say that he is not austerely alone. Rather, there exist within the godhead three persons – hence, the notion of the Trinity. We can speak of “they” because of the three-fold distinction. But we can also speak of “Him”, for the three persons are eternally and ontologically one. Whilst there is distinction in activity, it would seem correct to say that there is none when it comes to essence, will or accord.

That deep and mysterious unity is something that is incomparably unique. It is, one might say, uniquely unique, and can be only faintly approximated in God’s church here on earth. Inadequate language and analogies notwithstanding, it is enough for us to say that the Triune God is composed of a communion of divine persons. It is a deep communion that links and envelops each of the three persons of the godhead, and has done so before the creation of time itself. There was never a time when the three persons were separate (Christ’s representative death being an exception, but even there we face the paradox of God and Christ working with one, mutually glorifying accord to achieve the ends for which the cross was set). Moreover, the unique nature of the union within the godhead means that it is a perfect community and communion – one of unparalleled depth, complete harmony, pure love and eternal endurance.

It is in this Trinitarian relationship that a Christian is immersed. Let’s not neglect the fundamental fact of the Christian having been saved into God’s kingdom, reconciled and united to him through the Chief Mediator, Jesus, and the life-giving Spirit that he has sent. Thus, even the foundational act of initial justification involves all three persons of the Triune God. Further – and this is crucial – it can be said that salvation involves one’s entry into the divine community of love that has existed eternally. We are brought into that fellowship by an act of sheer, unmerited grace. John 14:15-20 speaks eloquently about the mutual inhabitation, and mutual participation, that takes place when one receives the life of God. Not only does that person receive the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit; he is drawn into the mutual indwelling of Father and Son (v.20). The depth and breadth of intimacy is something that unfolds over time, to be sure. Nevertheless, it is the kind of intimacy that God has had within himself eternally; a pure, unfettered knowledge that this divine community possesses, and into which one enters upon reception of the Gospel.

What does all this have to do with prayer? As I said, I seemed to have thought – almost instinctively – that the act of prayer meant “coming” to God in a way that assumed some prior separation. And, to be sure, there is an element of “approach” involved in prayer (that, however, seems to be related more to the manner or attitude one adopts when in a prayerful posture). But if it is true that a person saved is a person inhabiting the fellowship that exists within the godhead, then it should impel us to recognize that there is no separation to overcome or traverse when one strives to pray. A person saved already lives within that divine community, walking and living as part of that intimate fellowship. John 14:23 speaks of Father and Son making their dwelling in the believing individual. Already, the evangelist has spoken of Jesus being the new temple of God; here, he seems to be making the startling suggestion that the one who participates in Christ is, by extension, the dwelling place for the Triune God. Thus, not only does a Christian inhabit God; God, in all of his Trinitarian glory, inhabits the Christian (and the church, by the way). Prayer is simply the natural outworking of one’s principled participation within that eternal body. Through prayer, a Christian takes part in a divine conversation that is self-existent and timeless. It does not require him to make a trip in order to find it; he is already within that revelatory fellowship of love, whether he recognizes it or not.

Prayer is certainly communication with God. But it is communication that is grounded in one’s gracious entry into an already-extant communion that is incomparably rich in wisdom, knowledge and love. A person who has declared Jesus to be his Lord and Savior does not have to move to approach God; he is already, by virtue of that epochal act of divine mercy, a member of this fellowship. Prayer rests upon this truth, and declares its reality.

God does not need a person’s fellowship or his prayers. He is self-existent and self-sufficient. The fellowship he enjoys within himself cannot be added to by the participation of his image-bearing creatures. Nor can they help along his redemptive project. But through his grace, God has elected to draw these vessels of broken clay into his loving embrace, and has granted them a place at the table of divine communion. And, more than that, he has graciously allowed those he has welcomed into his presence the opportunity to take part in his project to redeem his creation. Here prayer takes on an intercessory character, but one should never think that God needs it. Both communion within the fellowship of the godhead and intercession for this world are privileges that a person simply receives – the contents of which have already been determined by the One who initiated that process of reconciliation. Consequently, just as the Christian does not have to anxiously strive to enter into fellowship with God in order to pray – precisely because he has it all the wrong way around – so he does not have to strive to think of the will of God and pray it. Being a member of this divine community allows one to receive the knowledge of the Creator-Redeemer, and pray according to a will already established. God’s gracious efforts to restore his creation will be consummated one way or another. It is a mark of loving-kindness that he allows people to take part in driving that vision forward. Prayer is one (very vital) element in that. Just take a look at Paul’s words in Romans 8. There, he not only talks about coming into fellowship with and by the three persons of the godhead; he also speaks of “groaning” in the Spirit, as the sons of God yearn for the liberation that is coming, and has come, through the “firstborn” Son.

For those of us who already follow Christ, the practical implications are numerous. No longer do we need to struggle to enter into God’s presence in order to pray, for we are already enveloped – saturated – within the folds of the divine communion. We wrestle, of course. Sometimes the sin and frustrations of this world do make it difficult. But our wrestling should nevertheless be grounded in and founded upon the prior knowledge that we already exist within the heavenly fellowship. That mutually inhabiting fellowship of Father, Son and Spirit is the one community that is complete in itself, to be sure. But God’s grace in allowing us to enter into it should induce us to joyfully admit the privilege of prayer, rather than railing against the time it requires to engage in it. We do not have to overcome any kind of separation between ourselves and our Redeemer, and any entry into God’s sanctuary is simply a matter of acknowledging a reality that is rooted in the Gospel and began when we gave ourselves to God. Moreover, the fact that we are already members of the Trinitarian community means that the prayerful life is not just a fantasy, or a special honor reserved for a few. It is instead a living reality that we need simply enjoy and declare. It is something we can experience at all times, for the mutual inhabitation of which we are a part exists for as long as we follow Jesus, who represents in himself the union between God and man. Prayer builds upon, and represents in declarative form, the intimacy that we already possess. As we give ourselves to God, his Spirit comes around us, and wells up within us, so that we are fit and able to participate in the eternal and unfathomable depths of the divine conversation. This is why the otherwise strange image of God’s Spirit praying to the Father through us makes sense. It’s also why praying the will of God, by the Spirit, to the omniscient Father, also makes sense. We are drawn into the deep and abiding union of the Triune God, the likes of which is gloriously complete; we participate in a project to redeem God’s world, not because we are worthy, but because he is gracious. And we exercise the reality of our position in relation to these two truths through the gift of (Spirit-impelled) prayer.

The Manifold Significance of the Resurrection (Part 3.1) – One Man’s Triumph as the Pattern of New Creation

The resurrection (along with the cross) stands at the very centre of history. Others may argue that some other event – the invention of writing, say, or the onset of the industrial revolution – represents the decisive turning point in the story of humanity and the world. But, if the gospel is true (and I believe that it is), then the resurrection was more than one man’s divinely-ordained and divinely-empowered victory over his own, personal demise. It most certainly was not an isolated phenomenon. Rather, the raising of Christ represented the very first step in new creation. Indeed, it was the point at which the Creator God showed a rebellious and corrupt creation that he had, in principle, re-claimed it. Rather than abandoning his world to death, God commenced the final, decisive phase of his project to re-create what he had originally made, flooding it with life. At a multiplicity of levels – personal, corporate and cosmic – God set about fashioning something entirely new. Through the raising of his Son, the Creator became Redeemer, proving climactically that his redemptive work had broken into the present deathly course of a sin-stained world. So begins my foray into the last image of the resurrection’s significance. Having already explored its connection to justification and sanctification, it is time now to turn to underlying principle, the end goal – the telos – of that glorious process, and how it began in Christ, “…the firstborn from among the dead” (Colossians 1:18).

It would be difficult to overstate the epochal magnitude of this event. Before Jesus’ resurrection, the seemingly inviolable law of death, decay and corruption shadowed everything bound by the finitude of time. After it had occurred, the world, for all its ongoing chaos and frustration, had changed. The empty tomb (along with Calvary) divides the history of God’s creation into two distinct ages, something that the writers of the NT – not least of which is Paul – declare. But nothing would have happened if, after Jesus’ death, he remained in the tomb. We have already seen that, for Paul, the death of Christ is meaningless without the accompaniment of the resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:17-18). For if the death of Christ was the decisive response to sin, then the resurrection was the paradigmatic triumph over death. It was the resurrection – the new, incorruptible, bodily life in which Jesus was clothed – that represented the first step of God’s new world, breaking into the present. To put it differently, the raising of Jesus from the dead was the beginning of another genesis; the new life into which he entered three days after he died was a moment of both inauguration and anticipation, looking forward to cosmic and creational renewal. Like the mighty acts that God initiated at the time of creation, fashioning from nothing and bringing forth order from chaos (see Genesis 1:1-2), the raising of Christ was an act of unbounded creativity, of life in the midst of death. And, just like the original creation, the empty tomb was the beginning of something completely new.

My interest in juxtaposing Christ’s resurrection with God’s first creative acts is not an act of arbitrary poetics, forced onto an unwilling text. Much of the NT speaks in these terms, especially the Gospels. Of the four accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds, none is as explicit in pairing creation and new creation as John’s. From the very beginning (a word that is apposite here), the fourth evangelist has in mind creation, as it is lyrically described in the Bible’s very first book. John 1:1, for example, starts with, “In the beginning was the Word…” – a clear nod, for a first-century Jewish audience, to the first verse in Genesis. As one proceeds through the book, one becomes increasingly aware that John is using the Genesis account of the world’s origins to frame his reflections on the theological significance of Christ’s own work. It builds up into a theological theme that presents us with a picture of Christ standing above time and history; over both initial creation and re-creation, yet radically involved in both eras. When God began his great, creative works, the Word – that is, Christ – was (eternally) present as an equal partner in that project (John 1:1; cf. Gen. 1:1-3, 6, 9ff). Even more important is the fact that in the opening verse, John is hinting to his audience that just as the Word was present at, and involved in, the first creation, so too is he involved – not just marginally, but as the primary agent – in new creation.

The Word, then, is both generative and redemptive, and it was his incarnation that saw God’s plan to inaugurate another, yet more bountiful, creation reach a climactic phase. John reiterates and expands upon this central truth throughout the entire Gospel. Indeed, it is there in John’s prologue, throwing light across the evangelist’s opening gambit; it emerges periodically from beneath his narrative, as the story of Christ wends it way – slowly but inexorably – towards the events of Easter; the raising of Lazarus serves as a particularly overt symbol of it; and, of course, the theme of new creation effortlessly gives shape to the raising of God’s Holy One in John 20. There, “early on the first day of the week,” Christ was raised from the dead (see 20:1). Emerging from the shadows, something strangely new had occurred. Given the evangelist’s emphasis on the notion of God’s efforts to reclaim his world and launch a completely fresh creation, mention of the resurrection of Jesus in this manner is no accident. Rather, through this seemingly innocuous detail, John is subtly – yet unambiguously – declaring the start of a new creation “week”, just like the week that saw the generation and establishment of God’s original creation (see Gen. 1:5,8,13ff). The darkness of the old world was giving way to a light, shining: the light of Christ’s resurrection, which pointed, and still points, to the promise of God to restore his world.

Paul is also interested in the theme of new creation as he explains the raising of Jesus. He has a very robust theology of creation, and uses it to provide a rich canvass to explore and expound the significance of Christ’s resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15, for example, the apostle is explicit, as he was in Romans, in drawing out the contrast between the first man and the last man – between the original Adam and the second “Adam”, Christ. Both stand at the head of two “races”, two separate humanities, as it were. Those who have participated in the sin of the first Adam will die; those who participate in the second “Adam” “will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22; cf. vv.45-49). Paul deliberately uses, echoes and alludes to the Genesis narrative of creation and fall in order to parallel the paradigmatic significance of Christ, in contrast to the first man. However, it is vital to remember that this contrast occurs within the context of Paul’s exposition of the resurrection. In other words, Paul – like John – is motivated by a hermeneutic of new creation; he, too, sees the raising of Christ in terms of the commencement of God’s efforts to reclaim, remake and redeem his world. The curse of death, as poetically described in Genesis 3, was broken by the triumph of Jesus. This, too, is surely in view as Paul contrasts the heads of these two ages. Of course, “the end” had not yet arrived, and Paul had no trouble highlighting this (v.24). Even so, through the resurrection of his Son, God had inaugurated the coming of his redemptive reign, the undoing of the tragedy of the Fall, and the concomitant destruction of death.

The rest of the NT authors are immersed in the redemptive, re-creative and epochal significance of Christ’s resurrection. Their writings and reflections are grounded in the fact of this unprecedented act. So much of the early church’s preaching, as evidenced in Acts (see Acts 2, especially) was shaped and informed by this radically changed situation. Peter, the chief preacher in those early chapters of Acts, knew that Christ was now Lord over the world, and that this had been proved by his triumph over death. The writer to the Hebrews wrote about the dominion of Christ, applying OT references to the idealized dominion of man over creation to the One who had suffered and been glorified (Heb. 2:5-9, citing Psalm 8). Though resurrection is not mentioned in this passage, it is surely presupposed in what turns out to be a sophisticated reflection on the fulfilment of humanity’s vocative purpose in Jesus Christ – again, with the theme of creation forming a backdrop to present discussions. Moreover (and at the risk excessive anticipation), Christian hope is grounded in the tangibility of the unshackling of Jesus from that final foe. All this was part of God’s sovereign plan. It was not as if the cross was the accidental death of a would-be Messiah, with his resurrection representing God’s attempt to undo the damage. No – this was always God’s plan, for as Peter declared, “…it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24).

To those who have become inured to the seemingly insurmountable mechanics of the present world, and the apparent finality of its laws, the resurrection is a challenge. It overturns our assumptions about the ways of this world, and breaks into the daily patterns of death and decay. Moreover, it is evidence that creation is not simply subject to its own, meandering evolution; God has been, and is, at work to transform it. The resurrection of Christ was, and is, proof that something from the outside, something that is not a product of this present corruption, has been at work to redeem, to heal, and to enliven. Thus, the secularist is challenged. So, too, the escapist, for Christ’s resurrection – whilst something unprecedented and gloriously new – was an emphatically physical event. When the writers of the NT wrote about the raising of Jesus (and resurrection generally), they were referring to a bodily occurrence. If Jesus is the paradigm for those who are his; and if his resurrection was bodily in nature; and if that transformed body was the first sign that God’s new world had begun; and if that new world was, and is, here, within his creation; then all attempts to paint the consummation of history and ultimate Christian hope as an escape from material existence are profoundly mistaken. I shall say more later; for now, it is sufficient to say that the resurrection of Christ is, in Tom Wright’s words, an emphatic “affirmation” of God’s world (renewed and restored, to be sure) – not, as some might think, the validation of a heavenly abode, liberated from body and creation alike.

I fear that I have already said too much. But if I have, it is only because I seek to bring those who have read this post (and the others like it) towards a deeper understanding of the raising of Christ. Even so, we have not reached the end of the journey, for the paradigmatic act of Christ’s resurrection was exactly that – paradigmatic. In concluding this series, I shall take a look at how the new creative order ushered in by the risen Jesus affects believing individuals, God’s people and his world. That, however, will have to wait.

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.