Philippians

Christian Theology and Democratic Politics: Part Two

My investigation of the links between Christian theology and democratic politics continues. It follows my exploration into the Bible’s emphasis upon the rule of law, and the contribution this emphasis has made to modern legal concepts in democratic states.

The law’s normative status over a community of people is one strand which links democratic political cultures and the Judeo-Christian ethic which has shaped them. But in exploring this link, I have also anticipated another crucial connection – namely, the idea that leaders are the servants of those they lead. The conclusions adduced in the first essay of this series suggest that within a biblical frame of reference, even pre-eminence in human rulership was relativised. Indeed, even if ancient Israel was no democracy (a point that was true of all its neighbours), we should not be distracted from this fundamental point.

The rule of law and the notion of leaders as servants are linked in a consequential way. The law’s supremacy is intended, in part, to constrain the power of any one individual or group. In this context, any such governor is still subservient to legal strictures maintaining an independent normativity. Even if he has amassed a great deal of power, he is nonetheless charged with the responsibility of upholding the law and maintaining the order and integrity of the community he rules. That represents a kind of minimalist version of the concept of the leader-as-servant. A fully-fledged account of democratic government would hold that leaders’ authority is grounded in the consent of a particular people. Of course, how that is parsed is often a matter of debate, but for modern liberal democracies, the usual mechanism is universal suffrage and regular elections.

This represents a unique arrangement in the history of human cultural and political evolution. For most of that period, the relationship between the governed and governors was one of utter asymmetry, with the former living in subjection to the latter. What democratic states seem to do is dramatically upend the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. On this view, governors do not “lord” it over citizens; nor is their authority grounded in themselves. It is not intrinsic, but extrinsic. As an ideal, they are there to labour on behalf of the citizenry – for its betterment and security, and at its behest – and it is upon this that the legitimacy of governors rests. Democratic leaders are, in theory, restrained and relativized. On the one hand, they are restrained, because they are bound by the legal framework within which they operate. They cannot act with untrammelled power, because they are servants of both the people who have given their consent to be so governed, and because they themselves are susceptible to legal sanctions if they overstep the boundaries of their authority. On the other hand, leaders in a democracy are relativized, because they are not the ultimate ground of that authority. Again, the citizenry and the rule of law (which provides for consensual government) together ensure that this is the case.

As noted, those who steer the ship of state, at least in a democratic setting, are charged with the responsibility of providing for the betterment of others – not as an adjunct to their role as governors, but as the very essence of what they do. Indeed, the reason elected officials exist is so that (in the absence of radically participatory politics) the interests and wishes of the people may be carried out on their behalf. It is what one might idealistically designate other-regarding, as opposed to self-regarding, power. Democratic leaders are by definition servants of those they lead; they are agents and instruments of the public will. This partly explains the notion of accountable government: if those who lead are meant to do so for the benefit of the citizens of a particular political community, it is but a short step to argue that they ought to be answerable to the ones in whose name they claim to govern. Again, none of this springs forth spontaneously; equally, it cannot be sustained by the intrinsic virtue or good will of its practitioners. A whole web of checks and balances ensures that orientation towards service of the citizenry, and the fundamental conception of democratic governance, are upheld. By contrast, in many traditional dictatorships, leaders exercise power, and are free to do so, largely for their own benefit (regardless of the nature of that benefit). To be sure, they may pay lip service to the idea that the needs and interests of the citizens need to be attended to – if only to make the accumulation and preservation of power that much easier. According to democratic principles (if not democratic reality), ministers and elected officials exist chiefly for the sake of those who have chosen them; they are meant to serve.

Of course, these are ideal types; actual leaders invariably fail to neatly conform to them. Moreover, the reality frequently fails to match such lofty ideals: modern, Western politicians sometimes appear to be just as susceptible to venality and corruption as authoritarian ones; and democratic politicians can be very adept at using “pork-barrel politics” to cling to power, in a manner that is reminiscent of the crudest kind of populist strongman. Still, this should not distract us from the larger point, or the fundamental principles we use to judge such failings in the first place.

Servant Leadership in the Old Testament

One may discern the seed of such an idea in (amongst other places) the OT. If the (divine) law was “king”, then any human ruler, no matter how powerful, was obliged to defer to something greater than himself. He was, in some sense, a servant. He was not called to live for his own aggrandizement; rather, he was selected for the sake of the community, providing a focal point of obedience and devotion to Torah. At the same time, the king was appointed to his position by God. An OT theology of kingship presents Yahweh as the ultimate sovereign, from whose authority any Israelite ruler derived his own. Of course, one might assert that this simply upholds a theory of the divine right of kings. But, aside from the fact that arguing for royal absolutism on the basis of divine providence appears to be a medieval development, the counter-argument does not reckon with the way both Testaments portray rulership generally. In tandem with its insistence regarding the supremacy of law, the OT contains a germinal understanding of the leader-as-servant. We have seen how royal disobedience led to the activation of divine curses, narrated particularly in Kings and Chronicles – clear demonstration of the king’s relative, and indeed relativised, status. This is complemented by the fact that he was not viewed as the final ground of his own position of pre-eminence. The book of 1 Samuel presents this clearly: Saul, who had been chosen as king, becomes a “stench” to Yahweh due to his recalcitrant disobedience, whilst David’s parallel rise – and ultimate acclamation – as Yahweh’s true representative is depicted as the unfolding, not of human machinations, but of the sovereign designs of Israel’s god. On one level, the narrative presents David as the unique recipient of divine favour. However, on another level, it represents a subtle reminder that the king himself stood on authority that was in the hands of another. He was a leader, yes; but he was, in the final analysis, an instrument, used by Yahweh with the intention of mediating his just and wise order – inscripturated in Torah – to the community.

The New Testament and the Flowering of an Idea

Having been germinated in the soil of the OT, the idea of servant leadership blossoms in the NT. The basic resources for a democratic understanding of governance – one which reverses the relationship between those in power, and those over whom power is exercised – are to be found there. We may begin with one of the clearest “political” texts in the NT, Romans 13:1-7. It is a notorious passage. Commentators over the centuries have often interpreted Paul’s statements here in purely reverential terms: having traversed other topics in Romans 1-12, they aver, he now deals explicitly with questions of the believer’s relationship to governing authorities, and does so by counselling quietism and acquiescence. Countless interpreters, not to mention politicians, have dragooned this passage into service, as they have sought to substantiate the untrammelled, unquestioned power of the state. In more recent times (and in an example of religion frustrating the advance of emancipation and egalitarianism), the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa deployed Romans 13:1ff to argue for acquiescence towards the political structures sustaining that country’s apartheid system.

All this, however, fundamentally misunderstands Paul’s point. True, a prima facie reading supports a so-called “conservative” interpretation, such that the apostle is heard to be saying that it would simply be better for a basically oppressive system of government to remain in place, than for Christians to be seen as subversive. Indeed, he seems to simply enjoin submission, with nary a word (apparently) on whether or not the authorities to which one ought to submit are legitimate. However, probing its contents more deeply yields a very different conclusion. To this end, a few points may be considered. Whilst it encourages some degree of deference to the governing authorities, Romans 13:1ff is quite deliberate in the language its uses to describe them. This is particularly clear if we gather up vv.1-2, 4-6, which speak of the nature (as opposed to the activity) of governing authorities. In those passages, Paul quite clearly states that (1) those who govern have been instituted by God, and (2) they are God’s “servants”. What this means is that although the apostle encourages the Roman believers to eschew rebellion and subversion, he nonetheless betrays a relativized view of government and human political institutions, consistent with a Jewish view of God as the world’s sole sovereign. Caesar, according to imperial ideology, owed allegiance to no one, save perhaps for the pantheon of Greco-Roman gods (who could probably expect nothing more than superficial reverence). The emperor stood at the apex of a totalising system, which acknowledged no other authority, no other rival who might qualify or check his untrammelled power. Paul, on the other hand, argues that every governing authority, from Caesar on down, has been instituted by God (v.1b-c). The power and legitimacy they bore was rooted in an external authority. For all their pomp, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, et. al., were but instruments, whose positions, according to Paul, depended entirely on the largesse of the world’s true King. If not for him, we might hear the apostle saying, they would be nothing. The apostle exhorts submission to governors, certainly; but lying behind this counsel is the basic assumption that they in turn were subject to God. Underlying – indeed, overshadowing – their authority was an authority transcendent and unmatched (metaphysically speaking). Far from re-enforcing a totalitarian system, Paul significantly qualifies it.

That qualification is reflected in the apostle’s conviction that governors are “servants” of God (vv. 5-6), charged with the responsibility of bringing order to the political community. Not only have they been bequeathed authority (such that it is derived and relativized); neither the emperor, nor his legion of proconsuls, magistrates and provincial governors, were to wield power for its own sake. For Paul, they were merely agential figures, whose positions were only legitimate to the extent they discharged their duties as guarantors of justice and order (v.4b). The apostle is quite emphatic on this point, though it would be easy to miss, given popular (and facile) readings of the overall tenor of the passage. Twice he labels the governing authorities “servants”; once, he calls them “agents” – language that most certainly undermines pretensions towards universal sovereignty, particularly as that comes to expression in the figure of the emperor. On this view, power is circumscribed, for those holding it do so as instruments of the final sovereign. In Paul’s mind, governors occupy a demoted (though nonetheless important) position, such that their raisons d’etre rest on service to a purpose higher than the accumulation of power for its own sake.

Of course, it would be folly to suggest that in the wider Greco-Roman world, governors lacked any sense of what it meant to provide for those they governed, or that they had no obligations towards citizens and subjects (though this obviously excludes the massive population of slaves within the Roman Empire). What I think is distinctive about the NT portrait of leadership and power is the way it drastically re-draws the vocation – the benefits of which are so completely externalised that true authority is defined as, and manifested in, service to others. This is particularly so as it is embodied in the NT’s portrayal of the ministry and life of Jesus himself. Even in the absence of direct historical links, it is still possible to discern certain parallels between, and echoes of, a Christological ethos and later principles associated with democratic governance. Some of the key texts in this regard are Mark 10:40-45; John 13:1-5; and Philippians 2:5-11.

Mark 10:40-45: Of the three passages I have selected, Mark 10:40-45 draws perhaps the clearest distinction between worldly, secular expressions of power, and the kind of power Jesus counselled and exemplified. In that passage, James and John approach Jesus, and ask him to give them high places of honour on either side “in [his] glory” (v.37). Clearly, they want to be exalted alongside Jesus, to attain positions of primacy and acclamation. But the other disciples are little better, becoming indignant with the brothers’ request – not because they believe it to be wrong, but because they are angry their own opportunity for honour has apparently been robbed (v.41). Verses 42-45, however, form the crux of Jesus’ statement on power and authority. He explicitly contrasts the way in which earthly rulers wield their power, “lording” it as they do over their subjects, and the model he presents (cf. v.45). Indeed, he is categorical and his disavowal of secular convention, calling upon the disciples to eschew the haughtiness of secular rulers in favour of a servant’s approach to leadership. More than that, he states that if any of them aspire to such positions, they must adopt the posture of a slave (v.44).

Slavery in the Roman Empire was a mixed bag; some slaves were able to do quite well for themselves, accumulating property and even acquiring slaves of their own. Others, however, were treated shamefully, stripped of everything, and utterly dehumanised by the reigning economic system. For Jesus, the significance of this kind of language lies in its basic connotations: whether a slave enjoyed a relatively comfortable existence, or suffered under the crushing weight of constant oppression, his life was ultimately not his own; it was limited, corralled – inextricably bound to the expectations and whims of his owner. The slave was not his own person; he was, in many respects, an appendage of the paterfamilias. And yet, remarkably, it was this very image Jesus chose to use when describing the nature of true leadership. For him, the authentic expression of power could be summed up as a kind of servitude, as those who followed his example were enjoined to give up all rights as they sought to lead. He commanded them to yield everything in service to others, thereby upending conventional notions of power, and subverting long-established hierarchies between the governed and those who govern them. Jesus used himself as the exemplar of this attitude, offering up his own crucifixion as its climactic embodiment. Mark 10:45 has long been seen as a classic expression of the significance of the atonement. It is certainly that, of course, but as Anglican New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has said, this passage houses a political theology inside its atonement theology – namely, a critique of the shape and nature of contemporaneous articulations of authority via Jesus’ own explication of the meaning of his death. In place of worldly analogues, Jesus substituted a picture of leadership that was deeply, radically, centred upon the welfare of others (“…give his life as a ransom…”). On this view, the leader’s life was, in effect, “enslaved” – bound to the duty he had to the community he oversaw. The accumulation of power was not for the purposes of self-aggrandizement, but for self-emptying.

John 13:1-5: The Marcan Jesus’ presentation of himself as the epitome of servant leadership leads naturally into John 13:1-5. That episode is justly famous for featuring his rather surprising act of foot-washing in the upper room, only hours before his arrest, trial and execution. In John’s hands, Jesus’ determination to wash the feet of his disciples proleptically symbolizes the cross. Now, for the Fourth Evangelist, Jesus’ crucifixion is, amongst other things, an act of service, issuing in great benefit for others. We may deduce this from the deliberate link he makes between Jesus’ foot-washing and his later death. Christ’s references to cleansing plainly function on more than one level, where the concrete reality of feet being washed with water points to the greater reality of cleansing from sin by virtue of Jesus’ self-oblation. But of course, the responsibility for foot-washing lay with servants, who waited on the guests of a feast. Such a menial task would not have been conducted by the guests themselves, for it was utterly beneath them. However, what Jesus commanded didactically in Mark 10, he here offers up in visual, parabolic form. Moreover, he pairs his example with an exhortation to the disciples to do likewise (13:14-15), thus setting out the importance of his own life as an ethical paradigm for those who would claim to follow him.

What is important for our purposes, however, are the specific links between the passage and the notion of servant leadership. These have already been clearly intimated by the very fact of Jesus’ adoption of a servant’s posture. But the prelude to the act is a revealing comment from the author himself, which provides both a theologically rich portrait of Jesus’ identity, and a startling reinforcement of the radically unconventional expression of power and authority attributed to him. Verse 3 has the evangelist tell us that Jesus “knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God, and was returning to God”. This is crucial; the very next verse continues by saying, “so he [Jesus] got up…” in order to wash the disciples’ feet. The seemingly insignificant word “so” signals the consequential relationship between Jesus’ knowledge of his complete sovereignty (delegated, to be sure), and the subsequent act of humble service which he performed. For the Fourth Evangelist, the foot-washing was not an obstacle to Jesus’ comprehensive authority; it was a clear, if paradoxical, expression of that theological truth. Similarly, Jesus did not stoop to the level of a servant despite being the incarnation of the Father’s very wisdom (cf. John 1:1-2); rather, he did so precisely because of it. The message seems clear: true power is not expressed through tyrannical coercion, but through the complete abnegation of self and status. Via his surprising act, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel taught the disciples that leadership in the redeemed community could not wielded in the same manner as earthly expressions, for it meant the complete reversal of expectations and convention.

Philippians 2:5-11: Philippians 2:5-11 seems to point in much the same direction as the foot-washing episode in John 13. As such, the passage also has important implications for a NT understanding of authority and power. In this chapter, Paul exhorts the church at Philippi to adopt the same mind and attitude as that of Christ Jesus (v.5). He then launches into a wonderful soliloquy about the various stages of Christ’s humiliation (completed with his exaltation): first, in taking on human flesh; and second, by walking the road to Calvary, and suffering a shameful execution in the manner of a criminal (vv.6-8). Verses 6-7 are particularly important, for they offer the reader a window into Paul’s paradoxical view of the identity and revelation of the world’s true sovereign. To be sure, there has been much debate as to how this pair of verses should be construed: did Jesus “make himself nothing” despite enjoying “equality with God”; or did he, rather, condescend because he participated in the divine identity? In other words, was Christ’s (two-stage) sacrifice a move away from the proper expression of divinity, or the culmination thereof?    

In his stimulating work, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, Michael J. Gorman argues that both interpretations are valid, and for that reason, proposes a synthetic treatment of the passage. He contends that they are really two sides of the same coin, and that Paul is working with both a “counterintuitive” stream and a “cruciform” stream as he rehearses the revelation God in the downward trajectory of Christ’s life. The apostle implicitly points to the paradoxical character of Christ’s incarnation, jarring as it did with conventional understandings of power and divine identity. For a king, emperor or god to stoop to the level of servanthood in this way – not to mention submitting to the dishonour of so humiliating an execution – was almost completely unthinkable. It was a category mistake of the highest order. The novelty of Paul’s depiction of godhood was to say that, contrary to expectation, the kind of self-abnegation seen in Christ’s humiliation was in fact a key moment in the disclosure of the identity of the divine. In sharp contradistinction to the prevailing norms of Greco-Roman culture, what the tenor and conclusion Jesus’ earthly life showed was not a tragic negation of power, but its true expression. We see here the present passage’s conceptual and theological connections with Mark 10 and John 13: the paradoxical – even polemical – depiction of what genuine authority actually looks like. Jesus’ descent into slavery was, according to Paul, the strange, yet climactic, unveiling of God’s character.

Moreover, as Gorman and others have plausibly argued, Philippians 2:6-11 contains a number of cultural echoes that strongly suggest a critique of imperial power, and all the pomp and arrogance associated with it. By implicitly pitting Caesar against Jesus, Paul is arguing that the “form of God” – which Augustus and others arrogated for themselves through military prowess and claims of universal lordship – was actually made visible in the voluntary servanthood of the man from Galilee. In that act, Paul seems to be saying, God in Christ turned imperial notions of power and leadership on their heads. The ethical import of the passage is properly contextualized by the opening verses of chapter 2, where Paul exhorts the Philippians to look out for the “interests of others”, and to tend to each other from positions of humility and deference. Philippians 2:6-11 caps the apostle’s exhortation by providing the church with the paradigm of humble, self-effacing service, of power wielded on behalf of, and for the benefit of, others.

Together, these three passages offer the reader a relatively clear picture of one key aspect of Christology. More to the point, they help crystallize the NT’s conception of leadership. In fundamental ways – seen implicitly in Philippians 2:6-11 and rather explicitly in Mark 10:40-45 – the resultant picture of Jesus constitutes a categorical rejection of the prevailing expressions and examples of power. It not only functions as a critique of empire and imperial arrogance, but also undermines all self-regarding and self-aggrandizing claims to power. The passages I have surveyed here all promote the idea – radical at the time – of servant leadership, where the hierarchy between governed and governor, leader and led, is dramatically blunted. That the subject of these passages is also seen as the very embodiment of God – the world’s true creator and sovereign – only adds to the significance of their complementary portraits of power. What they capture is the notion that leadership functions primarily as a form of service to the community over which one governs. On this view, positions of power do not exist for the ones who possess them; rather, a NT theology (and Christology) of leadership requires the bearers of such status to toil, labour – indeed, expend themselves – for the betterment of those they lead.

How does all this translate into the way power and leadership is conceived in modern democratic states? The relationship, like that between a biblical commitment to the law’s transcendence and evolving principles concerning the rule of law, is certainly not a direct one. And I don’t want to overplay my hand: Jesus was, according to the NT, the agent of God’s coming kingdom. He himself is depicted as God’s vice-regent, who rules the cosmos. This, of course, is not very “democratic”, if by that we mean a Lincolnian government “of the people” or “by the people”.

On the other hand, what I have examined is consistent with government “for the people”, the third leg in Lincoln’s democratic triumvirate. The idea of power and authority which came to expression in the figure of Jesus resonates at a deeper level with principles governing the exercise of political power in modern Western democracies. Moreover, given the deep cultural and philosophical shafts Judeo-Christian ethics have sunk into the bedrock of those communities, we should expect various features within those countries to bear traces – however faint – of that legacy. I think the example and ethos of Jesus is one such legacy. His embodiment of servant leadership upended the conventional and assumed power structures that prevailed in the Greco-Roman world. Similarly, Jesus articulated a new definition of power, one characterised by self-abnegation and self-expenditure in an effort to meet the needs of others. It’s difficult to overstate the massive, indeed tectonic, shift in the relationship between the governed and their governors that was generated by the singular influence of Jesus. Later developments concerning accountable government (which I have already touched on) are genetically related to the idea – exemplified so crisply in Jesus’ example – that power and authority are corralled by service, and ought to be measured against that standard.

None of this occurred in isolation, of course; other intellectual streams were powerfully important in the evolution of democratic leadership. Moreover, the mere example of Jesus could not become an influential source for the later flourishing of democratic culture apart from its preservation, transmission and adaptation in later Christian communities. It was here that the ethic of Jesus was “practised”, and where its social and communal utility could be tested. The early church, as seen in Acts, is seen as a radically egalitarian society (e.g., Acts 2:42-46; 4:32, 34-37), and the legitimate heir to the message and teachings of Christ. Later Christian history provides examples of participatory and communal living, presaging (by some centuries, to be sure) subsequent values associated with, and undergirding, democratic politics.

For instance, theologian and anti-apartheid activist John de Grucy has noted that fourth-century monasticism provides strong evidence for the presence of a proto-democratic culture in some streams of early Christianity. Monastic figures such as Basil of Caesarea (and later, Benedict of Nursia) formed equalitarian communities that sought to counter the highly-stratified worlds in which they existed. Class distinctions between aristocracy and the poor were erased (or at least dramatically muted), whilst members of the clergy from wealthier families, deliberately invoking the figure of Jesus, would take vows of poverty – the better to serve and identify with those they led. Political philosopher, Larry Siedentop, says this development heralded a remarkable transformation in the was authority was conceived. Under the aegis of people like Basil, monastic leaders were obliged to act humbly, meekly. Siedentop argues that this version of authority — existing as it did in a culture awash with hubristic notions of power — was “unprecedented”. The early centuries of the church witness to a formative matrix, which provided key cultural and structural resources for the development of democratic politics, and which can be traced back to the example and teachings of its founder. That matrix was to prove decisive for both later Christian communities and the societies in which they existed. As but one example, we may note the way sections of the Radical Reformation self-consciously sought to emulate the social egalitarianism that Jesus espoused and practised.

All this lies in the future, and I shall return to some of these points in later essays. For now, it is important to consider the historically and culturally mediated connections between crucial biblical themes related to leadership and government, especially as they are crystallized in the NT’s portrait of Christ, and the conceptualisation of leadership in contemporary democratic states.

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Ethics and the Birth of Jesus

It is a truism to suggest that Jesus’ life and teachings are inescapably ethical. Even a cursory glance at, say, the Sermon on the Mount reveals the moral hue of much of what Jesus’ claimed, did and taught. Less obvious is the way in which events that happened to Christ bear the unmistakable traces of ethical significance. It is one thing to argue that the life of Jesus, to the extent that he exercised authorship over its shape and trajectory, was a moral one; quite another to suggest the same of moments in his life over which he (ostensibly) had no control. Still, we must not forget that the New Testament presents Jesus’ earthly sojourn – all of it, from beginning to end – as an epochal event, pristinely reflecting the eternal will and nature of God. Birth was no different. It was something Christ chose; it was not foisted upon him, and nor was he the unwilling subject of divine fiat. No: he decided, in concert with the Father and the Spirit; he acted, in complete accord with the other members of the godhead; he sacrificed, the ground of which was the loving union of the Triune God. It is the very beginning of Christ’s life, when he entered the flow of creation and time, upon which I want to meditate; the moment at which sovereign divinity deigned to inhabit the fetters of mortal humanity. Clothed in the fine garment of infanthood, the Word incarnate demonstrated the full character of the godhead. Moreover, in doing so, he left an ethical model for followers past and present – one which remained consistent, and constant, until the very end of his life.

All this is very well; but even if we agree that Jesus’ birth was the result of God’s decree (whose identity, of course, cannot be separated from Jesus’ own), in what way does it constitute an ethical act? In what way does it function as a pattern to be imitated by Christians? I submit that it does so in three ways, by way of movement hierarchical, metaphysical and social. The first act of movement rests upon Jesus’ voluntary decision to lay aside his innate glory and live amongst his own image-bearers. The second act rests upon the singular, inimitable nature of his birth, by which he bridged the metaphysical [1] chasm between deity and humanity. And the third act rests upon his identification with the poor and disenfranchised. In reality, the various threads are deeply intertwined – the metaphysical “gap” that exists between the Creator and the creation is also a hierarchical one, whilst the social identification of Christ is an extension, or specification, of his entry into the realm of humanity. That said, for the purposes of this essay, I shall parse them out to make clearer my reflections – and, in the second part of this piece, the ethical implications thereof.

Let us begin with the hierarchical or vertical axis of the Son’s great migration. In becoming man, Jesus moved from the unshielded glory of God’s presence, as well as the acknowledged and unfettered glory of his own nature, to the “soft envelope” (to borrow Tozer’s phrase) of finite human existence. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians expresses well this aspect of Christ’s birth. In a few short verses, the Apostle deliberately establishes a contrast between the innate equality Jesus had with God prior to his advent, and the fact of his humble entry into the created world (2:6-7). In speaking of that great event, Paul uses language that conveys deliberation, control and voluntary self-abnegation – qualities that one might argue are necessary (though not sufficient) for any act to be considered ethical. Indeed, he declares that Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant; he humbled himself”, and so on (Philippians 2:7-8; italics mine). Paul is emphatic, in declaring that Jesus made himself “nothing” (v.7). We might think that he is simply talking about Jesus entering this world as a powerless, impoverished individual – the son of parents who lived in penury and want. That is true, so far as it goes (I shall return to this theme below). However, what Paul means by “nothing” is humanity itself. Whether rich or poor, powerful or powerless, influential or marginal, humans are comparatively “nothing” when placed next to the infinite glory of God.

In a previous essay, I spoke about the incomparable nature of the Deity, whose awful majesty swallows up the grandiose notions of his subjects. Whereas humans are bound, God is boundless; whereas we are finite, he is infinite; and whereas we are subject to corruption and decay (physical, moral and spiritual), God – being uncreated – is utterly untouched by these forces, governing them with complete freedom. His resplendence is “above the heavens” (Psalm 8:1), which is a way of proclaiming his complete sovereignty over all there is. Time and again, the Psalms wax lyrical about Yahweh’s kingship. It is an apt metaphor that describes the hierarchical distinction between the Creator and his creation. Remarkably, however, he left what was his by nature, “emptying” himself to make possible the redemption of his creatures. Paul’s careful language preserves the paradoxical distinction between the first two persons of the godhead. Christ is at once the One who intrinsically possesses the essence of God and the One who can still relate to the Father, being as he is “with” him (Phil. 2:6). God is simultaneously transcendent and immanent, and it was the latter that was fully expounded in the humble person of Christ, whose self-oblation upon earth quietly began at the moment of his birth.

The NT elsewhere picks up on this theme of the king’s voluntary pauperism. Take Luke’s birth narrative, for example. He deliberately sets his account against the backdrop of national and international history. To set the scene of the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth – he who would herald the arrival of the Messiah – Luke mentions the reign of (the non-Jewish) Herod over Judea (the name given to Judah at that time) (1:5). As context for his account of the birth of Christ, Luke refers to the reign of Augustus Caesar over the Levant (2:1). Quite clearly, he wants his readers to note the jarring contrasts. On the one hand, God’s people were ruled by a petty tyrant, a vassal of Rome who was not even Jewish (cf. Matthew 2:6); on the other, they lived under the domination of a foreign overlord, whose pomp and power were unmatched. But with delicious irony, Luke subtly suggests to us the identity of the true king of Israel, and therefore, the world. Jesus, the One to whom the Baptist was to point (Luke 3:4-6), did not reside in a palace in Judea, or a royal house in Rome. Rather, he came as an infant, shed of all the overt trappings of deity in order to consummate the Father’s redemptive plan. For all their worldly claims to rulership, the men into whose realms Jesus was going to enter were mere parodies of the true king. The point here, however, is that the true king humbled himself deeply, adopting the limitations of his creatures and entrusting himself to their imperfect care. Once more, we see the willing self-abnegation of Christ demonstrated, as he bore the lowly circumstances of those made in his image.

In laying aside his heavenly glory – something which he did not have to grasp, as it belonged to him by eternal right – Jesus also traversed the metaphysical edges of heaven and earth, humanity and divinity. This particular aspect of Christ’s birth closely follows the already-discussed overtones of hierarchical movement, whereupon he added created existence to his pre-existent nature. One might say, then, that it was the crystallization of that impossible union. In his own, writhing body, the infant Jesus personified the union between God and man; between two, apparently irreconcilable natures. Moreover, his birth was the first concrete sign that heaven and earth – the spiritual and the material – were being drawn together in loving harmony by the Creator. His life was a microcosm of that union, and a foretaste of what will be the case universally. The Gospel of John, to which I often turn, marks out the transcendent nature of God’s wisdom. Jesus, the pre-existent Word, was God and was with God “in the beginning” (Jn. 1:1). This language, much like Paul’s ode in the Philippian Letter, preserves the paradoxical nature of the Deity: combining simultaneous affirmations of the Word’s eternal identity with God and his distinctiveness. That is important, for the supervening agent in creation, who proceeds eternally from the depths of the Father, in time became one of us. John declares that “the Word became flesh” (v.14; cf. Rom. 8:3; 1 Tim. 3:16). Here, “flesh” stands for mortal, created existence, in contrast with the utterly uncreated existence of Yahweh (cf. Isaiah 31:3a). How could these two states – these two metaphysical worlds – be bridged? More to the point, how was it possible that in one being, these two natures, so seemingly irreconcilable, could be united harmoniously? How could the eternal One take on the substance of those he created without ceasing to be what he always had been?

These questions are largely imponderable, and the metaphors that abound can only offer a dimly lit path towards the truth. One, for instance, likens the coming of Jesus to a person who adopts dual citizenship. The person is fully a member of two nations, of two political groups, by virtue of legal reality. Going further, one could use the example of someone with multi-ethnic parentage as a metaphor for the manifold identity the Son adopted at birth. Like an individual who is, say, Spanish and Fijian (to select two ethnic groups that are largely unalike), Jesus combined in his own person two natures, two identities – two “streams”, unified in one person. Even this image, however, is limited, for it cannot adequately repeat the utter dissimilarity between humanity and divinity. Unlike a dual citizen, or a bi-racial individual, divinity and humanity do not occupy the same ontological territory; there is no space – save for Jesus himself – where they mingle. It required an act of God to create this new reality, when he “came upon” a virgin by his Spirit, and poured his life into her womb (Luke 1:35).

Lastly, I come to the socially significant nature of Christ’s birth. Whereas the hierarchical and metaphysical facets of this movement lay behind material reality, the social and economic environment into which Jesus was born reflects more visibly the extent of his identification with the created order. Even allowing for the Son’s act of “emptying”, by which he condescended to humanity in the flesh, it was yet still possible for him to be born into, say, a royal family – or at least a family of some influence. Why should he, the radiance of the Father, not have taken his place amongst earthly powers? Of course, the possibility was always present, but in an act of sheer grace, he chose to identify with the lowliest of his image-bearers; to inhabit this world as a person of poverty; to enter the flow of creation and time as an occupant of social and economic weakness. Nowhere is that truth plainer than at the time of his birth. One small example will suffice. We read in Luke 2:24 that Joseph and Mary offered a sacrifice of two doves when they presented the infant Jesus at the Temple. A seemingly innocuous detail, perhaps – but the presentation of doves was a legal stipulation for people who were unable to afford a lamb (see Leviticus 12:8). Quite clearly, then, Jesus’ earthly parents were poor. They could not afford the normal offering, and were compelled to offer a sacrifice out of their poverty. Thus, Jesus went beyond mere identification with humanity in some vague and ill-defined manner. He did not appear in power and glory, taking for himself worldly riches. Indeed, it was precisely the opposite. Through his birth (not to mention his life), Christ identified deeply with the poor, the outcasts and the marginal.

We ought to remember that Jesus’ life was an unfurling of the nascent qualities glimpsed at the Nativity. It certainly does not stand in splendid isolation. However, far from simply marking the beginning of the Word’s incarnation, Jesus’ birth was an intrinsically ethical act. Indeed, it continues to possess moral significance in its own right. I trust that others reading this will be able to discern some of the ethical consequences of this act for those who claim to follow Jesus. In the second part of this piece, I shall sketch out some ideas in an effort to demonstrate the implications for Christians’ lives as they attempt to pattern them on the birth (not to mention the life) of Christ.

[1] By “metaphysical”, I am referring roughly to the substance, essence or nature of things.

When Glory and Wisdom Die

Easter is upon us. Many have been, and will be, flocking to churches to sing, praise, worship, listen, pray and fellowship. Many more will elect to devote their time to other things, perhaps forgetting (or not knowing in the first place) the events that lie behind this cherished time.

Those events are what I want to celebrate, and so this post is a kind of paean to the God who initiated them; who set them in motion, so that his image-bearers might be saved, rescued – redeemed. Of course, I refer to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, God’s Son, in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Through these epochal acts, God in Christ secured for us what we could not accomplish by ourselves. Through Christ’s death, God took upon his own shoulders the pain and penalty of sin; through his triumphant resurrection, God defeated sin’s companion, death, and vindicated his Son’s sacrificial offering.

That is, admittedly, a very rough treatment of something that cannot be grasped in a few sentences. In fact, one might say that the church’s entire biblical and theological reflection upon the events of Easter has barely scratched the surface of the manifold wisdom of God. The analogy of a diamond springs to mind. Like a diamond, the cross and the resurrection are multifaceted to a seemingly infinite degree; no one perspective – no one image – is alone capable of capturing the brilliance of what we see.

With that in mind, my post may well be seen as reductionist. For I seek to hone in on the first part of God’s redemptive work – the cross – and distil two particular dimensions pertinent to its significance: the revelation of God’s glory; and the demonstration of God’s wisdom. The cross stands as the paradoxical occasion for both these divine attributes, and indeed, can be seen as the “theatre” (to borrow Calvin’s term) of their supreme manifestation.

The Cross as a Revelation of God’s Glory

John’s Gospel is unique for many reasons; indeed, it is quite unlike the Synoptics in several respects. One of the most significant differences is the way in which it treats the cross. For the fourth evangelist, the cross itself functions as a revelation of the glory of God. Consider the prologue (John 1: 1-18): the evangelist begins this section by equating the mysterious “Word” with God himself. Later, he declares, with stunning imagery, that “the Word became flesh” and dwelt in the midst of humanity (v.14). That concept (i.e., the Word dwelling amongst flesh-and-blood people) can also be translated as “tabernacled”, and conjures up the idea of one pitching a tent or, as is the case here, a tabernacle. It is a clear allusion to the notion of Yahweh’s glory becoming manifest, visible, brilliantly apparent, in the tabernacle he directed the Israelites to establish for him.

What the evangelist is proclaiming is that the same Creator God, who dwelt with his people and displayed his glory thus, is also the very same God who has made his “home”, as it were, in human flesh. One hardly needs to possess unparalleled interpretative skills to realise that the fourth evangelist is talking about Christ when he speaks of the “Word”. What surprises is the connection between the embodied life of a Galilean peasant with the resplendent majesty of the sovereign Creator. Indeed, John links the Incarnation with the revelation of divine glory in the very next part of the verse. He writes, with the awestruck sincerity of an eyewitness, that “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only”, with “One and Only” functioning as a veiled reference to the uniqueness of the one true God. The manifestation of God and his glory are here inseparable, and the evangelist pinpoints them in Christ himself.

So we see that the self-abnegation and humiliation of the Word (read: Jesus Christ) is intimately, though paradoxically, linked to his glorification from the moment of his advent. But it does not end there. For John takes the strange unity of glory and humiliation beyond the Incarnation, and marries them at Calvary in a way that would have seemed nonsensical to many of his contemporaries. Three times in his gospel, he records Jesus as using the phrase, “lifted up” (3:14; 8:28, 12:32), which is not only a literal reference to his crucifixion – in particular, the act of his being raised up on the wooden cross as part of the process of execution – but also a metaphorical nod to his glorification. His being “lifted up” did not simply pertain to the physicality of being nailed to a piece of wood above a throng of onlookers; that event, grisly as it was, actually revealed the unmitigated glory of Father and Son in harmony.

It deepens further the paradox of Christ’s mission, almost to the point of offense. How indeed, we might ask, could a form of execution – used not only to kill, but to subject a person to the most extreme form of public humiliation – be the site of the manifestation of God and his majesty? How could Christ himself say, with the cross clearly in view, that the “hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23)? How could he pray to the Father, the night before his death that “…the time has come. Glorify you Son, that your Son may glorify you” (17:1)? Clearly, Jesus thought of his death, not primarily as a form of debasement (though on a certain level, that was the case – cf. Philippians 2:8c), but as a necessary part of his revelatory work. Bearing in mind that God’s glory cannot be separated from himself, the unveiling work of Christ on the cross was the supreme unveiling of God.

On the cross, the Son revealed the splendour of the Father. On the cross, the saving sovereignty of God was manifested. On the cross, the power of God to vanquish the powers of evil, death and sin were uniquely revealed through its accomplishment. The diverse attributes of the triune God – love, mercy, justice, authority, wrath, judgement – were drawn together at a single point with the violent demise of one man. And it was in that demise that these attributes were seen in all their pristine beauty. We beheld his glory – the glory of a man, mangled by the brutality of a world that had rejected its god.

The Cross as a Demonstration of God’s Wisdom

Some people are loath to admit this truth. For moderns, the cross seems like a bloodthirsty act. At the very least, it seems morbidly ridiculous to suggest that God would reveal himself through something as shameful as the cross. Even if salvation was a necessity, why should God elect to accomplish it through something so at odds with what we normally think of noble and praiseworthy? It is not simply a problem for moderns; the apostle Paul confronted a similar dilemma when he preached the cross to cultural and ethnic contemporaries. Writing to the Corinthians, he freely concedes that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews (1 Corinthians 1:23). It was the very antithesis of the ideals possessed by Greek culture and Jewish religion. But, Paul declares, Christ crucified is the revelation, embodiment, of God’s wisdom and power (v.24). Paradoxically, the cross fulfils Greeks’ search for wisdom and Jews’ search for miraculous might (cf. v.22), doing so in way that confounds the world’s expectations. But that is part of the point; the apostle suggests that the wisdom of God bursts the boundaries of – and indeed, is unbounded by – the cultural and religious frameworks that man imposes on truth and knowledge. Rather than conforming himself to the ways of man, God enacted something entirely new; something unprecedented; something so unlike the wisdom of the world that it would hardly have been believed.

No matter. For Paul, Christ is indeed the demonstration of God’s wisdom, despite the apparent foolishness of that statement. Two things are noteworthy. First, Paul appears to be singing from the same hymn sheet as John. Both testify to the embodiment of God’s wisdom in and through the person of his Son, Jesus (1 Cor. 1:24,30; cf. John 1:1-2, where “Word” should be seen as a synonym or sorts for wisdom). God’s truth has become supremely known in Jesus – and that, supremely enacted in his shameful death.

Second, Paul’s notion of wisdom is not a static, intellectual concept, any more than it was for his companion, John. Both men, standing in the tradition of their religious forebears, regard wisdom as a dynamic, creative process. It transforms and changes. It is, one might say, powerful, in that it can wrought a shift in reality. Think Proverbs 8, which speaks loftily of wisdom being a partner in creation. Thus, for Paul, God’s wisdom is authoritatively revealed in the salvation of sinners. It is embodied in Christ crucified, whose death was God’s way of effecting the redemption of his image-bearing creatures, ending the reign of sin and death, and inaugurating the age of new creation. He has shamed the wise and the learned, for their sophistry – skilled as it might be – cannot solve the ultimate question of humanity’s predicament or its relation to the Creator. However, the ministry of his Son, who has dealt with sin, once and for all, through his own sacrificial death, has provided a definitive answer. Through death and apparent failure, God in Christ has, ironically, defeated the powers arrayed against humanity (cf. Colossians 2:15) and opened up the way of reconciliation between himself and his image-bearing creatures.

The cross of Christ radiates the upside-down brilliance of God. Nevertheless, his saving work is left incomplete if we do not consider Calvary’s necessary sequel, the empty tomb. Indeed, the cross cannot be understood except in light of the resurrection. The enigma of Easter Sunday is one that I will explore in due course. For now, let us celebrate and commemorate the strange, yet irrevocable, hope elicited by the death of a loving God.