Wisdom

Meaning and God’s Attributes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meaning as an Aid to Understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

 

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The Johannine Jesus and the “I am”

Introduction

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is an enigmatic figure, making tantalizing claims about his ultimate identity. His so-called “I am” statements, sprinkled throughout John, are no exception. Allusive and oblique, they are nonetheless freighted with cosmic significance. This essay will argue that the “I am” statements of John’s Gospel constitute an implicit, yet definite, claim to deity, and that this can be substantiated via an exploration of Old Testament ideas latent within the formula. Unfolding in three stages, it will first survey the two main ‘types’ of “I am” statements Jesus employs, demonstrating the formula’s verbal reliance upon key OT texts, and arguing for their fundamental reference to God’s unique covenantal character. The essay will then build upon those preliminary conclusions, offering a broader theological and salvation-historical account of Jesus’ claim, and highlighting several interlocking thematic links between the Johannine Jesus and previous instances of God’s redemptive-revelatory activity. Finally, it will attempt to properly nuance the “I am” formula, sketching out the distinctiveness of Jesus’ divine identification – particularly in light of its relationship to John’s overall Christological-theological presentation.

“I am” in Context

John’s Gospel uses “I am” on several occasions. Some are conventional forms of self-identification (e.g. 1:20). Others, however, carry weightier significance. I will identify two such categories of “I am” statements: those where Jesus used the “I am” formula absolutely; and those where he combined it with a predicate, or vivid image. One shouldn’t force the distinction: a common bed of theological meaning underlies any apparent division. Moreover, the latter unfurls what is latent in the former.

The Johannine Jesus uses the absolute “I am” statements in the Fourth Gospel without any qualifying predicate. John 8:58 is the classic example. In a steadily escalating debate over his identity and origin, Jesus boldly asserts that “before Abraham was born, I am!” His interlocutors understand this seemingly truncated turn of phrase: immediately, they attempt to kill him (v.59). Their hostility indicates an implicit interpretation of blasphemy. Jesus’ opponents, it seems, invested his pronouncement with the kind of meaning that would have led them to conclude he was, remarkably, claiming deity. John 8:24, 28 are also pertinent, as is 18:5-6. The latter passage, where Jesus confronts a detachment of arresting soldiers, is further indication of claimed deity. The party’s prostrating response – after the evangelist emphasises Jesus’ distinctive reply – certainly implies a theophanic experience.

These are inferences, of course. But why did Jesus’ statements arouse such reactions? What kinds of associations would his contemporaries have made? Here, overtones become echoes – deliberate allusions to a rich stream of OT thought, capturing foundational disclosures of God’s utter uniqueness and covenantal faithfulness. Jesus’ judicial and religious opponents, it seems (particularly in 8:58-9), understood this connection. Indeed, abundant evidence for antecedent OT usage exists, which reveals the burgeoning development of “I am” as a divine name.

Of the various OT texts that might be surveyed in this regard, Isaiah 40-55 is especially important, employing self-referential statements linguistically similar to Jesus’ “I am” formula. In the second major section of Isaiah, repeated promises of divine redemption and covenantal faithfulness appear amidst doubts about Yahweh’s willingness, or ability, to rescue his people (aroused by the calamity of exile, and the apparent triumph of pagan “gods” over Israel’s sovereign). The term, “I am [he],” and its cognates, are used to reveal, among other things, Yahweh’s absolute uniqueness – Israel’s sole guarantor of salvation. Isaiah 41:4 and 43:10-13 are prime examples in this regard. Chapters 44-46 are also apposite, where the “I am” formula is employed several times in a similar context, with similar import (cf. 44:6; 45:5-6, 18: 46:4, 9). In addition, Jesus’ “I am” utterances arguably rely upon Exodus 3:14, where Yahweh disclosed his character to Moses with the appellation, “I am who I am.” Like Isaiah 40-55, Exodus 3:14 is set within a larger, covenantal-redemptive context (which the Fourth Gospel echoes). Divine self-disclosure points again to Yahweh’s matchlessness and loyalty. Jesus’ “I am” statements reverberate with sounds of Yahweh’s titular declarations in Isaiah and Exodus. Recalling such expressions, Jesus deliberately appropriated the divine name, perpetuating a historical pattern characterised by Yahweh’s repeated self-revelation (cf. Jn. 17:11). Jesus’ opponents rightly interpreted these “I am” statements as references to a sacred-divine unveiling.

This OT verbal background applies equally well to the seven instances of the predicated “I am,” fleshing out the absolute form, and underpinning various facets of Jesus’ salvific relationship to humanity. For instance, Jesus claimed to be the “resurrection and the life,” prefacing that declaration with “I am” (Jn. 11:25). In so doing, he appropriated something that, ordinarily, belonged to God alone – and in the process, implicitly presented himself as the locus of resurrection life. Sometimes, Jesus clearly drew from OT images and threads. He claimed to be the “bread of life” (6:35), plainly alluding to the feeding of the Israelites after their flight from Egypt (Exodus 16) – and the source, the enfleshment, of true life. His declaration to be “light” (8:12), it seems, echoed the OT’s use of light as a metaphor, not just for illumination, but for salvation (e.g. Isa. 42:6, 49:6). Similarly, as the “true vine” (15:1), Jesus claimed to be the divine reality to which OT Israel – frequently depicted in these terms (e.g. Ps. 80:8-11; Isa. 5:7) – pointed.

John 10:1-21 is a particularly good example of these realities. By declaring, “I am the good shepherd” (vv.11, 14), Jesus consciously alluded to Ezekiel 34 (cf. 37:24-28), boldly contrasting himself with Israel’s false leaders. In that passage, Israel’s “shepherds” are castigated for their predatory ways (vv.2-10); Yahweh vows that he himself will come and shepherd his people, whilst paradoxically promising the advent of a Davidic figure to reign over the nation (vv.11-24). Jesus re-applied Ezekiel’s promise to himself, asserting that he was that “shepherd,” and that he would provide security and comfort for God’s afflicted (albeit leaving the relationship between the Davidic ruler and Yahweh ambiguous). In so using the “I am” formula, Jesus identified himself with past instances of revelatory activity. Moreover, he frequently combined them with known scriptural images to substantiate his claim to be the consummating distillation of the salvific promises to which he alluded.

“I am” – Thematic Resonances

As the foregoing analysis implies, the “I am” statements signalled more than appropriation of the divine self-appellation. Indeed, they went beyond an abstract, metaphysical assertion. The “I am” formula’s OT grounding suggests that Jesus situated himself within a salvation-historical narrative, identifying (climactically) with a particular god, via particular acts – Yahweh, whose past revelations provided the boundaries for his own self-disclosure. The formula is pregnant with several interlocking theological themes and motifs, once more linking Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus to the Johannine Jesus. Three in particular stand out: the cosmic lawsuit; the revelatory-redemptive nexus; and the seminal significance of the image of exodus itself. They form a triadic relationship, having been woven together to inform a deeper understanding of the significance of the “I am” formula.

To begin, Jesus’ “I am” utterances are part of a scriptural-historical pattern of judicial contests between Yahweh and his adversaries. Both Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus feature what could be called the cosmic lawsuit motif, pitting God and false claimants to deity against each other in a supra-natural trial. Indeed, the question of knowledge of God’s identity hangs over both these portions of the OT. In Isaiah, Yahweh repeatedly reveals himself against a panoply of lifeless idols; in Exodus, he’s unveiled as the authentic Lord, over and against Pharaoh and his pantheon. The key link is the polemical unveiling of the true God in a judicial conflict, where his acts yield knowledge of his character (Exod. 6:2, 6-7, etc.). “I am [he]”, whether in Exodus 3:14, or Isaiah 40-55, hooks into this divine self-identification, and is achieved amidst controversy over who the true, universal sovereign is (cf. Exod. 5:2).

This trenchant disclosure does not, however, stand in isolation. As noted, these passages are part of a broader covenantal framework. In God’s effort to redeem Israel from slavery, or draw it out of exile, the cosmic lawsuit gives way to a deeper redemptive thrust. Yahweh’s exposure of false deities and his own, contrasting claims – by virtue of the evocative “I am” – are in the service of his desire to faithfully save his people. Thus, divine knowledge and divine redemption merge, and are twin components of the logic of Exodus and Isaiah 40-55. Finally, the exodus itself constitutes a seminal link: its founding reality becomes paradigmatic for future liberation by the time of Isaiah 40-55. Indeed, the references to the exodus in Isaiah are particularly vivid, establishing continuity between God’s salvation-historical acts.

The Johannine Jesus, by way of his “I am” pronouncements, relied upon this scriptural edifice, even as he presented himself as its capstone. “I am” is an allusion to a multi-faceted, redemptive narrative. The Fourth Gospel’s cosmic lawsuit, for example, is a well-known motif, reaching a crescendo in Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Adversarial-legal passages, such as Jn. 5:16-47 or 8:12-59, offer glimpses, as do the frequency of words such as “testimony” and “witness,” references to judgment and divine verdicts (e.g. 3:19ff; 5:22, 28-30; 11:31; 16:8-11), and the Holy Spirit’s depiction as counsellor or advocate.

The Johannine concept of truth takes on a decidedly judicial “hue” in this context, seen most clearly in the repeated disclosures of authentic deity. Jesus’ “I am” pronouncement in 8:58 (and 8:24, 28) is rooted in this environment, and is a particularly clear reflection of the wider cosmic contest, built into the Fourth Gospel’s narrative, between the true God and his opponents (cf. 1:4-5; cf. 19:15c). Controversy over Yahweh’s rightful status as universal Lord is transmuted into a trial over Jesus’ kingly identity (e.g. 19:15). Echoing those crucial portions of Exodus and Isaiah, Jesus offered himself, polemically, as true deity – Yahweh’s unique representative. The “I am” formula, so allusive in its brevity, encapsulates this fundamental (and exclusively authentic) unveiling (8:28). But, also like those OT passages under examination, such revelation was indissolubly linked with salvation: Jesus adopted the “exclusive soteriological function” claimed of Yahweh, where acknowledgement of the “I am” meant life (8:24, 51, 58; esp. 11:25-26; cf. 17:3). Conceiving of truth as revelation, John’s Gospel uses the “I am” statements to encapsulate the authentic character of God, as revealed in Jesus. It is in this regard that John’s frequent use of glory as a metaphor for divine light/truth, explicating Jesus’ identity as its ultimate channel, is relevant: “I am” reflects an understanding of redemptive enlightenment – the already-surveyed conjunction of divine knowledge, communion and salvation. The culmination of that nexus, of course, occurred at Calvary, the paradoxical site of Jesus’ ultimate unveiling as Israel’s true saviour-king (8:28). “I am,” as used by Jesus, is the functional, verbal equivalent of the image of Yahweh’s radiance.

The Fourth Gospel also employs the key motif of exodus as an overarching framework, using its seminal influence to flesh out the nature of Jesus’ salvific ministry. Features include: echoes of the tabernacle’s establishment, a key plank in Yahweh’s salvific-covenantal project (1:14); the corresponding use of divine glory to communicate a key dimension of Jesus person and ministry (e.g. 1:14; cf. 40:34-38); various Mosaic comparisons (1:15; 3:14); the wider import of Isaiah 40:1-3 in John 1:23 (trading, as the former passage does, on exodus imagery); allusive references to the paschal lamb (1:29); imagistic overtones of the exodus in Jesus’ “born again” declaration (esp. 3:5); typological use of the Israelites’ feeding in the wilderness (John 6); salvation as freedom from slavery (8:31, 34); Jesus’ crucifixion at Passover, consummating that event’s anticipatory significance; and, of course, the “I am” formula itself (given its already-noted provenance). Passing the exodus through an Isaianic prism, Jesus obliquely claimed to be the same “I am” who had already achieved redemption for his people, and vowed to do so again. He deployed the formula to identify himself intimately with the God of the exodus – signalling the inauguration of a new exodus, as promised in the Isaianic literature. Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus 3:14, then, should be combined as part of a layered backdrop to Jesus’ own claim – which his “I am” statements reflect – to be the salvific God’s climactic self-revelation.

“I am” God?

One shouldn’t conclude from the above account that Jesus was baldly claiming to be Yahweh/God, without remainder. His pronouncements were, it must be said, far more subtle. Whilst he appropriated uniquely divine prerogatives (bestowal of life, judgment, etc.), and implied unity with God (10:30), Jesus paradoxically distinguished himself from the Father, explicitly referring to this difference at several points (e.g. 4:34; 5:19). It’s important, in this final section, to nuance his solemn assertion of deity found in the “I am” formula.

Importantly, Jesus’ “I am” statements can be viewed in light of John’s unique Christological-theological presentation, particularly as it is found in the prologue (1:1-18). The notion of the divine logos (or Word/wisdom/mind) is pertinent, underpinning the distinctiveness of Jesus’ “I am” utterances. John 8:12 (bookending Chapter 8 with v.58) recalls the prologue’s characterisation of the Word as light, and coheres with allusive references to Jesus-as-Temple, the “site” of Yahweh’s resplendence (= glory, above p.5; see 1:14; 2:12-25; cf. Exod. 40:34-38). Tapping into a rich vein of Jewish theology about the transcendent God’s simultaneous immanence, John’s Gospel depicts Jesus as God’s embodied wisdom, identified with his nature, yet distinct (cf. Isa. 55:11; Prov. 8:22ff). The “I am” statements link Jesus with Yahweh’s activity and being, echoing the prologue’s portrayal of the divine Word as supervening agent in creation. Yahweh’s kingship, to which this essay has already referred, is of a piece with the Johannine picture of God’s presiding over creation: he is the universal sovereign, to which authorship of creation attests. Furthermore, this identity is “concretized,” so to speak, in Jesus and his “I am” claims. John 8:58 is especially apposite, strongly implying Jesus’ pre-existence, and contrasting it with creation’s contingency and finitude (represented, in this case, by Abraham’s qualified existence [cf. 1:1-3]). Functions attributed to Jesus are attributed to the logos, and these connections reflect the Gospel’s conviction regarding his co-inherence, his ontological identification, with Israel’s – and the world’s – God (14:10). Jesus is seen as, and declared himself to be, God’s mediating presence in the creation (1:9-10), witnessing to humanity as the climactic bearer of the divine name (cf. Heb. 1:1-3).

As can be seen, then, this isn’t merely a matter of later theologizing. In the aforementioned use of Ezekiel 34, Jesus himself fused the paradoxical combination of a divine-human shepherd in his own person. John 14:6, where Jesus claims, “I am the way…”, touches upon the enigma of his twin-status as the supreme revelation of Yahweh and the distinct channel, mediator – even enfleshment – of divine truth; indeed, to know Jesus is to know the Father (Jn. 14:9-10), and Yahweh’s singular reality is “devolved,” in a sense, to his uniquely qualified representative. “I am” functions as a subtle reference to Jesus’ divine status, whilst discouraging facile attempts to baldly equate him with Yahweh. Therefore, although he claimed deity, Jesus did so in a way that didn’t exhaust the Godhead. “I am” isn’t a totalizing declaration of godhood, but points to Jesus’ status as God’s true “image” – the incarnation of Yahweh’s wisdom. The Johannine picture of God’s manifold nature calibrates the import of Jesus’ statements, holding in tension his dual identity as Yahweh’s manifest presence and a discrete personage. “I am,” in this environment, successfully preserves the Son’s essential deity, but without collapsing it into the being of the Father.

Conclusion

It is apparent that the Johannine Jesus, according to his “I am” statements, sought to (obliquely) claim divinity. The formula bears clear linguistic parallels with OT instances of God’s self-identification – found, above all, in places such as Isaiah and Exodus – encompassing his uniqueness and covenantal loyalty. Moreover, Jesus’ declarations captured a complex web of fundamental salvation-historical themes and motifs, building upon those striking verbal similarities. The cosmic lawsuit, the coalescence of revelation and salvation, and the use of exodus as a defining image for that process, form a coherent backdrop to Jesus’ “I am” statements. More than an inert, metaphysical assertion, his declaration signalled the climax of God/Yahweh’s redemptive-revelatory activity, to which the surveyed background pointed. Past acts of self-disclosure converged in Jesus, crystallized – in abbreviated form – in the “I am” formula. Importantly, Jesus remained within the confines of monotheism, utilising Jewish categories to explicate his own, distinctive claims to deity. Rather than offering up an exhaustive declaration of godhood, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel presented himself as God’s supreme self-expression: participating eternally in divine life, embodying divine truth, but retaining a distinct identity. Properly contextualised, Jesus’ “I am” statements buttress this paradoxical portrayal.

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”.

On Reading

Reflecting upon the ostensibly mundane aspects of life can offer us an immediate window into why we do the things we do. Take reading, for example: it’s something most of us can do (I assume anyone reading this post is literate), and we do it without conscious thought. However, I want to talk about reading as a deliberate habit or pursuit. It’s more than simply a means to an end, even if it might be treated as such. Is it not possible to see reading as valuable in itself, rather than viewing it as a practical necessity to which we must give grudging assent? I am the sort of person who likes nothing more than to spend a night at home, immersing myself in the contents of a good book. Indeed, it is something I positively delight in, and if I am out of the house for long periods of time, I often find myself hankering for something substantial to read. It’s probably fair to say that reading is more than a pastime or hobby for me; if I wasn’t able to read, I think I’d be diminished as a person.

I may well be biased, but I think the beautiful simplicity of delving into the written thoughts of another is something that shouldn’t be shunned because it’s too boring or difficult. Banal though it may seem, reading acts as a gate – a key – into a rich and enticing place, where thoughts are unbounded and words (used well, mind you) are transformed into little nuggets of beauty and meaning. Reading should, I think, be warmly embraced, much as one might cherish the affections of an old and stimulating friend. There is comfort there, to be sure. And yet, one also finds one’s thinking challenged, stretched, subverted, vexed, unsettled, elevated, broadened and illumined. Done well, reading has the ability to make the mind fertile and the heart glow with an unquenchable incandescence.

The intellectual and spiritual lustre that reading evokes is one reason I love to engage in it. But what lies behind this consistent devotion? Is it possible to “deconstruct” that process, and to dive into the mechanics of something that I often do without reflection? Scratch beneath the surface, and it’s surprising what one finds. If I peel back the layers of my taken-for-granted love, what will I discover?

Let’s take what is probably the most basic element of reading: words. Words cannot be separated from reading; the one is impossible without the other. If words are like air, then the act of reading is like breathing. I would even go as far as to argue that an immersion in the world of words is, for me, akin to that most fundamental of human activities. I am drawn to perform both acts by an unconscious, unremitting movement of the will; and when I do so, I know that I have drawn into myself the “stuff” that upholds and maintains life. Words are like that. They contain within themselves the seeds of meaning, thought and wisdom. What would the human person be without these qualities? Strung together, well-chosen words have the capacity to enliven and ennoble a person’s being, just like air inhaled sustains life in his body.

It’s fair to say, then, that I love words, and reading is an opportunity to become well-acquainted with them. I am quite excited when I happen upon a new term or phrase, and dutifully add it to my collection. That way, it will be ready to use when the time comes. Perhaps it’s my careful, assiduous nature, but I cherish the beauty and explanatory power of a well-chosen word. One can achieve a degree of accuracy when language is used widely and diversely. An idea or feeling, previously shrouded in fog, suddenly emerges with crystalline clarity as the selected words supply content to that which was unformed.

It should be absurdly clear that reading is an important aid in this wonderful process. Delving into a book, or essay, or article is like diving into a repository that replenishes and rejuvenates one’s love for language. And one does not even have to read that far before happening upon something that changes and challenges one intellectually (or emotionally – or even spiritually). Words stimulate new thoughts and refine existing ones. I mean, it is often the case that just a single word can unlock another reflection, or trigger the firing of another neuron, or give shape to a formless blob of mental energy. Like sharp scalpels, words enable a person to carve meaning up into fine little slices; what may at first appear to be monolithic and indistinct can, with the proper use of words, be transformed into a dense landscape of undulating significance, where shadow and depth conceal hidden truths, subtle distinctions and neglected perspectives. Through the expansive use of what our language can offer us, we become accustomed to the various shades and hues that dapple reality, like so many rays of warm sunlight passing through a verdant web of leaves.

You can see, I hope, the intimate, interweaving connection between words and thoughts. It’s often difficult to say what comes first: the idea; or the language used to express it. Does the mind first think of the idea, before giving voice to it through words? Or do words themselves act as indispensable agents in the very process of intellectual creation? Whilst ultimate parentage usually remains a mystery, it’s probably a bit of both: our thoughts are inescapably framed and brought to life through language, whilst words are lifeless without the raw materials of an inarticulate notion. If we take this a little further, it becomes easier to see how the character of language can actually shape and structure our thoughts. Indeed, where our language is elegant and our prose is clean, so too are our thoughts likely to be. Conversely, where our language is ignoble, base, squalid or just plain dull, our thoughts are likely to obediently follow. George Orwell seemed to know all about this. Speaking about the mutually reinforcing influences of thought and word, he said:

“But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in intensified form…It [the English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts” (“Politics and the English Language”, in Essays).

Of course, it is not the case that only those with a dictionary-sized vocabulary can achieve what I am talking about. No, no, no. We should be under no illusions that the academic, the wordsmith and the lexicographer are alone privy to this esoteric art. However, where there is an interest in reading – and, underlying that, an interest in words, language and what they can offer – there is likely to be a corresponding interest in thinking, the art of quietly and patiently reflecting on a chosen topic. One might even say that reading can engender a certain spirit of quiet contemplative passion. Not always; but often. Reading offers, as I said, a gateway into a foreign land of new ideas. It can teach us to consider; to look at differing perspectives, or to meditate upon previously unknown claims to truth. Done attentively, reading gives us the chance to step into the interior world of another’s mind. It can encourage, prod, probe and challenge, inciting us to sift through competing views and vying voices. It can make us more open, more receptive, to things we may never have considered before.

The fact is that reading gives one a chance to learn. By developing good reading habits, the fortunate person has the opportunity to engage in another’s considered thoughts on a matter. Even individual words can contain within them a world of meaning and history. Place them in context, alongside other words, and a glimpse into the author’s internal life is possible. Words – and by extension, reading – form a fundamental link between otherwise isolated minds. And, because we are finite (inhabiting only one plot of time and space at any moment), it is impossible to have access to all knowledge. The only way to tap into new bodies of wisdom and learning is to access those whose minds are immersed in them. That, in turn, is often only possible through the discipline of reading. Undoubtedly, reading opens one up to an expanded world of thought and communication. The mellifluous prose that emerges from the artful arrangement of words discloses an author’s mind. If one is really fortunate, it may bear the author’s soul before the grateful recipient. Moreover, reading an author’s particular thoughts can, with almost accidental ease, stimulate and evoke thoughts of one’s own. Indeed, it is possible to almost feel those new buds of intellectual energy, slowly but inexorably, encroaching from below. As a person draws them in, and turns them over in his own mind, he might find himself accessing that library of words – a little dusty, perhaps – to give shape and structure to thoughts that might otherwise exist at the edge of his consciousness. The process is dynamic, fluid, creative: thoughts blend, merge and bulge before finally coalescing; new words are drawn upon to supply nuance and detail to ideas past and present. The fervent dance between word and thought, language and concept, continues apace, concealed behind the calm expression of the dedicated student.

What I am talking about, you must understand, is more than just the solitary game of playing with new concepts. That is a privileged activity, and should not be shunned. However, if that is all we do, then we are not really allowing ourselves to be enveloped within the totality of reading’s purpose. Rather, I am referring to the joy of formation through reading; the delight of a life changed and shaped as one captures the seed of an idea, and, without allowing it to die, lets it germinate. Not just information, mind you, but true formation. As Don Watson, a former speechwriter to Paul Keating, observed, “…language is capable of expressing more than information: it is a vehicle of the imagination and emotions” (Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language). Now, by itself, reading cannot always succeed in forming a person. Sometimes it may fail to excite the emotions, or nurture the soul. Moreover, there is plenty of detritus out there that cannot contribute to one’s intellectual or spiritual health. I am not advocating a steady diet of literary junk food. But if one is to truly learn – and by that, I mean the acquisition of wisdom that shapes one’s intellect and transforms one’s life – reading well should be seen as a vital element in that noble project.

Of course, this requires discernment, and not a little time and effort. Truth may need some coaxing, and a voracious appetite isn’t always a guarantee that it will eventually be digested. Better is the attitude that says, “I will take the time to mull over this idea; to think about it, understand it and reflect upon it. I won’t instinctively reject it. But neither will I take it for granted that what I am reading is self-evidently true”. The acquisition and reception of truth is always going to be a process fraught with risk. We won’t always succeed, shunning life’s verities, and accepting with relish shadows and darkness. Still, for us poor souls, who are bent towards the truth (but who often fall short), a circumspect attitude when it comes to reading may do more good than harm.

I fear we may have lost the art of reading. Perhaps my love for it represents a yearning for a by-gone period. In our contemporary, internet-saturated age, it seems harder and harder to justify the slow, meandering journey one takes when walking through the worded garden of an author’s mind. Sometimes, it is a precious thing to be able to calmly wade through a work for its own sake – not because there is some practical, specified obligation behoving the reader to complete the task, but because of the sheer, unfettered joy that pertains to the art of reading. Although it might seem pointless, then, this blog post has a serious point: to evoke a sense of wonder and privilege when it comes to what is, for many, a common and joyless activity. If it has elevated the notion of reading in your mind, very well then; if, by reading this essay, you develop a lifelong passion for it, even better. For then you will have learned its chief lesson and demonstrated its subject’s power.

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.

Romans and Worship

(Caveat: this post is largely for a Christian audience. Nevertheless, I hope that those who are not Christians may still profit from it).

My past few blog posts have sought to engage with some ideas current at the moment – medical ethics, domestic politics and the effects (good or otherwise) of social networking. In this post, however, I wish to explore a topic that may appear to be more personal, perhaps more devotional, in character and complexion. Nonetheless, it is still a vitally important topic, especially for Christians who seek to found their lives upon godly truth. It could even be said that the topic to which I refer is actually a very public thing. Though it most certainly is personal, it is not thereby private. Indeed, as I hope to show, what I want to look at in this post stands over-against everything else that Christians do as disciples and pilgrims in this world, framing every dimension of our lives.

I am here talking about worship, for worship forms a central part of the Christian’s life. We should never doubt this, since to worship is to express, enact, dramatize and reflect the truth of God. But why is this important? Why should God want to be worshiped? Moreover, what is the connection between worship and truth anyway? These questions have been rattling around my mind for a little while, and in order to provide a semblance of an answer, I shall turn to the book of Romans.

It’s strange that I should look to this particular part of Scripture to shed light on these questions. Paul’s letter to the Romans reads more like an elaborate theological treatise than it does a missive to a particular congregation dealing with particular issues. Nor is it the first book one thinks of if one wants to develop some kind of biblical understanding of worship. Psalms, for example, might seem to be a more appropriate contender. That said, behind and beneath the lofty themes of universal sin, the achievement of the cross, justification, sanctification, glorification, resurrection and God’s sovereignty, one will uncover another strand in Romans – less overt, to be sure – dealing with the theological importance and rationale of (proper) worship. Now, I shall spend a bit of time following the thread, so please bear with me. Hopefully, it will be worth it!

The strand begins in the very first chapter of Paul’s epistle. After a preamble, where he outlines the purposes of his letter, the apostle goes on to survey the dreadful, and universal, condition of humanity. Romans 1:18-32 is a broad-brush diagnosis and description of the problem of human sin. At the end of this section, after having offered us his theological analysis of the origin and evolution of human depravity (to which I shall return), Paul lists a number of sins that characterise the human condition: greed, malice, gossip, slander, ruthlessness, and the like (vv.28-32). Not that every person has been guilty of all these sins; but Paul’s point is to suggest that their very presence in humanity is evidence that it has gone awry.

As I said, Paul does offer an explanation of sorts. The sin we witness around us, the unrighteous acts – whether earth-shattering, or more “trivial” in nature (though sin is never really trivial in nature) – find their ultimate source in the rejection of truth. Specifically, it is the rejection of the truth of God that has led to the corrupt human landscape that Paul surveys. The notion of truth and related concepts are important for Paul in these early sections of his letter. In verse 18, as a way of commencing his diagnosis, Paul speaks of men (read: humanity) actively suppressing the truth (of God). Then, over the next couple of verses, Paul develops his point, by suggesting that the knowledge of the true God, though it has been apparent (vv.19-20), has been spurned by humanity; people have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie”, worshiping instead “created things” (v.25). Despite the pretence of wisdom, those who have engaged in such acts (which means all of us) have in fact departed from ultimate reality – namely, God. And with that departure has come a darkening of thoughts, of hearts and of feelings (cf. v.21). Estrangement from God has also meant estrangement from his truth, with both mind and will mutually corrupted and mutually corrupting.

It’s a rather heavy way of beginning a letter, but it is the necessary ground for what Paul wants to say later about the majesty of God’s salvific plan. What ought to concern us at the moment are a couple of points that emerge from Paul’s polemical opening, the relevance of which will become apparent as I proceed. First, truth (and its loss) stands at the heart of the human problem, as Paul sees it. He refers to this predicament in a variety of ways: the exchange and suppression of truth; the futility of thinking apart from, and in opposition to, God; “foolishness”; the acceptance of lies; the false claims of wisdom made on the part of sinful humanity; and the loss of divine knowledge. This constellation of words and concepts, all found in Romans 1:18-32, constitutes a theological package that Paul uses to explain the problem of human depravity and spiritual need. In effect, the truth of God has been rejected, spurned, arrogantly dismissed. Humans have arrogated for themselves the position that God rightfully occupies, and have attempted to claim for themselves the wisdom that belongs to him. Rather than perceiving themselves and their position in God’s creation correctly, people have turned from him – the source of all truth – and have followed tantalising, yet spurious, substitutes. Indeed, Paul says as much in verse 21, linking the refusal to give God his due as God with the degradation of thought, heart and will alike. This is no mere refusal to accept an intellectual proposition. Rather, Paul correctly declares that a loss of truth has degraded humanity on a multiplicity of levels. Depraved thinking leads inexorably to depraved behaviour – which is exactly the link the Apostle makes in v.28 (…”he [God] gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done”).

Second, Paul implicitly suggests that the rejection of God as the proper object of worship did not thereby mean that humans worshiped nothing. Not at all. On the contrary, Paul is canny enough to see that once God is displaced from that proper position, other things – “images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (v.23) – ended up filling the gap. A person’s pattern of thinking, and thus the actions linked to it, never occurs in a void. It can either be framed by God’s truth or it can be framed by veneration of something else. In the society in which Paul wrote, physical idols would have been most dominant. Greco-Roman culture was replete with an entire galaxy of gods that were honoured and worshiped. In our own day, there are many such “idols” that vie for our attention. They may not be made of gold or wood or stone, but they exert a similar influence over people, dragging them away from the true God who created them. Paul is perceptive enough to realize this fact – that rejection of God’s truth does not entail the birth of a new kind of humanity, or the elevation of people to a new moral or sapiential plane. It simply means the replacement of one god with another. Similarly, Paul knows that this idolatry is indissolubly linked with the loss of true knowledge that I spoke about a moment ago. What is witnessed externally is invariably a reflection of what occurs internally, within a person. As thinking is transformed, so too is belief and action. These dimensions, concurrent within a person, go hand-in-hand.

So, what are we left with? Paul offers us a diagnosis for the universal condition of sinful humanity. He will spend the next few chapters unpacking both the problem and the solution, ending with the climax of his high theological drama in Chapter 8. Strange as it may sound, I want to skip over Chapters 2-7, in order to focus on what Paul says in the eighth Chapter of his epistle. The intervening sections outline the process by which God responded to humanity’s predicament, but for my purposes here, I want to concentrate on the telos, the end-point of that process. For it becomes clear that the grave problems the apostle outlined in the first chapter find their ultimate resolution in this particular section of Paul’s missive. Chapter 8 is the counter-point and the answer to Chapter 1, helping to frame what lies in-between. Indeed, it almost reads like a deliberate reversal – more than that, a redemptive elevation of God’s creation to something beyond that which it was prior to sin’s baleful effects.

In Chapter 1, for example, the apostle referred to humanity being able to perceive God’s reality through the material, created order (vv.19-20). In Chapter 8, he writes that creation itself eagerly awaits the revelation of God’s newly created people (v.19). Rather than worshiping it, God’s redeemed will lead creation into a new era of freedom, so that it, too, may experience the liberation God’s renewed image-bearers will experience. That renewal takes place within the wider context of the advent, the bursting forth, of God’s new creation. Further on in Chapter 8, Paul waxes lyrical about the fact that those saved by God will be conformed to the likeness of his Son (Jesus)” as a part of their salvation (v.29). This seems to be a deliberate, counter-posing allusion to his earlier description of humans giving up their worship of the true God for created “images” (v.23). Those saved by God will no longer worship created things, thereby being conformed to them. Instead, they will be shaped according to the image and likeness of Christ, thereby attaining the glory that humanity has always sought (albeit through rebellious autonomy from God). In other words, humanity exchanged God’s glory for the idolatry of the created world, which included “mortal man”; through the coming of Christ, the true man – who is simultaneously the image of the immortal God – God’s image-bearers may take possession of the glory that they had lost (v.30; cf. 1:21, 23).

What has all this to do with worship? It might sound like a powerful statement of God’s gracious and redemptive activity in this world, which culminates with the sacrificial work of Christ. But at what point does this story link up with the notion of proper worship? The answer lies in the first couple of verses of Chapter 12. After digressing to make some (important) remarks on the implications of the gospel for unbelieving Israel, Paul turns his attention to the practical and ethical implications, for believers, of what he has written. There, he writes:

“Therefore, I urge you…in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is…” (Romans 12:1-2b).

Many of the themes I have already canvassed have been compressed into these few short sentences by the apostle. Worship, conformation to external conditions (whether good or ill, degrading or redemptive), right thinking, and so on, are all present. If Chapter 1 was the outline of the problem, and Chapter 8 the final, climactic outline of the solution, then the commencement of Chapter 12 is the first step in the practical, ethical consequences for believers. No longer are they to participate in the idolatry Paul railed against at the beginning of Romans; no longer are they to be shaped by the world (as it exists in rebellion against God) or created things; no longer are they to allow the effects thereof degrade thinking and corrupt action (a la Rom. 1:28-32). Using the language of sacrifice, Paul urges his readers to devote themselves to God as an act of worship and to allow him to renew their minds (note the passive “…be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, which indicates an activity initiated by God). His readers are to offer themselves wholeheartedly to Him. All of this stands in stark, and deliberate, contrast with what Paul spoke of in Chapter 1, and is the direct consequence of what he declared in Chapter 8.

As Christians, then, our worship is to be directed to God. That much is obvious. Also obvious (though no less important) is the conviction that worship is an act of gratitude, to be sure. Paul says that we ought to do this “in view of God’s mercy…” (12:1), which implies a thankful attitude. But my point is to suggest that worship is a more layered, more multifaceted, phenomenon than some might assume. Firstly, it is a way of standing against the universal (human) reality of sin and untruth, as Paul so clearly intimates. Secondly, it is a marker, a sign, that we are renewed people, led by the Spirit and not by the flesh. Our worshipful acts not only oppose and challenge the overt and latent forms of idolatry by which sinful estrangement from God is manifested; they also constitute declarative acts, by which we say that we are redeemed and being redeemed daily. Everything Paul wrote about humanity in Chapter 1 is to be deliberately counter-posed by Christians worshiping the true God and being conformed – nay, transformed – to God’s true image, Jesus Christ, who is simultaneously the pattern of true humanity. It is a prophetic witness, flowing out of the work that God has performed to undo the universal effects of the situation Paul has already discussed. Through it, we too participate in the undoing of the primal sin of idolatry, directing ourselves, our lives, our bodies, to the One who created us. As renewed people, who will take their places in God’s new world, our worship is a revelatory act, which springs from the revelation that we have received. Not that we possess it in its totality. Nonetheless, we rest our hopes upon Him, for we trust in his promise to complete the work that he has started. As we Christians give ourselves to God, we do so in an anticipatory sense: through worshipful acts, we enact and experience a foretaste of the liberating truth of God, which will inhabit and envelop his creation with the consummation of his salvific plan.

Finally, then, our worship of God – which flows out of, and is a response to, the initiating steps he took to rescue us from our sin and idolatry – further enables us to escape the corruption of thought and will that has characterised idolatrous humanity. It is, in itself, a means of change. Having been brought from the realm of sin and death into the realm of holiness and life, we can now take our proper places as God’s true image-bearers, offering our entire lives in service to him (rather than the world as it now stands). That is why Paul can so readily link worship with the renewal of mind and thought. It is also why transformation is to be seen against the backdrop of human depravity. If the original human problem was characterised by the spurning of God’s reality for idols, and the resultant loss of divine knowledge, then its opposite is characterised by worship of the One who is actually God, leading to the reclamation of truth, the vanquishing of sin, the purification of the will, the redemption of bodies and the ennobling of a sanctified mind (contrast Rom. 12:1-2 with Paul’s earlier talk of a “depraved mind” in 1:28). And if some suggest that worshiping God, regardless of its apparently beneficial effects, is simply an exercise in divine ego-stroking, then one can point them back to the comment I have already made: that worship occurs universally, whether God is the object or not. If we are meant to be framing our lives around God, and have been created for that express purpose, then to do otherwise is a denial of our nature (apart from a denial of who God is).

So, worship is not simply something in which we engage on a Sunday morning because it has been determined by tradition (though corporate praise is a vital part of the life and witness of the church). Let us not forget that Paul exhorted believers to offer their whole bodies – not just their voices – to God. Indeed, worship is inescapably ethical in character. Still less has the practice of worship been instituted by an insecure god who needs to be glorified. Rather, worship – for Christians, that is – constitutes an all-encompassing embrace of God’s reality and truth, in conformity to our true natures, and against the backdrop of the rejection of divine truth. In this scheme, we allow ourselves to be moulded by the wisdom that was always meant to shape humanity. At the same time, we also offer a prophetic critique to, and of, a world that pursues a multiplicity of false gods and deities in much the same way that the subjects of Romans 1 did. I can think of many, even in the city of Melbourne: aside from religions that deny the reality of God (as he truly is) and the revelation of his truth, people are enraptured with consumerism, materialism, post-modernism, sport, success (however defined), hedonistic living, and so on. They are ultimately futile, for they do not lead to the God with whom we have been created to have a relationship. They certainly cannot lead us into his new world, for they cannot erase – and in fact, reinforce – the very problems that have alienated us from him in the first place.

Two final points. First, I have not yet offered a portrait of what God’s truth actually is. It’s all well and fine to critique the false claims to truth that abound in this world. But what is the truth around which we are meant to revolve our lives? I’ve already hinted at it, but it bears repeating in a more explicit way. God’s truth is embodied in the One to whose image we are being conformed – Jesus Christ. Of course, truth, whether divine or secular, is intellectual, cognitive, conceptual. Paul’s references to the mind and to thought would be meaningless without this basic understanding. Belief in the nature of God, and in how he has revealed himself, is a vitally important aspect of worship. But truth, in a biblical scheme, is also deeply personal. Jesus Christ is God’s personal truth enfleshed. In him, we see what God is like and how we are to live. In him, we witness the pristine revelation of God and the abiding image of true humanity, co-mingling and co-existing. And, as the Jesus of John’s Gospel declares, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6). Earlier in that book, Jesus counselled a Samaritan woman to worship God “in spirit and in truth” (cf. John 4:24). Bring these two verses together, and what do we have? A call to worship God, to devote oneself to him, through and in the truth made incarnate in Jesus. When we read the Scriptures, which proclaim Christ hidden and revealed, we begin to see what God’s truth – and hence, the truth about who we are to be – actually looks like.

Second, we do not come to God of our own volition; neither can we worship God merely as we are. It requires the abiding presence of God’s Spirit to reveal, enliven, encourage and inflame. Paul speaks of the importance of being led by the Spirit in the eighth chapter of Romans. Before talking about Christian disciples as God’s redeemed, liberated people, the apostle offers his readers two ways: the way of the flesh; and the way of the Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:4-12). It is the way of the Spirit that leads one into the truth of God (which is to say, the very character and presence of God himself). And when we arrive at Paul’s statement about worship at the beginning of Chapter 12, he says explicitly that it is a spiritual act. Such a declaration dovetails nicely with John 4:24, which I surveyed above. The fact is that true worship of the true God can only be accomplished in the Spirit. It can only be achieved when a person’s life is saturated in Him. Not only so, but it requires the work of the Holy Spirit to bring about receptivity in sinful people. Word and Spirit – God’s wisdom and intimate presence – work in unity to bring about a newly created people, who are saturated in his truth and worshiping in it.

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We rightly celebrate, and dutifully declare, God’s truth to a sinful and broken world. However, let us not forget (those of us who are Christ’s followers) that the reason we have access to the Father, and have been empowered to imitate Christ, is the fact of his (Christ’s) own sacrifice. Indeed, his sacrifice makes possible our own acts of devotion before God (which is part of Paul’s point in Rom. 12:1-2). I have referred several times to Chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans in connection with the redemption of God’s people. But what I said there is only possible because of the act of oblation that Christ himself performed on our behalf. Sure, Paul speaks about being set free from the corruption of this present world. He speaks about being led by the Spirit as the mark of truly redeemed people. Yet that has only come about because of the epochal work of Christ on the cross, who allowed God’s condemnation of sin to fall upon his own person (8:3). Given the reality of this great act of divine mercy, which is simultaneously the revelation of the truth of the triune God; and given that our goal as Christians is to be conformed to the likeness of the Christ who embodies that truth, in life and in death, there is only one question: why would we not worshipfully participate in this redemptive process?