Month: April 2010

the God of the cross

I want to continue along this ‘confessional’ line I’m pursuing. I’d originally proposed to say something about the cross next. And that is still very much my intention. But I’d first like to sink another peg in the ground about my Reformed — and creedally orthodox — sympathies:

The context in which we must understand the cross is the person of Jesus.

The one who came ‘for us and our salvation’ was none other than the Lord, the only Son of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father, through whom all things were made.

The importance of this is particularly stressed by John Calvin in Book II of the Institutes. There, Calvin grounds everything he says about the work of Christ on the cross in the reality of who Jesus is.

Famously, Calvin inserts a chapter on the ‘threefold office’ of Christ — as prophet, king and priest — between his exposition of Christ’s person and his exposition of his work. This chapter links the two sides of the exposition by focussing on Jesus as a person-in-action, tying together his whole incarnate ‘career’ as a coherent whole and anchoring it all in the Bible’s grand narrative — with Jesus as its climax.

But it’s not only a structural thing. Calvin pursues this strategy at a more ‘micro’ level too. When he’s wrestling with the NT language of Jesus bearing/becoming sin, for example, he resists the surface logic that tugs in the direction of saying ‘God punished Jesus for our sins’. Calvin’s focus on the unity of Christ’s person and work tunes him into the deeper logic of the unbroken unity between the Father and Son (and Holy Spirit) in the work of redemption. Which is surely at least part of what it has to mean to maintain that Jesus is fully God as well as genuinely human.

Why am I making such a big deal about this? Well, because over the next few posts I’m going to try to let the reality of who Jesus is shape what I say about what the cross achieved. In particular, I’m going to speak about:

  1. The Creator’s cross,
  2. The Sustainer’s cross,
  3. The Ruler’s cross,
  4. The Judge’s cross, and
  5. The Redeemer’s cross.

Sound good?

an ode to Diamond Creek

Since we arrived in Melbourne we’ve been very blessed to stay with one of Natalie’s former work colleagues, Kathy, in Diamond Creek. It’s out on the North Eastern fringe of the city. (Although by Sydney standards it’s really not that far out.)

We urbanites were surprised to discover how relaxing it can be out among the trees — there are even paddocks at the end of the street! Natalie’s done some weeding (very therapeutic she assures me). We’ve cooked pizza. From scratch. And every afternoon at about 4pm the peach-coloured light makes the landscape look just like a Heidelberg School painting (I know, what a shock when we’re just outside of Heidelberg!).

All in all it’s made for quite a comfortable and relaxed transition to a new city. We’re so thankful to God.

things that have got me thinking

I’ve got a bunch of things on the boil right now. Like reading Oliver Crisp’s Divinity and Humanity (yeah, I know I’m behind the times; but my copy of god Incarnate is still in volcanic ash-delayed transit).

NASA'S Terra Satellite Captures Ash Plume of Icelandic Volcano

Satellite view of the Icelandic volcano's ash plume by NASA (on Flickr)

But here are a few things — from some members of the Moore College faculty and one or two others — that have got me thinking lately:

when in Rome…

…I was getting hooked on Chinotto and reading the Epilogue to Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s majestic systematic trilogy (I know — how pretentious!). Balthasar — one of the giants of Twentieth Century Roman Catholic theology — alternates fascinatingly between being cryptic and down-to-earth. For an example of the vaguely cryptic try this on:

Yahweh remains a God figure who points beyond himself to his own promise, to the God of Jesus Christ.

And compare it with the down-to-earthiness of his (scathing) comment on the prospects of the evangelistic/apologetic strategy of seeking to ‘meet people where they are’ in our hyper-connected Western societies:

[W]here is the famous “point of contact” with the anima technica vacua? I for one certainly do not know. Some tabble-rapping, a séance or two, some dabbling in Zen meditation, a smattering of liberation theology: enough.

My sense is that what Balthasar is after is a way of connecting the seeming obscurities of high theology with the everyday — but without selling out to a pragmatism that will try anything to connect. Which is something we’re all after. Right?

what I believe about the Bible

I know, I know. Not the most gripping blog post title ever. But, on the up side, I get to be clear and straightforward in (hopefully) stepping out of the Barthian shadow that’s already fallen across my attempt to establish some Reformed cred. No guarantees though.

I believe that the Bible is the word of God written. More, I believe it has supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct — as the AFES doctrinal basis puts it.

It has this authority because it’s authored by the all-powerful, loving Creator and Redeemer — inspired and superintended by his very own Spirit. Consequently, it is perfectly fit and able to achieve his purpose in uttering and causing it to be written — a process which no doubt extends to the entire personal and situational history and context of the prophetic and apostolic authors (and editors).

God says it best in Isaiah 55:

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

As such there’s a givenness to Scripture. It is God’s book. It was spoken by him — without, of course, circumventing human agency (it’s not a mechanical thing that suspends or bypasses human faculties). And I trust him enough to have got the right words in place so that it will have the effect he intended it to have.

Obviously enough, the view I’m trying to distance myself from is the alleged ‘neo-orthodox’ belief that the Bible becomes the word of God. I appreciate Barth’s emphasis on God’s freedom to reveal himself as and when he pleases — something which can be obscured by some ways of expressing the idea that the Bible is the written word of God. And I also recognise that we’ve got to have some way of speaking theologically about the observable fact that not every reader of the Bible ‘hears God’s word’ (in the sense of having a saving encounter with the living God) every time they flip open and scan its pages.

In particular, I believe we need to find ways of speaking about the givenness of the Bible as God’s book alongside the God-ordained dynamism of peoples’ different responses. It’s a tough ask, but we have to do this without implying that human hard-heartedness can somehow gazump God or frustrate his purposes. For when he speaks, his word does not return to him empty…

disability and theology #8

For the previous posts on disability and theology click HERE.
For full references, download the reference list HERE.

The last post touched briefly on the fact that Jesus resurrected body bears his wounds. I don’t know about you, but this raises significant questions for me:

  • How will the Christian with a disability be restored on the last day?
  • What should we hope for in light of the gospel promises of healing?

In post #4, I reflected on the way Jesus healing miracles often serve to restore people to relationship with God and to each other, through both forgiveness of sins (e.g. Matthew 9) and by making the unclean clean (e.g. Luke 5:12-16). And both forgiveness and cleanness are provided to people in the death and resurrection of Jesus: we are covered by Him, our very minds and hearts having been washed with His blood. Our frail bodies are the site in which God chooses to dwell. Jesus has done everything necessary to heal us from sin and death, restoring us to God and to each other.

So if physical healing was either a sign that forgiveness had been achieved or a means to full participation in community — both of which we now have in Jesus — does that mean physical healing is no longer really relevant?

I’m not sure that it does. There is a wealth of Scriptural promise that when God’s kingdom is revealed ‘then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame man shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy’ (Isaiah 35:5-6). Jesus claims these prophecies are fulfilled in his earthly ministry (Luke 7:18-23). It may be possible to argue that this healing was simply a sign that Jesus was bringing in the Kingdom. However, it would not be unreasonable to expect that these were the first fruits of a much more abundant restoration that will accompany the resurrection.

I think there is still a whole lot of ambiguity about what to expect of our physical bodies at the resurrection. But I also think we can have complete confidence that every obstacle that prevents us from relating freely with God and with one another will be overcome. Emphatically proclaiming either the complete reversal of disability or the complete correspondence between our earthly and resurrected bodies are probably equally unhelpful options.

I need your help

Let me be uncharacteristically direct: I need your help.

I’m one week in to serving the La Trobe University Christian Union with AFES. I need your prayers. And your financial support.

To get even more concrete and specific, I’d like to invite you to:

  1. Subscribe to our prayer partners’ mailing list HERE, and
  2. Contribute financially by filling in the online form HERE (or downloading and posting one to the AFES national office at PO Box 684, Kingsford NSW 2032).

That’s the bottom line. Now for the obvious question: Why?

Well, this year I’m privileged to join a student and staff team that’s fully engaged in proclaiming Jesus on campus — head, heart and hands:

  • They’re deeply committed to people — people for whom Christ died.
  • They’re passionately and boldly trying new ways to connect.
  • And they’re hard at work seeking to win a hearing for the gospel message.

I’m convinced that this is close to the heart of what God is doing in the world. And I’m hoping to contribute by mentoring students, many of them future leaders of God’s church. Laying before them Christ’s challenge to take up their cross and follow him, to lay down their lives and petty ambitions for the sake of those who don’t know him. I’ll also be seeking to help members of the CU develop in theological maturity and humble service of the Lord through their Monday Night Training programme.

To make this happen, I’m seeking to raise $38,500 this year. Obviously, different people will have different abilities to contribute. But one way of breaking it down looks like this (If you’d like more detail, I’d be delighted to send it your way — shoot me an email at cswann01[at]gmail[dot]com):

Our God provides richly for his children — everything we need for life and godliness. And Natalie and I have already tasted his provision through his people. Which is why we’re putting together a team of supporters to enter into partnership with us by praying for us and contributing financially so I can throw myself into this work. We’d love you to be part of it!

disability and theology #7

For the previous posts on disability and theology click HERE.
For full references, download the reference list HERE.

In his humanity, and particularly in his suffering to the point of death, Jesus shares our human vulnerability in a very embodied way. There are some really quite challenging pieces of work out there that call us to think about the ways in which we could say God is therefore disabled (e.g. by Nancy Eiesland’s The Disabled God).

Now I’m not sure I’m on board with their whole agenda, but I do think it’s quite profound that Jesus not only suffers, but also bears the physical reminders of his suffering in his resurrected body. Any understanding of the victory and power of God that neglects the amount of weakness and patient suffering involved in that victory ought to be suspect.

Likewise, any approach to disability that refuses to recognise the profound sense in which in Christ God takes up the cause of the weak and broken — indeed, of all human beings in the weakness and brokenness of our sin and vulnerability to death — fails to reflect the hope of the gospel.

It is God’s power and wisdom that is displayed in the ‘weakness and foolishness’ of the cross (cf. 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31). God’s identification with weak and vulnerable humanity in Jesus is motivated by love and specifically aimed at dealing decisively with the human plight of sin, death and alienation from God.

However, while there is a significant sense in which Jesus joins us in our vulnerability — sharing our limitations and frailties — he does so in power and freedom, as the one with the authority to lay down his life and take it up again (John 10: 18) This is what gives his purposeful solidarity with and self-giving for humankind on the cross its character as a victory. This victory is announced in the resurrection, in which Jesus overcomes sin and death. Indeed, we share in this victory through our participation in his death and resurrection by taking up our cross and following him.

permission granted?

It’s with no little trepidation that I take up the next topic in my personal ‘confessional’ series — the sovereignty of God. In particular, I want to say something — more or less briefly — about what I believe about God’s sovereignty.

Now, I can hardly do justice to such a wide topic in one post (not least because it’s intimately bound up with other topics that I have covered or would like to cover in other posts — election, the cross, conversion, etc). So I want to focus on one of the hardest cases: the mind-bending fact of God’s permission of evil.

I take Mark 5.12-13 as my text:

[T]he unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the pigs. Let us enter them’. Jesus gave them permission. So the unclean spirits came out and went into the pigs. Then the herd rushed down the steep slope into the lake, and about two thousand were drowned in the lake.

The context, of course, is that of the encounter between Jesus and a man afflicted by a Legion of demons — in which Jesus redeems him and hands him back his humanity. We must not pass over the significance of the context. The activity of the Creator God in Jesus brings him into fundamental conflict with evil. Again and again.

Michelangelo's 'Christ the Redeemer' (image by Tetraktys)

When Jesus gets involved, when the Creator takes up the cause of his tragically enslaved world, he’s victorious. He untwists and sets right what evil has marred and degraded. He conquers evil, heals and restores his world, securing its fulfilment and wholeness.

This is the essential context within which any talk of God’s ‘permission’ of evil must play out. Evil doesn’t belong in God’s world in any ultimate sense. Not only is it an alien invader from the beginning, it also has no future. None whatsoever. And yet (mysteriously) … God allows it. This episode leaves us in no doubt that, face to face with evil, Jesus is fully able to obliterate it. Yet he gives the unclean spirits permission to wreak further destruction, mysteriously wrapping their tendrils around a part of God’s good creation and dragging it down with them.

I think I want to say that this strange fact of God’s permission of evil — sitting mysteriously alongside the clear indications of his ultimate victory over it — directs us to something important about how God triumphs over evil. He doesn’t fight fire with fire. He doesn’t crash tackle evil to the ground, buying in to its ways and means. Rather — patiently, gently, lovingly — he lets evil do its worst, bearing its full force, in his own being, in the person of his Son, exhausting and overcoming it once and for all…

catching up (and moving forward)

Well, Natalie and I have finished our trip and arrived in Melbourne — and we hardly even broke our blogging stride! But what we didn’t manage to do so well overseas was keep up with reading. We packed way more novels than we got through (even with all the long haul flights, etc). And the angrily high number of unread posts in my RSS reader is kind of frightening…

That being said, we’re doing our best to catch up. Here are some of the standouts of my catch up reading so far:

  • In keeping with the first topic I’ve tackled in the ‘confessional turn’ I’m making here, Andrew has launched into a personal series grappling with election in Romans 9-11. The Intro as well as Parts I and II are up.
  • Steve has some timely (and provocative) words on leading Christian communities — Parts I, II and III.
  • My friend Jenny has started a new blog — Embracing Earth — to help her think through issues of art, work and beauty. This is a conversation we need to have. I’m excited.
  • Although I’m even more excited (sorry Jenny) about the prospect of an affordable reprint of Barth’s Church Dogmatics — h/t Ben Myers. $99. Seriously? Even if that’s USD, the exchange rate right now makes this so awesome!
  • Byron explains why being ‘freed to love’ means that rich Christians can’t avoid confronting climate change, drawing together a bunch of his blogging threads over the last little while.
  • And Mike Bird’s commentary on the recent resignations of Bruce Waltke and Tremper Longman from major Reformed seminaries in the US stirred an appalled fascination in me.

In terms of moving forward, Natalie and I are on the hunt for a place to live, I’m psyching myself up to make a bunch of fundraising calls, and Natalie’s dipping her toe in the water at Melbourne Uni. In short, it’s on!